Stephen Walker has rolled up his sleeves and introduced new menu items to his thriving restaurant, Portico.
article by Tabby Soignier | photography by Spring Media
Most artists can be found in a gallery or a music studio, but if you visit 2230 Tower Drive in Monroe, Louisiana, you will find one in the kitchen. Stephen Walker, 46, has not only created and maintained a successful business for nine years, he can also be located in the back of Portico with his sleeves rolled up and hovered around his own personal canvas – the stove.
Sometimes, he may be whipping up a dish he previously created that’s become a favorite among the locals, but other times he looks the part of a veteran New Orleans chef, who has been throwing a “little bit of this and a little bit of that” into a pot or pan and seeing how it turns out.
But the thing is Walker is not one of the homegrown chefs who you can find dotted around the city, following tenure at a culinary institute or even just working their way up from waiting tables.
At the age of 27, Walker had an accounting degree and a wife. Her parents approached the two about taking over a restaurant at the end of their newly rebuilt gas station on the corner of Forsythe Avenue and Oliver Road. A place called Trio’s, which is still a successful business of its own to this day. “That was my first experience in restaurant business as an operator,” Walker said. “I never waited tables. I never cooked. I never did anything. It was literally trial and error from day one.”
Trial and error has turned into some of his best masterpieces, starting with buying the land on the corner of Oliver Road and Tower Drive with no other businesses really around it. It was 2005, meaning there was no strip mall, no Newk’s and certainly no businesses or hospitals that now line the curvy road sending tons of business in his general direction.
It was a risk, and a decade later, almost everyone in town knows Portico, whether it’s for its food, its ambience or its fairly new Sunday brunch menu.
Brunch was a recent product for Walker after tossing around ideas in his head this time, rather than on the stove. It’s that same thought process over the past nine years of trying something new that prompted him to venture out and open restaurants in Ruston and two more in Baton Rouge.
Not all trials and errors turn into triumph though. Walker refers to his Baton Rouge locations as “a real struggle” after spending a good portion of two years mostly in his car traveling to south Louisiana, rather than in one of his own restaurants. He even broke away from the Ruston location and now he can focus all of his attention on making his original brainchild in Monroe the best yet.
“I got more bogged down in the business side of it and lost focus on the creativity in this restaurant,” Walker said. “Once I got that (closing the Baton Rouge locations) behind us the first of this year, I said, ‘I’m going to hit the ground running back in this restaurant.’”
Not all of the Baton Rouge experience went sour though. Walker met a local celebrity on the food scene, Jay Ducote. The Food Network Star Season 11 Runner-Up is also a writer and his blog “Bite and Booze” is frequented by thousands since starting it in 2009.
“His advice to me was, ‘It’s a good, solid menu, but there’s nothing really on it that really sets yourself apart,” Walker said. “So I started looking at it, even the names on the menu – grilled chicken salad, roast beef poboy – nothing really creative that really rings a bell. That’s when the wheels started turning and wanting to do different things.”
Some creations came from shaking up current menu items, and others were new ideas that popped into Walker’s head that he tried to translate into the kitchen. More than half of his staff has been with Walker since he opened the Portico doors in 2005, but even they looked at him like he was a little crazy when he suggested changing up current menu items – mainly because those dishes were some of their most popular sellers, like the Flatboy Sandwich.
“It was pretty basic,” Walker said. “It had roast beef, ham, turkey … just a lot of meat on the bread and just a big sandwich flattened out. People really liked it, but it was one dimensional in flavor. All those proteins were really salty and never had any contrasting.”
Walker’s creativity comes from his own mind, but he also puts himself in good company to help get the wheels turning even more from the Food Network to YouTube videos and trying out as many restaurants as he can when he travels.
“I was in New York during the holidays last year, and the hotel I stayed at, The Standard, had a restaurant inside, The Standard Grill. It was one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been in,” Walker said. “They had this brisket roast beef with all this stuff on it and had all these different flavors going on, so I got to thinking, ‘OK I’m starting to see what’s going on here.’ I came back, and I changed it that day.”
However, Portico’s best seller on the menu was not developed from a brilliant revelation in a big city. In fact, it almost came by mistake. The Shrimp IN Grits is served as an appetizer and as an entrée, but don’t be expecting a plate running over with grits and shrimp generously spread throughout it.
Instead, it looks more like a hushpuppy on steroids. Notice the name – shrimp IN grits. Walker puts the shrimp in the grits, fries the grits and tops it off with a mushroom cream sauce.
Other shrimp dishes include the Shrimp Massey, another top seller, which consists of a grilled jumbo shrimp, wrapped in bacon with Creole cream cheese, jalapeño, fresh basil and pepper jelly.
If the kitchen is Walker’s canvas, he makes the most of it with colors, too. Where artists have paintbrushes, Walker has garnishes most people would never think of putting together, and it always seems to put the right hues together.
