Sandwiched between a gas station and a liquor store, Nola Po'boy and Gumbo Kitchen is one of those strip mall finds that you hesitate to reveal to friends. On the one hand, you want credit for discovering a gussied-up diner churning out gumbo, jambalaya and other traditional New Orleans fare. On the other hand, once word spreads, you may lose first dibs on your favorite table.

Still, there are a few things about Nola that would be worth the wait. Open a little nore than a year and run by native Louisianans, the restaurant serves some of the best fried chicken and waffles I've had in Northern California. And the homey desserts, such as sweet potato pie and an outrageous three-layer pineapple cake will leave your sweet tooth satisfied for weeks. They even have frog legs and alligator strips, if that's your thing.

Where I think they can improve is in punching up the seafood portions in centerpiece dishes, like the gumbo, to match the prices ($17 a bowl ain't cheap, after all) and coordinating with the kitchen to ensure everything arrives at the same time and at the right temperature. Our french fries were cold and had to be sent back. Friendly servers complied, returning with a smaller portion (we'd eaten a few of the cold ones) of freshly fried taters.

When you first walk into Nola, with its Mardi Gras beads and happy-go-lucky quotes on the walls, you have to leave your kale-eating self at the door. Don't expect to balance your deep-fried, carby Creole meal with a side of something green. The only salad on the menu is Caesar; for veggie sides, you have a choice of brothy green beans or super sweet cream corn. Collard greens are available but cost extra, and I'm not sure why. Just wear sweatpants and enjoy your meal.

In two visits, we managed to try almost all of the classic entrees, except the "Where Ya At" barbecue, a selection of pork ribs, Andouille sausage, Louisiana hot links and Bayou wings ($16 to $22) that are doused in bourbon whiskey barbecue sauce and come with two sides.

We never made it to the barbecue because we liked the fried chicken and waffle so much that we ordered it on both visits. I recommend the Spirit of Mahalia ($17 for one waffle, one jumbo wing and two thighs). The thigh meat was super juicy and elevated the cayenne and other spices in the light golden, crispy skin. Make sure to take a bite with the Belgian-style cinnamon waffle, which is so dense and sweet it could pass as pound cake. The pairing of sweet and spicy makes such sinful sense.

Unfortunately, I don't think Nola nails it with every entree. I found the sausage and chicken jambalaya well-seasoned but dry ($10 cup; $16, bowl), and the soupy seafood gumbo ($13 cup; $17 bowl) low on Dungeness crab and shrimp, though the bits of okra, celery, grilled chicken and two types of sausage packed a lot of flavor. The crawfish and shrimp étouffée ($10 cup; $16 bowl), however, was a hit around our table.

The traditional stew, served piping hot with rice and a creamy red gravy, was scrumptious and had enticing aromas of bay leaf. We also loved the thick, hearty red beans and rice ($10 cup; $14 bowl), with its savory flavor (likely from ham hock or Tasso), and could have spooned down bowls of it. Best bet? Order the Tipatina Plate Sampler ($24) which gives you shareable portions of the étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice.

If you like seafood, try the Cajun-style Uptown Catfish fried to a reddish crisp, served on a plate with two side dishes (four pieces, $14.95; eight pieces, $18.95), or as a classic po'boy (half, $7.95; whole, $11.95) tucked into sweet French bread with mayonnaise, Creole mustard, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and dill pickles. The sandwiches, with their soft, perfectly toasted rolls, are a hit on Yelp and come in 11 varieties, including roast beef, pulled pork or fried oyster. They make for a satisfying but pricey lunch: A fried oyster po'boy with a side and soda would cost you $17.45.

But they say if you wash one down with a Mason jar of Nola's homemade sweet tea or an Abita amber lager, you'll be transported straight to N'awlins. Heck, let the good times roll.

nola po'boy
and Gumbo kitchen

* * ½

WHERE: 3606 Willow Pass Road, Concord
CONTACT: 925-849-5682; www.nolapoboykitchen.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and noon to 7 p.m. Sundays
CUISINE: New Orleans
PRICES: $$
VEGETARIAN: No entrees. Fill up on sides, like cream corn, cheese grits and red beans and rice.
BEVERAGES: Sodas, chicory coffee, sweet tea, California wines and artisan Louisiana beers from Abita and Dixie Brewing Co.
RESERVATIONS: No
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
PARKING: Parking lot
KIDS: Kids will enjoy the fried chicken with crispy cinnamon waffle.
PLUSES: Traditional Louisiana fare made by New Orleans siblings.
MINUSES: The food is heavy -- wear sweatpants.
DATE OPENED: September 2012

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Ratings

Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.

Price code

$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40