[Ed. Note: In lieu of our typical Sandwich Monday, Peter posts his New Orleans Food Diary. Why could we not do Sandwich Monday AND a Food Diary? Because Peter is still too full to eat.]
My family and I just returned from four days in New Orleans, and like most tourists to that fair Southern city, we ate like gypsy moths in a hardwood forest.
BREAKFASTS: Taken at our Bed and Breakfast in the mid-town neighborhood, served by a stern breakfast-master who made uninspired waffles and suspect eggs. The grits were instant and still in their Quaker Oaks branded packets, leading to suspicion that the whole thing was a front, created by people from some unpleasant mean place, like New Jersey, merely pretending to be Southern.
The most memorable thing that happened at breakfast all week was the appearance of the Next Door Neighbor (NDN), the guy who was staying in the next room over. He was tall and gangly and somewhat disheveled, and based on his carrying a tripod in his luggage he was either a photographer or a travelling tripod salesman.
NDN would descend to breakfast, skip the eggs and waffles, and pour himself a bowl of Raisin Bran, and then proceed to SLURP and GOBBLE and CHEW and SLOBBERGOBBLE that cereal with a lip-smacking industriousness that, if recorded, could be used by a clever Hollywood sound engineer to indicate one of the hero's friends being eaten by a horrible monster, just off-screen.
As he did this, we, one by one, excused ourselves with our bowls of instant grits, and went out into the courtyard, where we discussed NDN's problem. Was he not married? Meaning, did he live such an isolated life that no one told him that when eating, he sounded like a garbage disposal choking on a spoon? Or was it that he was simply male? My wife and three daughters tended toward the latter explanation.
LUNCH, DAY ONE: Fried Chicken at Willie Mae Scotch House
We were sent here by Kevin Pang, food writer for the Chicago Tribune, who told us that the fried chicken here was the single best thing he had eaten on his latest trip to New Orleans. This surprised me, because first, I had never heard of it (good New Orleans restaurants tend to become famous, like the really good rides at Disneyworld) and second... fried chicken? Really? I have always thought of fried chicken as something that exists on a relatively narrow spectrum from, say, not bad to pretty good. One the one hand, anything deep fried is delicious. On the other hand, in the end, it tastes like chicken. But, we trust Kevin, and the restaurant was just a short walk away, in the Treme neighborhood, so off we went.
This is one of a number of places that we would never have gone to if we hadn't gotten specific orders from a trusted friend to do so. Willie Mae's is one block off the nearest major street, across from what looks like an abandoned school. The place is just two rooms, and if there was anything on the menu other than fried chicken, I don't remember it. We ordered – two piece chicken dinner for one, three piece dinner for another – but when it all came the waiter had piled all the accumulated chicken into one platter, which sat in the center of the table, glowing, like the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction." Most fried chicken is really just a tasty deep-fried breading encasing indifferent meat. But this chicken was perfect, not obviously or overwhelmingly breaded, just crunchy and juicy and delicious from the crunchy skin down to the bone, which my children happily chewed on like dogs. Okay, like puppies. That's cuter.
Best fried chicken ever.
MID-MORNING REPAST, DAY TWO: COFFEE AND BEIGNETS AT CAFÉ DU MONDE
Okay, I know, it's totally a tourist thing, but some total tourist things have to be done, like going to the top of the Blarney Stone or kissing the Eiffel Tower. We got a nice table near the sidewalk, listened to a street musician, and ate a big plate of fresh square doughnuts in a pile of powdered sugar which my daughters – of course – managed to swirl, Jackson Pollock-like, all over their dark clothes. Everybody was delighted, but nothing interesting happened, so instead I'll tell you two stories of prior visits to the Café du Monde:
1990 or thereabouts: My brother was in college at Tulane, and I insisted during one visit that we go to the Café Du Monde, even though he thought the whole idea was ridiculous, a New Yorker rolling his eyes at a visitor wanting to see the Empire State Building. Nonetheless, we went, and ordered up chicory coffee and beignets, and I picked one up and took a big breath before ingesting, thus inhaling a good quarter cup of confectioer's sugar, and as I hacked and coughed and spit, sugar and spit and snot and what have you spraying from my mouth and nose, and my brother looked at me and said, totally dead-pan, "Another thing we do in New Orleans is eat peanuts with warm Scotch," which struck me at the time – and amazingly, still does – as the single funniest thing anyone has ever said. At the moment in question, this led to uncontrollable laughing, leading to more spitting, snot, sugar flying, etc.
1993: I have returned to New Orleans with my girlfriend. We sit, if not exactly at, then near the table we will return to, 18 years later, with our children, and listen to a guy on the sidewalk play "Where the Saints Go Marching In" really badly on a saxophone, before cadging us for change. We ignore him and eat our beignets – myself, proceeding very carefully as I do so. Then the guy puts down his saxophone, and closes his eyes and sings an acapella version of "Amazing Grace" which remains one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I have ever heard. When we get married the next year we hand our all friends the lyrics to the song so everybody can all sing it together. I remember all my Jewish relatives scanning the sheet, worried that the song will mention Jesus. It does not.
