Life, love and a side order of rice and beans
At the Big Easy Café, food isn’t just nutrition. It’s a sacrament.
Owner Dwana Dominick is in the loving chaos of the kitchen, laughing with her cook Loretta Ware as they chop, slice, stir the holy trinity of onion, celery and bell pepper and add them into simmering pots that fill the air with a heavenly aroma.
As the dining room fills, Dominick pulls pans of poultry magically transformed into Creole chicken out of the well-used black oven.
“Food is an important part of life in New Orleans, it’s our way of sharing love,” Dominick said. “Food is never just for the family. When you come to the door, someone’s going to try to feed you.”
But it’s the taste and feel of food, New Orleans’ style – that blend of spices, herbs and fresh food – that captures Dominick’s heart. “When I’m cooking, I’m still in New Orleans and New Orleans is still in me. Eat, laugh and be with friends. That’s living.”
For a time, it was the only way Dominick and her family could be in New Orleans. Uprooted by Hurricane Katrina five years ago, Dominick, her husband Thomas and their children found themselves among the 10,000 Louisianans that resettled in San Antonio.
“We’ve been through a lot of hurricanes. But this was a monster. So we headed to Texas,” she said. “We were in San Antonio for two hours before the water rushed into New Orleans. I watched it all on TV. I could see the roofcaps of our house in Gentilly awash in the flood.”
Dominick had worked as a geriatric nurse in New Orleans but her family had owned soul food cafes and operated food trucks all her life. After work, she’d prepare a Creole specialty and a neighbor would bring in red beans and rice and someone else light the grill and soon, it was a party. That, Dominick said, was he norm.
Then came Katrina.
“When I saw that water rushing in on TV, I knew I wasn’t going home.” She said. “Nobody plans on leaving their home like that. But we found we had no house to go home to. After this time, it still hurts. We lost everything, everything but life.”
The Dominicks moved into a new neighborhood and were some of the first evacuees to enroll their children in San Antonio schools.
“San Antonio is a good city and we’ve met some very good and wonderful people here,” she said. “But it’s not New Orleans. It’s not home. New Orleans is in my blood and bones. It’s who I am.”
She found when she cooked, she could bring a little of New Orleans to San Antonio. Three years ago, she opened The Big Easy Café in a cramped space on Randolph Boulevard. It has developed a hard-core group of the faithful who come for lunch or fill the place on the all-you-can-eat catfish meals on the weekend.
Some days in my kitchen, five years later, I’ll reach for pots that I no longer have. It’s the little things you miss,” she said. “What’s gone is gone, what hurt still hurts.”
At The Big Easy, Dominick has one hard and fast rule. As much as possible, she’ll use meat, spices, herbs and other ingredients grown or made in New Orleans. Crystal Hot Sauce. Blue Plate mayonnaise. Big Shot strawberry soda. Slap Yo Mama seasonings and that special long-tube macaroni she needs to make her signature mac and cheese.
The Dominick family has been back to see New Orleans many times since Katrina to pick up supplies, visit friends and family and reconnect with the city’s heart.
“If you don’t use Blue Plate mayonnaise in the potato salad, it isn’t potato salad,” Dominick said. “And it’s made right there within the city limits of New Orleans.”
This year, Dominick opened the Crescent City Grocery on W.W. White Road at East Houston Street to make New Orleans foodstuffs available to San Antonio.
A dispute over property lines with City Public Service means that The Big Easy will have to find a new home by March 15, Dominick said.
“We need to find a new place, preferably not too far away, where we can provide the food and love for people,” she said. “It can be a hole-in-the-wall. That’s where you’ll find the best food in the world.”
For more information, check out The Big Easy Cafe on Facebook.