In a quaint, red-roofed cottage just steps away from Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville, Luke and Marci Hidalgo are turning out elevated yet accessible Southern comfort food at Hambone. Immediately, it evokes the sense of visiting family or old friends, a feeling Luke and Marci hope guests experience—from the atmosphere to the food itself—each time they visit.
The name Hambone is a nickname for Luke’s style of cooking, says Marci, but the term itself comes from a tradition of Luke’s childhood.
“As a kid, it was the hambone in the pot of white beans that always intrigued me, like, ‘What is this thing that we’re not supposed to eat? What is that all about?’” Luke recalls.
At the time, Luke’s grandmother explained that nothing should go to waste and that some flavors cannot be created any other way, which Luke has come to think of as a metaphor for the restaurant.
“I really am into food that tells a story and honors these awesome things we have at our fingertips, things that I feel we sometimes take for granted being from south Louisiana,” Luke says.
The Hidalgos were both raised in Baton Rouge and attended Louisiana State University. However, they did not meet until they were working in New Orleans at Commander’s Palace—Marci as a server and Luke as a sous chef.
Commander’s Palace is instrumental in the Hidalgos’ story, not only because they met there but because the New Orleans landmark was also influential in Luke’s career.
“Those were formative years for me,” Luke says of the seven years he worked at Commander’s. “I don’t have any formal training, so I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some guys and girls along the way who taught me a lot.”
The couple moved to Mandeville almost two years ago, and their shared dream became a reality when Hambone opened earlier this year. Their breakfast, lunch, and brunch are accompanied by a casual, family-oriented atmosphere—an element, they explain, that was crucial to their grand vision of Hambone.
Many Southerners grew up eating dishes like pot roast, fried chicken, and deviled eggs, all of which appear on Hambone’s menu every week. But for Luke, the challenge is ensuring the food is not merely reminiscent of home but comes with a chef’s special touch.
“If I’m going to make deviled eggs, they have to be exceptional,” says Luke. To which Marci adds, “There’s that extra love in there.” For the record, the extra love in Hambone’s deviled eggs comes with bits of crispy country ham and pickled radishes. Luke’s special touch also breaks tradition with a little local gusto.
“I’ll take something I love and drag it through south Louisiana a little bit to capture those flavors,” he says.
An example of this is Luke’s Crab Boil Mozzarella. Using a Sicilian method, Luke tempers whole-milk mozzarella cheese curd with courtbouillon from a crab and crawfish boil. Delicious both melted and cold, it’s an item that appears throughout the menu.
Locals and tourists alike have helped welcome Hambone to Mandeville, a place the Hidalgos say constantly surprises them with its generosity and support.
“I definitely wouldn’t have predicted this path if you’d asked me five years ago,” says Luke. “But it’s been serendipitous. It’s almost this cliché breath of fresh air.”