LUNCH, DAY TWO – PO-BOYS AT DOMILISE'S
Another place that you would never, ever go to unless somebody told you to, a skanky looking shack on the far southwestern edge of the Uptown neighborhood, near the waterfront. (In the case, our informant was Chillag, who lived in New Orleans, and insisted we make this pilgrimage). You order your sandwiches from the sandwich guy, reading from an enormous menu on the wall, and then go get your beer and Zapp's chips from the bar guy over there. There is some debate in New Orleans over whether these are the best po-boys in existence (a po-boy is sort of a New Orleans submarine sandwich) but if there's a better one than the fried oyster po-boy I had, with perfectly crusty bread and a delicious but not overwhelming sauce and perfectly crispy airy salty oysters, I would like to eat it right now. Rosie loved her fried shrimp po-boy just as much, but Beth was not that impressed with hers, and Willa (aged 7) completely disdained her simple cheese sandwich on Wonder bread, which was such a boneheaded thing to order that I almost disowned her on the spot.
Two more things about Domilise's: everybody else in there was either incredibly obese or frighteningly thin, a pattern I saw repeated around the city. Also, the men's room, which opened right off the dining room, contained only a urinal. This worried me.
DINNER, DAY TWO—MOTHER'S
Mother's is famous for its po-boys, especially their ham and roast beef sandwiches, which include "debris," the delicious, juicy bits of crust and stuff that fall to the cutting board as you slice the meat. Having had a po-boy for lunch, I went for the jambalaya – perfectly fine, with homemade andouille sausage, but the ladies went all in on the Ferdi's Special po-boys, getting enormous delicious meat bombs that they loved but couldn't finish. Gracie, aged 10, zeroed on the Baked Spaghetti, which she gobbled up happily. I don't remember what Willa had. After the cheese sandwich incident, I refused to acknowledge her as my own.
I also began here a practice of ordering bread pudding wherever I went. Mother's is exceptionally good, a lovely gooey sweet mess of a thing.
LUNCH, DAY THREE – DOOKY CHASE'S
We spent the morning at Storyland, a little amusement park in City Park where kids can play in and around recreations of famous scenes from fairy tales: the three little pig's houses, Pinocchio's whale, etc. Gracie and Willa, who had wanted to come here more than any other destination in New Orleans, didn't care for the narratives provided and instead came up with their own tale, which, as far as I could tell, involved being abandoned orphans coping with a veritable army of evil spies, one of whom looked a lot like Pinocchio. "I want some gumbo," said Beth after a while, so I asked my iPhone to show us Creole restaurants in the area, and it came up with Dooky Chase's. Thank you, iPhone.
Dooky Chase's is famous for family-style New Orleans creole cooking, gumbo and chicken and greens and mac and cheese, served in a dining room that bespeaks a certain timeless idea of classy: dark wood molding, white tablecloths, well-dressed waiters. Two Presidents have dined there – President George W. Bush, who brought his friends the Presidents of Mexico and Canada for one meal, and President Obama, who stopped by before his election.
There's also a signed hand-drawn picture of the restaurant's legendary owner, Leah Chase, from the artists who made the Disney animated film, "The Princess and the Frog." "They say Ms. Chase 'inspired,' the story," our hostess told us. "'Inspired' means they don't have to pay her any money.'"
The food: I had the gumbo (pictured), light and delicate. Rosie had it too, and pronounced it her favorite. Willa and Gracie had the buffet, including some great fried chicken and mac and cheese. Highly recommended, especially for anyone who wants to get the heck out of the Quarter and eat something real.
DINNER – DAY THREE – THE UPPERLINE
We went because we knew some friends of JoAnne Clevenger, the owner and hostess. When I dropped the names she smiled brightly and treated us like family, but I quickly figured out I could have walked in and just grunted and she would have done the same. This is a 23-year-old institution in Uptown, just off St. Charles, serving its own variations on New Orleans classics, decorated with work with local artists. We ate our way through the menu, from their famous fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade through the crispy oysters to their gumbo – which, sorry, Ms. Chase, was the best I've ever had. Then, of course, their ridiculously good bread pudding. Even Willa, she of the cheese sandwich, ate everything (including one of my oysters! Which she loved!) and we all marveled and ended up smiling and grinning and rocking back and forth in our seats from the sheer happiness of it all.
After dinner, we went out the Rock n Bowl and bowled and danced to Zydeco music in the new hats we had purchased at Meyer the Hatter on St. Charles St. Willa and I made our peace in re: the sandwich incident. Proof below.