Chuck Taggart is a dedicated amateur cocktailian and radio host in Los Angeles. He publishes The Gumbo Pages.
Even though we’re about to descend on the Crescent City to spend the next five days drinking (and talking about drinking, and listening to other people talk about drinking), I’m sure it’s not lost on you that Tales of the Cocktail takes place in one of the greatest food cities in the world. Bring loose pants.
Yes, I should get that out there up front. As some locals have said, it’s the greatest food anywhere, but light it ain’t. Or, to quote one of Bunny Matthews’ local cartoon characters, “It ain’t da seafood dat makes ya fat … it’s da batta!” That, plus the fact that the fried seafood platter you just ordered — piled high with shrimp, oysters, catfish, soft-shell crabs, crawfish balls (that’s 2-inch spheres of fried crawfish dressing, of course), French fries and French bread drenched with butter — is enough for four New Orleanians and eight normal people.
As a native New Orleanian I’ve got plenty of favorite places, and recently I’ve been working on a list of some of the places we wanted to go to eat. Then a couple of weeks ago one of my cocktail geek friends forwarded an email thread to me in which he had been planning his Tales eating with some other cocktail geek friends, one of whom said something like, “Well, I just plan to find out where Chuck is eating and then stalk him the whole week.” Okay, that’d work, but how do I approach that? 1) Get a restraining order. (Nah, cocktail geeks are the nicest people in the world, and harmless. Well, mostly harmless.) Or … B) Run with that great idea Seamus had, and do a post for Talesblog with some great places to eat! Here are some of my favorites, both in and out of the French Quarter, where most of us will be staying. For the most part I’ll concentrate on little funky places rather than fine dining, as I’m sure many of you have already researched the higher-end establishments and are, of course, looking forward to your Spirited Dinners!
Tales can be maddening, not only for the fact that not unlike Jazzfest you’re tearing your hair out trying to decide which of two fantastic — and simultaneously timed — seminars to take (“Gaaah! Wondrich’s punches or Chris McMillian on New Orleans cocktails?! You &@$!@*%s!!), but because you’re also trying to figure out when and where you’re going to squeeze in lunch between tightly-scheduled classes. For starters, there’s a terrific restaurant right across the street from the Monteleone Hotel.
Mr. B’s Bistro is a Brennan family restaurant, which right off the bat is an indicator of its high quality in both food and service. Mr. B’s has been a favorite of my family’s and mine for years, with an upscale casual atmosphere and terrific bistro-style Creole and south Louisiana dishes. The gumbos are always outstanding — Gumbo Ya-Ya is dark, country-style and thick with filé powder, chicken and andouille sausage; the lighter Seafood Gumbo, thickened with okra, comes with shrimp, oysters and crabmeat. I’m also a fan of their two signature dishes — Barbecue Shrimp, which doesn’t come near a grill but is baked in a spicy butter sauce spiked with black pepper and rosemary, and Pasta Jambalaya, an imaginative take on a classic local dish in which chicken, duck, sausage and shrimp are tossed with spinach fettuccine in a rich sauce. You could grab a bowl of gumbo between classes pretty quickly and know you’re getting The Real Thing — locals love this place.
Another great bistro-style restaurant is Chef John Besh’s Lüke, at 333 St. Charles Ave., about 3-1/2 blocks from the hotel and just over a five-minute walk. French-German bistro food with Creole touches, a fresh seafood bar and excellent cocktails make this one of my favorite new restaurants in the city. For a rare New Orleans treat, start with an Ojen Frappé at the bar, and move on to pressed cochon de lait (slow-roasted pork) sandwiches, flamenküche (a thin Alsatian tart with bacon, Emmenthaler cheese and caramelized onions), Louisiana shrimp and grits, fantastic daily specials, the Lüke Burger (the best non-fast-food burger in town) or bistro classics like mussels and fries or choucroute garni. (A longer recent review with pictures is here.)
About a 10-minute walk from the hotel, at 1109 Decatur at Ursulines, is another favorite of mine, Coop’s Place. It looks a bit like a dive bar (probably ’cause it is), but it’s funky and friendly and contrary to what one might expect has terrific food. They have the best jambalaya in the city, bar-none; get the “Supreme” version, which has rabbit, sausage, shrimp and smoky tasso ham. Creole-Italian pasta dishes, po-boys, Gargantuan burgers round out the menu, along with salads — they even have house-made Green Goddess dressing! They’re also open late, another plus.
