The voodoo that they do: Robert Lowery and Virgil Thrasher wonder when lunch starts.
Poor House Bistro in San Jose does big things for the city and people of New Orleans
By Todd Inoue
FOR SUCH a small city, New Orleans looms large in music, architecture and cuisine. Poor House Bistro, located near Diridon station, is a concentrated slice of Crescent City goodness, embodying the three elements: Its building is a restored Victorian that serves excellent re-creations of New Orleans dishes and hosts live music on the patio.
It also covers the fourth element: generosity. Though not in as dire circumstances as the businesses and residents of New Orleans, Poor House Bistro felt unexpected aftershocks from Hurricane Katrina. The bistro had many of its suppliers, such as the Leidenheimer Baking Co. (which bakes the bread for its po' boys), shut down. The trawling industry is in disrepair, so the bisto now gets its crawfish from a Houston supplier. Central Grocery's signature olive spread had to be reinvented in Poor House's lab after the French Quarter market was struck by looters.
Poor House owner Jay Meduri was down in New Orleans last month for Jazzfest. He said that there are still cars stacked up and refrigerators in trees and that nobody is certain of the levees, the cleaning process or when federal funding will come through.
"It was good to see the town alive again, but a lot of work needs to be done. It could take years," Meduri says. "We can only do what we can do here."
To that end, Poor House Bistro is hosting a weekend-long blues, jazz and gospel show benefiting Habitat for Humanity, which builds housing for disaster victims. When Katrina first hit, Poor House Bistro encouraged its customer base to donate to the Red Cross. But after doing some research, it switched the charity to Habitat for Humanity—encouraged by Branford Marsalis' and Harry Connick, Jr.'s hearty co-sign.
"I really trust them to build houses in an inexpensive manner," Meduri explains. "Those houses were barely standing before Katrina, especially in the Ninth Ward. More of the money goes to the right places than to overhead, like Red Cross." Poor House is also participating in a $1.5 million challenge grant issued by Dave Matthews to set up a Musicians' Village in the Ninth Ward.
Billed "The Tribute to American Roots," the shows open Friday, June 30, with a set by Mark Hummel and the Blues Survivors. The weekend continues Saturday beginning at 1pm with the Wendy Dewitt Duo, Robert Lowery & Virgil Thrasher and the Jan Fanucci Band. Sunday opens at 10am with a New Orleans Style Sunday Brunch and music starting at noon with J.P. & the Rhythm Chasers, the Gospel Travelers, School of Blues student band and Sid Morris' Poorhouse Jam. A silent auction will be held for top-shelf items like VIP passes for the San Jose Jazz Festival, Grand Prix tickets, a crawfish boil and more. Meduri will pass the hat around for donations instead of instituting a cover charge.
"My bistro is a free place," Meduri says. "I've never charged people to see music, and I never will. That's how we stand at the bistro; we're passionate about the music and the people."
New Orleans' blend of African, Native American, Spanish, French-Canadian and Caribbean cultures has given so much to our society. So when a tragic hurricane like Katrina ripped it up and FEMA rubbed Cajun seasoning in the wounds, the stinging effects lingered long after Anderson Cooper's camera crew departed. Though people hankering for a New Orleans fix have been frequenting his restaurant's downtown location since it opened, Meduri hopes people recognize that New Orleans is open for business, too, encouraging them to travel back and experience the real thing.
"The latest tragedy is always the one that sticks in people's minds," he says. "It's been almost a year, and a lot gets washed under. They see the little news clippings. It's going to take a long time to rebuild that area. My whole goal is to survive as a business, No. 1, and then show people what New Orleans is like; it's the food, music and ambience."
And some things are happening. Meduri says Leidenheimer Bakery is back up and getting its distribution together. Poor House's po' boys could soon have authentic crunch again—the Bread of Life, literally.
The Tribute to American Roots weekend happens June 30-July 2 at Poor House Bistro, 91 S. Autumn St., San Jose. Admission is donation. For information, call 408.29.BLUES or visit www.poorhousebistro.com.
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