4311 Harford Road,  627-8090, tooloulou.com
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Chef/owner Shawn Lagergren says he doesn’t know the name of every customer who walks under the laissez les bon temps roule sign that hangs over the door of Tooloulou, his artisan pizza and po’boy shop in Lauraville, but it sure feels like he recognizes most faces. Returning customers are greeted like old friends, and on this particular evening, with a warning that there was a run on muffalettas earlier in the day; tonight, anyone looking for that particular New Orleans specialty is out of luck.
Not that there isn’t plenty else to choose from. Tooloulou’s chalkboard menu lists nine pizzas plus build-your-own options, a handful of sandwiches, and half a dozen po’boys, including one made with gator (that’s alli- not -ade), and the soda case is stocked with regional favorites such as Cheerwine and Grape Nehi and what feels like a million brands of root beer, but is probably closer to a dozen. (Patrons can also BYOB).
That Tooloulou’s menu reads Southern is no fluke. Lagergren learned Cajun cooking from his grandmother, whose potato salad recipe he uses in the restaurant. Prior to setting up shop in the former Chef Mac’s (another Louisianan relocated to Baltimore), Lagergren tended the kitchen at Luca’s in Locust Point and conjured his grandmother’s gumbo for patrons of Cross Keys’ Village Square Café.
Lagergren’s Cajun heritage doesn’t preclude any nods to Chesapeake local (and seasonal), however. “Tooloulou” is Cajun for crab, and the beloved crustacean shows up on the eponymous Tooloulou pie, an amalgam of white sauce, crab, Andouille sausage, Old Bay, banana peppers, and mozzarella. Other pies range from traditional margherita and a spicy sausage, black olive, and provolone combo to decidedly gourmet shrimp and pesto or smoked duck with a drizzle of balsamic reduction.
It’s hard, though, to say no to pizza specials, especially when their origins spring from the farmers market. On this evening, the farmers market pie ($13) is topped with a barely wilted blend of baby kale, mustard greens, caramelized onions, goat cheese, and white sauce; a mushroom pie ($15) overflows with cremini, porcini, and hen of the woods. Lagergren makes an able crust—thin and with a pronounced crackle—and I would go back to try other pies based on the crust alone. That said, each pizza felt like a bit too much of a good thing. The mushroom had all the intense, earthy wildness inherent in woodsy mushrooms, but I missed something, a pronounced bite or a little contrast that I might have found if red sauce were used instead of white. And while I adore the flavor of the bitter greens in the farmers market pie, as one diner put it, the texture felt a little like dining on your lawn. The parent at our table confirmed that the children’s cheese pizza ($5) was a perfectly acceptable blend of garlicky red sauce and cheese, as it should be.
If oyster po’boys ($9) are your thing (I admit, they are mine) it would be hard to find a better one in town. This is a generous sandwich, overflowing with generously sized oysters of Chesapeake origin. The remoulade boasts a goodly kick of Tabasco, and the French roll is properly crisp. It’s a winner. Very good, too, is the Coca-Cola baked ham sandwich ($8), pink and salty slices of house-baked ham, a tad too fatty for some tastes, layered with honey butter and Dijon-spiked coleslaw on a cheddar biscuit the size of an old 45 rpm record, but much nicer in texture. The sandwich must be eaten with some speed, however, to prevent the coleslaw from leaking into the bottom layer of the biscuit; don’t let that happen to good bread.
Tooloulou also offers wings, as well as greens, house-cut fries, and dirty rice as sides. Since our visit, Lagergren has begun offering desserts like bags of bourbon-candied pecans (gotta get back there for those) or chocolate-banana bread pudding.
Be warned that Tooloulou is tiny, with only a few tables and a narrow counter, and is better set up for taking out than dining in, though the restaurant’s few tables are clearly designed to be hospitable, covered in yellow flowered plastic tablecloths with fresh flowers in vases. Still, the small space can feel smaller with folks waiting for their orders.
Like many beloved neighborhood joints, Tooloulou is stripped down, yet full of charm, much of this due to Lagergren, who, despite some assistance at the counter, is a one-man show in the open kitchen. The food is very nice here, and though it might not be a destination you’d cross town for if you’re already blessed to have a good pizza parlor in your ’hood, if you live anywhere close to Lauraville, I’d consider you lucky.
Tooloulou is open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. Eat in or take out. BYOB. What Cheerwine goes with oysters?