For really good po-boys in the Quarter (or, if we’re going to be really old school, poor boys), head to Johnny’s at 511 St. Louis just up from Decatur. Fried seafood, Creole hot sausage (pretty much my favorite po-boy filling ever), sloppy roast beef, fried potato (the original poor boy sandwich!) and a nearly-endless selection of others … their online po-boy menu has pictures of each sandwich, and as they proclaim, “Even our mistakes are edible!”
At the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas (chop-a-TOO-liss), 6 blocks from the hotel in the Central Business District, is the world-famous Mother’s with its house specialty, The Ferdi Special — “World’s Best Baked Ham,” roast beef and roast beef “debris” (dat’s all da li’l tiny bits that fall offa da roast when it’s roastin’), cabbage, Creole mustard and about a gallon of gravy. If you haven’t had one you must. One caution — lines can be long at both places, especially at Mother’s.
If it’s the world-famous muffuletta you want, the original Central Grocery is just a half a mile or so away, 923 Decatur between Dumaine and St. Philip. It’s where the famous sandwich originated, one of the many gifts of New Orleans’ Italians (specifically Sicilians in this case). You line up for sandwiches and eat them elsewhere for the most part — seating inside the grocery store (and it is an Italian grocery store) is very limited.
If you like your muffulettas heated and enjoyed in one of the world’s great and most civilized bars, there’s Napoleon House at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, 4 blocks from the hotel. Excellent muffulettas, plus po-boys, salads, antipasto and other Italian specialties and local favorites like red beans ‘n rice, gumbo and jambalaya. I do love this bar, but I have to offer one caveat — drink your Sazeracs elsewhere, as Napoleon house tends to make them with about five times too much simple syrup and way too much Angostura (sigh).
If it’s 4am and you’re hideously inebriated, there’s nothing like a burger grilled under a hubcap at the Clover Grill, 900 Bourbon St.
Finally, Wes would thwack me if I didn’t mention his favorite place to eat in the Quarter (and one of mine too), Irene’s Cuisine at the corner of Chartres and St. Philip. It’s amazing Creole-Italian place — you can smell the garlic from two blocks away — and until recently they didn’t take reservations. We tended to get there fairly late, usually 9:30 and never had to wait that long for a table. (They now say “limited reservations accepted if space is available.”) They have one of the best duck dishes anywhere, Duck St. Philip — roasted crispy over sautéed fresh spinach, with French mustard and herbs, a drizzle of raspberry vinaigrette, garnished with grapes and served with Louisiana wild rice. I also love their massive Pollo Rosmarino, which is five pieces of chicken that had been marinated, cooked halfway, marinated again and then cooked to completion, in a large pool of olive oil-based sauce with tons of fresh rosemary and at least 18 whole cloves of roasted garlic. As if this wasn’t enough, it comes with a huge side of fettuccine with a tangy fresh tomato sauce and fresh-grated Parmagiano Reggiano. It’s one of the most incredible chicken dishes I’d ever had, and I don’t usually get chicken in nicer restaurants (do yourself a favor and order the chicken sometimes, particularly when they recommend it).
If you’re game for getting out of the Quarter (and I hope some of you are), jump on the streetcar or catch a cab and do a little exploring. Right down the Canal St. Streetcar line is the city’s best and most quintessential neighborhood restaurant, Mandina’s, 3800 Canal St. at Cortez, 3 blocks on the riverside of Carrollton. The local fare there features the Creole-Italian variety, also with great po-boys, fried or grilled seafood and red-gravy Italian. They’ve also got the best turtle soup in town after Commander’s Palace. Keep an eye out for the daily specials — the Trout or Catfish Meunière (brown butter-lemon sauce) or Almandine is outstanding, as is the very Creole-Italian Seafood Casserole with shrimp, crabmeat, ham and eggplant. My other favorite here is the breaded veal cutlet, also called “pannéed veal” by locals, either on a sandwich or a platter. All this, and their house specialty cocktail is the Old Fashioned, made properly and not filled with pulverized fruit. How can you not love them?
