Fast-food classics inspire local menu items

In New Orleans, we are blessed with an abundance of exceptional food options handcrafted by culinary masterminds. But every now and then, a craving strikes for a greasy fast food item or an indulgent appetizer from a chain restaurant.

Maybe we’re swayed by the billboards with close-up images of cheese melting over a moist hamburger or the “I’m Lovin’ It” radio jingles. Regardless, a familiar comfort seems to materialize when those golden arches come into view while cruising along Interstate 10.

You can satisfy your cravings with local mass-market alternatives, enhanced with high-quality ingredients and the creativity of expert chefs. A handful of homegrown restaurants have put a unique spin on some of the nation’s most popular menu items. Plus, there is nothing generic about the ambiance of these places.

At Butcher on Tchoupitoulas Street, owner and chef Stephen Stryjewski serves Le Pig Mac. This bestseller bears a strong resemblance to — you guessed it — McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich. Stryjewski recently revealed the backstory.

“We were trying to figure out a good sandwich that incorporates sausage, because we always have an abundance of sausage,” he said. Someone in his kitchen crew jokingly suggested the ingredients for what is now known as Le Pig Mac. It was added to the menu and immediately became a hot commodity.

Butcher’s version features a combination of two 4-ounce pork patties seared on the griddle, coated with a couple of cheese slices, dressed with crisp iceberg lettuce and homemade pickles, and cradled in a sesame seed bun. The sandwich is served with a sauce that is strikingly similar to McDonald’s.

“It’s delicious, and it sells like crazy,” said Stryjewski. “It looks a lot like a really nice Big Mac.”

The top-notch elements of Le Pig Mac, along with its artsy presentation, clearly sets the sandwich apart from its fast-food counterpart. And, according to Stryjewski, it is “awesome hangover food.”

Eat more chicken?

In the core of the French Quarter, Sylvain takes Chick-fil-A’s signature sandwich to a new level. The restaurant’s dynamic Chick-Syl-vain sandwich has been on the menu since 2010, when the gastropub opened its doors for business.

When proprietor Sean McCusker and Chef Alex Harrell were designing the menu, they aimed to keep things casual and decided to include a chicken sandwich. Though Harrell rarely eats fast food, he does enjoy the occasional visit to Chick-fil-A, especially on road trips. And when McCusker travels, Chick-fil-A is almost always a stop on his itinerary. Their shared appreciation for the signature chicken sandwich spawned the concept for the Chick-Syl-vain.

“So that’s how we settled on it,” said Harrell. “It was a group decision.”

The Chick-Syl-vain begins with boneless, skinless chicken breast, which is brined in buttermilk for 12 hours before frying. The buttermilk includes a homemade hot sauce of black pepper, Worcestershire sauce and a touch of salt.

When frying a boneless and skinless chicken breast, the brining keeps the natural moisture of the chicken intact and also has a tenderizing effect, Harrell explained. After the chicken breast is breaded using the chef’s special recipe, it’s fried, placed on a soft bun and topped with house made pickles. The finished product is practically famous. Even celebrities who stop by Sylvain ask for it.

“It’s become a running joke,” said Harrell. “We sell a lot and we always get a good response.”

Straighten up and fry right

In other poultry-related news, Burger King will once again offer their popular Chicken Fries, for a limited time. They were first introduced in 2005. Throughout the social media world, fans of the slender chicken fry — who begged for its return with impassioned tweets, Tumblr posts and Facebook pages — have rejoiced. But you can also find these tasty items, anytime, at an old-school diner on Transcontinental Drive.

Known for their hefty po-boys, especially the sloppy roast beef variety, Russell’s Short Stop Po-Boys serves a version of chicken fries. Owner Russell Hendrick noted that he was looking for kid-friendly menu items and wanted something similar to chicken nuggets. But instead, he went with chicken fries, which are essentially thin shreds of breaded, fried chicken. The elongated shape makes them ideal for dipping in ketchup. The chicken fries are especially delicious when they are slathered in a side of roast beef gravy.

Bacon makes it better

The folks at Juan’s Flying Burrito are unquestionably clever. It shows in their funky décor and the tongue-in-cheek titles for certain menu items. But the construction of one dish was launched with a little help from a major fast food restaurant.

It began with bacon grease — Juan Flying Burrito’s Taco Sandwich, that is. The menu item, which is much like Taco Bell’s Double Decker Taco, was named by David Greengold, the co-owner of JFB Restaurant Group (Juan’s Flying Burrito, Slice Pizzeria, Lucky Rooster). But the initial idea was developed when Chef Leif Swift, the saucier of the restaurant, rendered the fat from bacon and used it to create flavorful refried beans, which quickly became a hit.

“We want to be able to cross-utilize the things that we make,” said Greengold. So he suggested swiping a thick layer of refried beans onto a soft flour tortilla and wrapping it around an Americano — a crunchy, hard shell taco — stuffed with seasoned ground beef, lettuce, cheddar cheese and salsa fresco, which is their version of pico de gallo.

A Taco Sandwich meal at Juan’s Flying Burrito features three double decker tacos, made with the finest ingredients and carefully prepared refried beans.

“It went on the menu quietly, but has developed a cult following,” said Greengold. “When people try the Taco Sandwich, it becomes their new fave.”

Who Dat loves shrimp?

Although fast food restaurants have played a role in inspiring the aforementioned dishes, sometimes a sit-down chain restaurant serves as the basis for a standout meal.

The idea for Fleur De Lis Shrimp — the most popular appetizer at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant — was conceived during a group dinner at Bonefish Grill. Tommy Cvitanovich, the owner of Drago’s, said everyone at the table was especially fond of the Bang Bang Shrimp, which is characterized by its spicy dressing.

“I thought it was pretty darn good,” said Cvitanovich. “When I go out to eat — I don’t care if it’s at a fast food place or the finest white tablecloth restaurant — if I enjoy something, I try to bring it back to our restaurant. Because if I enjoy it, most likely our customers are going to enjoy it as well.”

The restauranteur knew this fried shrimp dish was one that his patrons would love, so he thought of ways to “Dragotize” it. Cvitanovich created a Cajun aioli with roasted red peppers and cayenne pepper, and sautéed it with fried Louisiana Gulf shrimp and peanuts.

The Fleur De Lis Shrimp is garnished with purple cabbage, parsley and carrot slivers — Mardi Gras colors. In fact, the folks in the kitchen refer to the local creation as “Who Dat Shrimp.” The appetizer, which has been on the menu for nearly five years because of its unwavering popularity, is Cvitanovich’s favorite.

“I think they (Bonefish Grill) have a great dish, but I think we have a greater dish,” he said. “Ours is more about New Orleans. It’s more about our culture and food.”