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Chana Levi of Mara’s Homemade Celebrates Fat Tuesday With Live Crawfish

Break out the bibs.Photo: Melissa Hom

It’s late in the day on Fat Tuesday, and our mind has turned to sweet, sweet hurricanes. As soon as we’ve observed our Super Tuesday duties, we might just head over to Mara’s Homemade, where we’ll try to pack into the tiny restaurant run by Mara Levi and her husband, David. While their son mans the kitchen, their daughter, Chana, works the floor. During Mardi Gras, it can get pretty crazy, Chana tells us. “People are dancing, and you think, How can they dance when there’s no room to walk? Somehow, they find a way.” We asked her what else to expect and to explain crawfish cheesecake to us.

How did Katrina affect business?
The factories were destroyed, so we couldn’t get a lot of products. And people were so upset that they didn’t seem to want the food. It hurt us a lot. That’s about the same time we came up with barbecue — so that was able to help us.

Is it hard to make good barbecue in a small kitchen?
Everyone always prefers us — our food is just better. I went to Gramercy Tavern, and they gave us a pulled-pork sandwich just to try, and I was like, Oh my God, this is disgusting. I couldn’t eat it — it was so gross. There are so many people who swear by Blue Smoke. This one group of twelve couldn’t get a reservation, and they said, “We’re never going back because your barbecue is so much better.” It’s authentic, not mass-produced like those big corporations.

How about your oysters?
We have the best oysters in the entire world. I go to other restaurants and see oysters on the menu — they’re so disgusting that I leave the restaurant. I go back to my parents’ restaurant and eat our oysters just to clean my palette.

Do customers ever freak out about the live-crawfish boil?
You order them by the pound — people are upset if they don’t get a bucket, but, if you don’t get three pounds or more, you don’t get a bucket. The worst is when we’re sorting through the crawfish in the kitchen — once in a while, one or two get away alive and come out into the dining room. One time, these college guys had way too many hurricanes, and they started having a crawfish fight.

How close is the crawfish cheesecake to a New York cheesecake?
Not at all — it’s more like a quiche than a cheesecake. Customers have described it as an explosion of flavors happening in your mouth all at once.

What’s your hurricane recipe?
The original hurricanes are from Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans. We use the Pat O’Brien mix. We have customers who go to New Orleans and they go to Pat O’Brien’s and then come to us two days later and say ours are better.

What happens when people have one too many hurricanes?
There was an office party over the holidays — it was all these skinny girls drinking hurricanes. I said, “Just be careful, it’s really strong, and I don’t want anyone throwing up.” People were asking for seconds and thirds. They were all, “I’m a big girl; I’m 25.” I told my dad I was leaving — “these girls are crazy, and I can’t handle anymore.” They were throwing up in the dining room. I went to the boss and said, “I thought you said your girls could handle their liquor.”

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