Two miles and about a 10 minute cab ride from the hotel, in the heart of the historic Bywater neighborhood, is Elizabeth’s — “Real food, done real good.” (Yeah you rite.) It’s a terrific neighborhood joint, famous (or perhaps infamous) for one of its signature dishes, Praline Bacon – that’s bacon that’s been coated with a mixture of brown sugar, ground pecans and a touch of cayenne and baked in the oven until sticky and crispy and sweet and porky and smoky and spicy and oh my. I love bacon just as much as I love cocktails, and this is bacon taken to another level … a very, very excellent level. Have a look:
Their appetizers are wonderful, and if we have enough of us going we tend to get them all and split them; I’m particularly fond of the fried chicken livers with pepper jelly, boudin balls with Creole mustard sauce and the aforementioned bacon. The lunch time po-boys are good, and all of the dinner entrées have been outstanding. Saturday and Sunday brunch (8:00am – 2:30pm) is a particularly great time to go — they feature old-school Creole classics like calas (rice fritters), veal grillades with grits, plus Southern-style shrimp and grits and their insanely good French toast stuffed wtih strawberries and cream cheese, made with local French bread. It’s homey, very casual and friendly, and the portions are absolutely Gargantuan so bring a lot of people. (A longer look at a recent visit to Elizabeth’s, with more pictures, is here.)
My favorite po-boys in the city (with one minor exception) are at Parkway Bakery and Tavern, 538 Hagan Ave. corner Toulouse, on Bayou St. John in Mid-City, 2.2 miles from the hotel and a 6-8 minute cab ride. The po-boys are just stunning, whether you get the perfectly fried seafood, the tender roast beef swimming in gravy, potato, meatball or a variety of sausages, it’s just po-boy perfection. Parkway is intensely beloved of locals, so do yourself a favor and pile into a cab for a trip to Mid-City.
Although I do love the hot sausage po-boy at Parkway … there’s one place that in that single category wins out. There’s a place called Gene’s Po-Boys, 1040 Elysian Fields Ave. at St. Claude, about 6 minutes away by cab or a bit longer on the 88 St. Claude bus, which you can catch at Conti and N. Rampart. It’s a giant, shocking pink building. It looks like a hole in the wall, which it is. The menu is extremely limited — only four items, maybe five. The only one you’re interested in is the Hot Sausage Po-Boy with Cheese. It is, as New Orleans’ first restaurant critic Richard Collin might say, a Platonic dish — the ideal, the apotheosis, the achievement of perfection in a dish. The sausage is beyond delicious, peppery and beautifully seasoned. The bread is classic New Orleans po-boy bread — light and airy, not chewy, with a thin and crisp crust. The sandwich is dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mayonnaise and the cheese is processed American, although I suppose you could get Swiss, but don’t. The sandwich is then toasted in the oven for a few minutes before serving, and this is the magic touch. In fact, I’m going to show you a picture of one:
It really is worth the trip. If I had to pick a last meal, it’d probably be this (along with a huge pile of perfect French fries and a large plate of red beans and rice.) Gene’s was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood, and we were worried they wouldn’t be back; I’m so happy they are. (They look about the same as before too, only a bit shinier.) And although Gene’s is open 24 hours, I strongly recommend going there during the day.
Speaking of restaurant resurrection, there’s one place that has the most amazing story of all. If you want to visit a true New Orleans treasure (and if you have time to wait), then you must visit Willie Mae’s Scotch House, 2401 St. Ann St. at Tonti, a block off Orleans avenue and 1.6 miles from the hotel in the Tremé/Lafitte neighborhood. On August 29, 2005, Willie Mae Seaton’s restaurant and adjoining home of 50 years was completely destroyed. In an amazing tale of dedication and humanity, people from all over the country, organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance, chipped in money and labor and rebuilt her restaurant from the ground up. Miss Willie Mae makes the best fried chicken in this and all other universes, although at 92 she’s slowed down a bit, and her great-grandaughter does most of the cooking. There’s no menu — you go in, sit down and they tell you what they’ve got that day. Get the fried chicken, and anything else that looks or sounds good, or that they particularly recommend. Be patient, as it’s generally a one- or two-person operation. Get there early or late — hours are 11am to 3pm Mon-Sat, and going just at opening or a half-hour before closing means the shortest wait. Bask in chicken heaven.
Y’know, really … whether you want to try these places or not, you almost can’t go wrong in New Orleans as long as you stick with the locals and avoid all tourist traps or national chains (if I see any of y’all going into Hooters or Subway I’ll throttle you myself!). Ask a local if you’re ever unsure, and you’ll do pretty well. These are some special places for me, and if I think of more I’ll update the post.
In the meantime, just remember — in New Orleans, alcohol, butter, cream and big piles of fried seafood are still good for you.