The Asian Ahi Tuna appetizer is the perfect example. The seared tuna has been on the menu for years, but only recently did it take on a look of its own. Instead of sliced and seared tuna on a plate with all its embellishments, Walker has made it into an art form. The tuna is rolled in a sesame seared ahi, spring mix, mandarin oranges, avocado, cucumber, tomato and soy sauce vinaigrette and served in a shape similar to flan, but it hardly takes on the taste of a dessert and it’s about twice the size.
The citrus and vinegar touches add just the right contrast between the tuna and sesame.
“I come up with the recipes, and we’ll all just get back there and try to kick it out,” Walker said.
Burgers and sandwiches have also taken on a new look, and the tacos can be a lighter option. The tortilla is stuffed with your choice of honey sriracha glazed fried shrimp, Caribbean jerk grilled mahi or smothered pork roast, then topped with cabbage, pickled red onion, avocado or fresh cilantro aioli.
So much detail for a guy who never thought he would have the makeup to be in the restaurant industry.
“I didn’t have the patience without burning everything,” Walker said. “I’ve always enjoyed eating and going out to eat and really interested in what other people can do, so I would always make notes and ideas and figure out how to get that done.”
unch is Portico’s busiest time, and Walker offers specials each day for those wanting a good, home cooked meal. Monday is red beans and rice and Tuesday is hamburger steak with rice and gravy. Wednesday is fried chicken with macaroni and cheese, Thursdays chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes and Friday is chicken and dumplings.
“Good ole southern plate lunch, that’s what I was going for,” Walker said. “We also have an abbreviated lunch menu – all dinner portions that are smaller and smaller prices. It’s just another option, but both menus are offered all day long.”
Some may feel a little threatened by other restaurants popping up around them, but Walker says “the more, the merrier”. While lunch is what he calls his “bread and butter”, the dinner crowd is picking up too, which could be credit to much more crowded street traffic.
And just in time as Walker is sprucing up some of his dishes that may be more likely to be ordered at dinner, like steaks, salmon and redfish.
The Cast Iron Filet is a pair of four-ounce medallions with port Dijon cream sauce and braised porobellos drizzled on top and all placed on a heap on asiago cheese grits. The type of steak as well as the cooking style makes the meat almost melt in your mouth with its tenderness, as well as juiciness that goes just right with the cheese grits in one big bite.
The citrus salmon is served on a bed of fresh herb rice mixed with lemon vinaigrette and topped with marinated tomatoes and French green beans. It’s a cooler and lighter dish that could be enjoyed on a hot day and possibly on the Portico patio with an open air design that connects to the bar with the wooden windows open.
Customers have their choice of three different seating options. There is the patio, the bar and then a more formal dining area that also offers private rooms. The layout was already in Walker’s head as he tossed around names for the restaurant.
“I typed in the word patio into a thesaurus and that (Portico) was one of the 100 words I saw,” Walker said. “I thought, ‘Portico … that’s easy to say.’ I think it’s Italian, but it reminded me of a restaurant in New Orleans, Port of Call. It’s a great dive bar with hamburgers and Bloody Mary’s on Esplanade.”
Walker has his own Bloody Mary bar, which he introduced along the brunch menu earlier this summer. Customers also have the choice of bottomless mimosas. The Sunday cocktails go just right with some of his more unique concoctions like the chicken and biscuits, tossed around in creole mustard, locally produced Steen’s cane syrup and a sausage gravy that Walker assures will put you to sleep for a nice Sunday nap.
He’s also whipped up a white chocolate French toast, perfecting a recipe from another friend in the Baton Rouge area, but he offers most menus during the Sunday hours too.
Happy Hour is daily from 4 to 7 p.m. with specials named “Nips and Noshes”. You can enjoy even more variety from Walker’s creations, including Shrimp and Crab Beignets, Buffalo Parmesan Fried Oysters and Blue Queso Cheesy Chips.
Enjoy one of the uniquely named cocktails as well, which range from Louisiana Mule (Oryza Vodka, fresh lime and cucumber, passion fruit puree, ginger beer) to Fleur De Lis #2 (Bayou Spiced Rum, mango puree, Landry’s Redneck Red, fresh lime and cilantro.) All cocktails contain Louisiana-made alcohol and as nearby as Landry Vineyards.
Depending on the crowd, Portico may be known for different things. Some want the burgers, while others come for the sandwiches – while almost everyone comes for the Shrimp N Grits. The most important thing for Walker though is that people enjoy it, while he continues to let his creativity take him away behind the scenes.
“Nowadays, it seems like every restaurant, whether it’s a dive restaurant, a burger joint or fine dining, it’s chef-driven … at least the ones that are really doing well,” Walker said. “I’ve learned so much about menus and making up items just in the last year and I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
Portico is open seven days a week. Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-Midnight and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
Visit online at www.PorticoETC.com and keep up with the restaurant on Facebook/PorticoMonroe, on Twitter @PorticoMonroe or on Instagram/PorticoETC.