Tiffany Tomaso-Kelly almost reaches the ceiling of the aptly named Lil' Tin Can. Truly it's a tiny trailer, Jeep-pulled and black on its bottom half and bright red on top, where a high service counter abuts a narrow window and view of a clean, meticulously arranged kitchen.
A loud generator defies the cute smallness of it all, keeping Tomaso-Kelly leery of fussy locations until experiments with rigged muffling devices pay off. So you'll see Lil' Tin Can at select breweries and office parks for now, sometimes with a limited turn-and-burn menu to keep pace.
On one such day, I find her off Rockrimmon Boulevard, already sold out of signature gumbo and jambalaya and eschewing her pressed panini in favor of a completely serviceable, store-bought fusilli and ricotta-stuffed cold pasta, which she customizes with a tangle of wilted spinach, tomato slivers, feta crumble and lemon garlic sauce. Bimonthly, she does feature her own homemade pastas (which make for her priciest items at $10), such as a recent spinach noodle with Andouille sausage in Cajun Alfredo sauce.
That Italian-Cajun-Creole fusion speaks to her Italian ancestry and her discovered passion for New Orleans-area cuisine, the latter inspired partly by visits. The former Air Force social worker left behind service to wounded soldiers and families to join that other service industry, known for white coats, sharp knives and tedious customers, but also craft passion.
I first met Tomaso-Kelly while co-judging student finals for Paragon Culinary School, from which she graduated in 2014. There, she gleaned extensive NOLA knowledge from chef/dean Victor Matthews (currently of Black Bear Distillery); in 1995, Matthews cooked under Gunter Preuss at the historic Broussard's in the French Quarter.
Matthews mentored Tomaso-Kelly closely on these recipes, and in her hands, a red beans-and-rice offering exudes serious Andouille sausage smokiness as a thick, pasty, flavorful beauty. The tomato-rich Creole jambalaya also texturally clumps together loosely, a testament to an ideal chicken-stock-to-rice ratio. Bits of alligator sausage from Andy's Meat Market lend soft, chewy tooth.
Her Cajun-style gumbo (prepared with a dark roux) simmers slow and low, ditching common seafood components for a turf-only chicken-Andouille mix. It's toasty, with the good kind of burnt, earthy flavors from charred spices, and lands mid-level-spicy and overall excellent.
Lil' Tin Can's Decatur Street Muffuletta nails masterpiece status, layered thick with smoked ham and fat-flecked mortadella slices over thin salami, Provolone and piquant house olive-spread. The panini pressing makes it unconventional, as it's classically served cold, and Great Harvest Ciabatta stands in nicely for the traditional airy Sicilian loaf.
Elsewhere, a Cajun meat pie special in something of a pie-dough pastry fold offers only sparse filling and little personality outside a spicy buttermilk dip. The Easy Caprese, meanwhile, is just that, with its balsamic reduction quickly sogging the bread while the typical flavors fuse just fine. The Very Veggie too gets bolstered with pesto, plus melted mozzarella binding roasted bell pepper and zucchini. And The Swank borrows French aesthetics with pear slivers, Dijon and aioli adding sweet and biting notes to a creamy smoked ham-Swiss-Provolone combo — it's great.
For dessert, rich chocolate-pecan cake appears ready-mix simple but plenty moist and flavorful. And sprinkle-flecked Rice Krispie treats as a complimentary lagniappe ("a little something extra") complete the humble homespun charm.
Despite its diminutive appearance, Lil' Tin Can stands tall where it counts.