Once a teacher, always a teacher,” said Sandra Becker, co-owner of Hibachi Hut who, like her husband, is retired from more than 30 years of working in public schools.
That’s why the restaurant’s annual Mardi Gras dinner has become something of an education — for herself and her employees — on the history and culture of New Orleans.
Sandra, her husband Bill Becker, their son Kale Becker and Marc Claas have owned Hibachi Hut, 608 N. 12th St., since July 2004. They didn’t come into the business with a knowledge of Cajun and Creole cuisine, she said, but they have come to appreciate it and the culture that surrounds it.
So in addition to the plethora of traditional dishes the kitchen will churn out for tonight’s sold-out, reservations-only event, the owners will feature many authentic touches: Mardi Gras masks, beads, fleurs-de-lis, king’s cakes, umbrella dances, hanging ferns. And they will make sure their staff members are well-versed in their knowledge of New Orleans.
Kale said that the summer before Hurricane Katrina, he went to the Big Easy and took a group of employees. They ate their way around the city, learning about local cooking, culture and history.
“Down there, Cajun food uses a lot of gravy,” he said. “Up here, what we think of as Cajun food is really Cajun/Creole, and it’s more tomato-based. Cajun doesn’t mean spice.”
Hibachi Hut serves Cajun dishes all year round, of course, but its mixed-ethnicity background means that it also offers burgers, Tex-Mex and, sometimes, German foods.
Open since 1959, the restaurant has been under four sets of owners in its history. It was named for a Japanese-style grill because that’s what the original restaurant used for cooking, but it served Cajun food even then. In the ’80s, the second owner (who was of German descent) bought the property next door and made it into Texas Star Cafe. For many years, the two eateries were attached but separate. But recently, Kale said, they consolidated the menu and the kitchens, keeping only a few dishes from Texas Star.
So while you can get a catfish po’boy or red beans and rice any day, the Mardi Gras dinner is the only night when the restaurant fully rolls out its New Orleanian heritage. The menu for the event has remained the same for the last 20 years: frog legs, oysters on the half shell, shrimp etouffee, alligator piquante, seafood boil, gumbo, bread pudding and more. Kale said they had made 300 pieces of cornbread to feed the 150 people who reserved a spot at the dinner.
“It’s a great tradition,” he said. “A lot of people come year after year. They bring their clients. Families get together, and friends. It’s a good time.”