A Piece of New Orleans in Healdsburg

If you like your oysters fried, head over to The Parish Café, situated in a big yellow Victorian house, just off the new Healdsburg roundabout where Vine Street meets Healdsburg Avenue at the south end of downtown. The ambiance and aromas will make you feel like you’re in the heart of New Orleans. Stroll onto the wooden porch where a glance into the windows shows patrons inside licking their fingers. What are they are licking? Is it the remoulade sauce? Tasty gumbo? Or the powdered sugar that generously coats the beignets? Go inside to find out for yourself. New Orleans jazz emanates from the speakers and the smell of fried goodness and coffee wafting out the door invites you into the dining room.

New Orleans native Rob Lippincott arrived in Healdsburg in 2004 and thought: “There’s a need for Cajun food out here.” He started out leasing one room of the yellow house (once home to a hot dog shop) in 2012 and gradually acquired the rest of the space. This past October, he celebrated four years of serving authentic New Orleans food to a steady clientele of mostly locals. Along the way, he added a porch for outdoor eating along two sides of the building and a separate open kitchen, with its own porch, dedicated to frying and serving up beignets, the signature New Orleans pastry.

Lippincott grew up fishing and hunting—“That’s what we do in Louisiana; it’s not just a stereotype”—catching redfish, speckled trout, yellow fin tuna and ono, known as wahoo in New Orleans “because it’s a hoot to catch.” It was fishing that took him to San Diego, where he met his wife Karla, who grew up in Healdsburg. They chose to move back there to raise their children close to her family.

“It was not easy to leave New Orleans. The fishing industry there is very strong, but I wanted something different, a different ocean. I was just trying to make a living,” he said. Commercial fishing has its economic ups and downs, so to fill in the financial gaps, Lippincott used his other skills, picked up from his dad and from a stint in the Merchant Marines, for a variety of odd jobs. One of those skills was cooking.

“When I got here [Healdsburg], it fell into place.” He cooked at Bistro Ralph, then worked as a maintenance mechanic at Francis Ford Coppola Winery and considered going into vineyard management, but realized “there’s something to this food thing.” So, in 2009, he bought a trailer – “a full mobile rig” – and started doing Cajun food at farmers’ markets; he narrowed that down to strictly beignets, an airy, deep-fried French pastry beloved in New Orleans.

The beignet dough is made fresh every day from flour, sugar, yeast, evaporated milk and eggs. Rolled out on a marble slab, the beignets are cut individually, deep fried to order in 30 seconds, and served covered with an avalanche of powdered sugar. “It’s the subtleties that make them unique. You can’t have too much sugar,” declares Lippincott.

He still takes the beignet cart to the Healdsburg Tuesday night market and the Windsor Thursday night market, and to weddings, but the Parish Café is where you’ll find the full spectrum of New Orleans traditional foods.

On the 2-page menu, breakfast dishes and beverages are listed on one side. Breakfast is served daily from 9-11:30 a.m.; on Sunday it’s served all day. Eggs, potatoes, cheese, grits, crawfish, smoked ham, Andouille sausage, shrimp—you’ll find those New Orleans’ staples cooked into omelettes and hash, or covered in house-made Hollandaise or Creole sauces. There’s a decadent dish called Bananas Foster Pain Perdu, French toast with bananas, pecans and maple bourbon sauce. And fresh beignets, of course. Naturally you’ll want some Bella Rosa coffee or café au lait to complete your New Orleans breakfast. Beers, wines and breakfast cocktails are also available.

On the opposite side of the menu, lunch dishes include New Orleans’ traditional foods—a seafood platter, red beans and rice, gumbo with chicken and Andouille sausage, and the muffaletta (pronounced moo-fa-LAH-da), an Italian-derived sandwich of focaccia bread stacked with ham, salami, mortadella, provolone, mozzarella and olive salad, toasted open face so the cheese melts a bit, then closed up and served hot. (A whole Muffaletta feeds two people.) A list of sides and salads occupy a half page, while the other half page is devoted to Po-Boys, the quintessential New Orleans lunch.

Traditionally, Po-Boys were the staple meal that the working poor—dock workers in Louisiana, struggling to survive during the depression—could afford. Local bakeries would take a whole loaf of bread, split it in half and fill the whole thing with lunch meats and fried oysters. Seafood was cheap during the depression, and the lack of refrigeration made it necessary to sell it quickly, so fried seafood was one of the cheapest things to buy and that’s how the Po-Boy got its name.

At Parish Café, lunch is served from 11:30 a.m., and Lippincott says, “The Po-Boys always come dressed!” That means they come with the traditional dressing of mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and dill pickle. You can order your Po-Boy with ham and cheese, roast beef, turkey or fried green tomato in additional to the customary fried shrimp, oysters (Atlantics or Blue Points), catfish or combos. The Po-boy comes in two sizes, regular and king. Regular is generally large enough for two people to share, especially when augmented by a tasty side. The king-sized Po-boy is for the heartiest of appetites.

The menu includes New Orleans traditional dishes like gumbo, red beans and rice, and shrimp remoulade, but fried food dominates the lunch menu, and the oysters, delivered fresh every day, are always served shucked and fried. They appear in the Po-Boy, the Fried Oyster Salad (with bleu cheese, bacon and spinach) and on a frequent special, Oysters Bon Ton. This dish—with toast from Costeaux French bread, oysters seasoned with the Holy Trinity (green pepper, celery onion sautéed with white wine and crawfish tails) and topped with a house-made Hollandaise sauce—“is amazing,” guarantees Lippincott. He assured me that everything at The Parish is made to order, “from scratch,” including French fries that are cut from Kennebec potatoes, “which are really starchy, making them ideal for frying extra crispy.”

Parish Café has a down-to-earth and comfortable vibe. The staff is warm and welcoming, and Lippincott, himself the father of three children, ages 12, 9, and 6, makes sure that all ages are welcome. “We’re here for anybody. We have a kids’ breakfast for six bucks. The kids can run around and be loud, and dogs are welcome on the porch.”

Lippincott is happy to be a part of the Healdsburg restaurant community. “There’s a closeness. Everybody’s got each other’s back.” He’s also ready to look ahead toward opening a second restaurant. “My mind’s always working on the next thing. I would love to expand to another place in Sonoma County. Santa Rosa is the next logical place.” And he’ll be sticking to his traditional New Orleans cuisine. “You have to give the customers what they want, but still stay true to your goals. You can’t please everybody, and I’m okay with that.” SD