Goodbye, Rattlesnake Gumbo

by Chris Jay

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It was a grey, blustery Saturday afternoon when I sat down with Jon Ortiz, the 31-year-old executive chef responsible for transforming food operations at downtown Shreveport’s long-running gastropub, Noble Savage Tavern. Ortiz, who has worked at a number of well-regarded Shreveport restaurants including The Shreveport Club, Zocolo, Fat Calf Boucherie, Frank’s Pizza Napoletana, and The Port Grill, was visibly—and understandably—a little hungover.

It had only been hours since the local food community learned of the unexpected death of Chef George Beaird, co-owner of The Port Grill.

“George took care of me,” Ortiz said. “He was a good, good friend.”

Whenever he found himself out of work, Ortiz knew that he could always return to the line at The Port Grill, where he and Beaird fostered a mutual admiration while obsessing over the development of The Port Grill’s ramen recipe.

“The Port Grill was the first place to serve ramen in Shreveport. Our decisions affected the food culture of the whole city, and that was cool to see,” Ortiz said. “He was very open to trying new things.”

These days, Ortiz is counting on Shreveport to be open to trying new things. With no half-measures or apologies, he has summarily done away with most of Noble Savage Tavern’s treasured menu items, including an entire line of pizzas, a fancy nacho platter, and the beloved Reuben sandwich.

When I asked about the Reuben, Ortiz reacted as though I’d asked about a jailed uncle who he’d rather not discuss.

“That Reuben was nothing special,” he said. “The same exact sandwich, made out of the same exact stuff, is on the menu at lots of other local restaurants. The idea that the Reuben was special is all in y’all’s heads.”

I asked if he worried about backlash from regulars. What would people say on social media?

He thought for a moment.

“It’s best just to let the old gods die,” Ortiz said.

I understood what he meant. I also understood that Jon Ortiz is an unusual guy.

“To be honest, the Savage was down on one knee. This place had the same menu for 26 years. When I looked at the menu, I knew that we had to shave it down,” he said. “Starting out, I focused on what we do best: the muffaletta.”

Noble Savage’s muffaletta was previously served on a Gambino’s Bakery loaf. Ortiz wastes no words in his assessment of Gambino’s Bakery.

“Gambino’s bread isn’t that good,” he said, unfalteringly giving voice to an opinion that would get him tossed into the street if spoken aloud in some parishes. “But there’s a bakery across the street from Noble now, and we’ve been working with them for months to develop a new loaf that’s a cross between a brioche and an Italian loaf; imagine a sesame brioche.”

In addition to the improved muffaletta, Noble Savage patrons can now choose from a Shreveport hot chicken sandwich (fried cauliflower can be substituted in place of the chicken), French onion ramen with hand-pulled noodles and crisp Adobo pork belly, nachos made with house-made beer cheese, and Montanara-style fried pizza that is equally inspired by the traditional fried pizzas of Naples and the stoner-friendly crunch of Totino’s Party Pizzas.

Send noodz: Noble Savage Tavern’s new French onion ramen is one of the restaurant’s most talked-about new dishes.

The elephant in the room during my conversation with Ortiz was actually a kangaroo—or at least its tenderloin. For as long as the restaurant has existed, Noble Savage Tavern has proudly promoted an almost comical commitment to serving exotic game meats. Towards the end of our talk, I made a dismissive remark about kangaroo steaks.

“Kangaroo, camel, lion—can you believe that they served lion here? Who wants to eat lion? It’s a big cat,” Ortiz said. “We’re still going to feature wild game once a month, but we have to do it differently. I’m not going to pay several hundred dollars to have someone ship me lion meat.”

As one of the youngest executive chefs, if not the youngest executive chef in Shreveport, Jon Ortiz’s headstrong commitment to his own ideas—his willingness to “let the old gods die”—ought to come in handy over the course of the next few months, as he and his service team respond to queries about the Reuben, the alley cat, and the Noble nachos.

“It’s time for the next generation to be invited in,” Ortiz said. “We can piggyback off of what came before, but it’s food. It’s gotta evolve. That’s good for culture.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Ortiz to pose for a quick photograph. We sat near a window, where the light was nice.

“Do I look uncomfortable?,” he asked.

“No, you look confident,” I responded.

“Good,” he said, quickly and quietly, as if to himself.

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