Katrina victim opens eatery

Published 8:31 am Sunday, March 4, 2007

The recipe books were victims of Hurricane Katrina, along with all of his other belongings, said Polanco Jones, owner with his wife, Sabrina, of a new eatery in Natchez.

For now, the recipes are all in his head, Jones said this week, sitting in the cozy café at 12 Fourth St., once the home of a popular tamale house.

The menu at the new restaurant has a distinctive New Orleans flavor known as Creole, taking its name from the people by the same name in South Louisiana, where the Joneses lived when the 2005 Hurricane devastated their neighborhood.

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“I have the recipes in my head, but one day I have to put them on paper again,” Jones said. “I want others who come after me to know them.”

It takes a strong faith to make the move he and his wife have made in opening De’Ja’s Creole Kitchen and Seafood, he said. The family cleaned, painted and refurbished the business, which opened on Dec. 1.

“This is something I wanted to do 10 years down the road,” Jones said. “Katrina just made it happen sooner.”

A truck mechanic at the New Orleans port, Jones gave up that job when he lost his home. With his wife and small daughter, he came to Natchez to find refuge and to consider options for the future.

“We go back to New Orleans. I could go back to my job, but I have no place to live,” he said. “And we look at the crime. Natchez is a good place to bring up kids.”

Jones had a dream of opening a small restaurant in New Orleans once he had saved the money to be able to do it. Other members of his family have owned and operated small eateries and bars in New Orleans. “I’m just 10 years ahead now,” he said.

The place he has chosen for his first café is suitable for his plans, Jones said. “This is a wonderful little place, as close to the French Quarter as I’ve seen in Natchez,” he said.

He likes the mixture of customers who have found his place and seem to enjoy his food, Jones said.

“I have a real mixture of customers,” he said. “People are amazed at the racial equality that comes with the place. The food of life is just that, trying to get along with everyone.”

A dream he harbors is to have a bigger, finer restaurant one day. “I plan eventually to have a white-linen restaurant with real authentic Creole food,” he said.

“I watched Emeril (Lagasse, restaurateur and TV personality) when he came to New Orleans as a nobody. He didn’t know I was watching him, but I was,” Jones said.

Lagasse and other chefs have been his role models in his dreams of opening a larger restaurant.

Indeed, the New Orleans seafood and flavors are what bring people back to De’Ja’s, Jones said.

His wife agrees. “We get the hot sausage from New Orleans, Patton’s,” she said. “And we get the French bread in New Orleans, too.”

Mrs. Jones said Natchez was familiar to her when the family fled the storm and flooding in New Orleans. She has family in Natchez.

“I used to come every summer to visit my cousins,” she said. “This is a nice place to raise kids, and everyone is very friendly.”

Jones said he has seized the chance to open the eatery as a way to honor the many friends he lost in the storm.

“I had a lot of friends who died in the storm. And people I have known are scattered all over the place. I had to decide, ‘what do I really want to do,’” he said.

“The Lord puts you right where you need to be. This is going to pay off,” he said.

He enjoys mentoring young men who come to his business.

“I talk to the young guys who come in here to eat and ask them what they plan to do with their lives. I tell them to look at me. I lost everything and within a year I’m opening a restaurant. If I can do it, anybody can,” he said.

For those who are still in school, he treats them to hamburgers if they bring good grades to show them. “I tell them, ‘bring me your report card. If you make A’s, I’ll give you a hamburger.’”

De’ja’s is open Tuesday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Jones offers a complete breakfast in the morning for $1. The business is closed Sunday and Monday.

The menu includes sandwiches such as roast beef, hot sausage, shrimp, oyster and catfish, available with side orders including fries, onion rings, fried okra and egg rolls.

Plate lunches include chicken, pork chops, shrimp, catfish, oyster and seafood. Also on the menu are grilled shrimp and chicken salad and chef’s salads.

Take-out orders are welcome, Jones said. The phone number at the restaurant is 601-304-9533.