Vegetables

By Gwen Ashley Walters | MAY 28, 2013 | TRAVEL EATS

Willie-Mae's-Sign

Are you keeping a food bucket list? You know, a list of places you must eat at before you die?

If so, put the fried chicken from New Orleans’ Willie Mae’s Scotch House on your list. You might want to scooch it up above others on your list, especially if you’ve already crossed off gems like Cafe du Monde and Commander’s Palace.

Fried-Chicken-3-piece

You may be asking, why Willie Mae’s? A New Orleans’ local told me it was over-hyped. And then she told me she had never been.

You can’t say something isn’t worth it if you’ve never tried it. Turns out, she didn’t want to bother with the lines that formed since the place was featured on every food TV show from here to Timbuktu, including Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.

Well, friends, I have tried it and I’m here to tell you, a plate of Willie Mae’s fried chicken ought to be on your bucket list somewhere. Top, middle or bottom? That depends on how much you adore fried foods.

Fried-Okra

Willie Mae Seaton opened Willie Mae’s Scotch House as a bar in the late 1950′s, but it was the soul food cooking that made her a success. Smothered pork chop, fried okra, red beans and rice — and of course, that fried chicken.

For me, the fried chicken is the only reason to go. The other dishes are good, but that fried chicken is GREAT. It is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten, and I’ve had some great fried chicken in my lifetime, including a mighty fine plate at the Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta.

Red-Beans-and-Rice

The recipe is top secret, but from watching every video I could find on the matter, plus peeking into the kitchen on multiple, unnecessary trips to the bathroom, this much I know:

The chicken is salted and seasoned with a secret spice mix that looks like any other Creole spice mix. It’s dipped into a wet batter (thinner than pancake batter) and carefully dropped into a large vat of boiling oil — I’m guessing peanut oil. No cast iron skillets here — this is serious, deep-fried chicken.

If only I could describe the crunch, the steam, the aroma, the juiciness of Willie Mae’s chicken with the credit it deserves. For a moment, the world stood still. Fireworks went off in my brain with that first bite, and didn’t stop until I’d picked the bones clean and licked my greasy fingers.

I was on a fried chicken high for days. Honestly, I don’t even remember what I ate after that.

Fried-Chicken

Located in the oldest African-American neighborhood in America, Willie Mae’s Scotch House won the “American Classic” award from the James Beard Foundation in 2005, just a few months before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the legendary old, white house.

Chicken-Fixn

Thanks to the non-profit Southern Foodways Alliance and the generosity of chefs, musicians, and food lovers from all over, Willie Mae’s restaurant was rebuilt and re-opened in 2007.

It’s a 30-40 minute walk from the French Quarter, but only a 10-minute cab ride.

I don’t care how you get there — cab, bus, walk, or two-step — just get there.

It might just be the best fried chicken you’ve ever tasted, too.

Details:

Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 Saint Ann Street
New Orleans
504-822-9503
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday

By Gwen Ashley Walters | MAY 19, 2013 | TRAVEL EATS

Stanleys-Eggs-Benedict
There is no wrong way to spend a gastronomical day in New Orleans’ French Quarter, but if you only have a few hours to spend on this hallowed ground, narrowing down the multitude of options can be nerve-racking for a food-loving first timer.

Here are four classic eateries, plus a little lagniappe in between, that you can reasonably fit in a 7- or 8-hour day. If you’ve got the stamina and stomach room, this tour de eats will satisfy the soul as well as the belly, and give you a feel for why millions make the trek to the Quarter to worship at the church known as NOLA cuisine.

Before you take off on this gluttonous journey, you should do two things: wear comfortable shoes in addition to comfortable clothes. This tour includes some footwork in addition to fork work.

Ready? Get set. Go.

Cafe-Du-Monde

I don’t care if you have been to Café du Monde 1,000 times; no trip to the Quarter is complete without a trio of hot beignets and a cup of café au lait. It just isn’t. You could buy a box of beignet mix to take home, but you’ll never recreate the magic that comes from eating them at the source.

Walk around Jackson Square across the street from Café du Monde and admire the local artists’ wares while you dust off the powdered sugar from your clothes. You may be tempted to stop at Restaurant Stanley on the northeast corner of the square for Breaux Bridge Benedict (with country ham and house made boudin, pictured at top).

Johnnys Sign

But save that sit-down restaurant for another day and make your way over to Johnny’s Po-Boys on St. Louis Street. You won’t be the only person with the same idea.

Johnnys Interior

Even if it’s only 9 a.m., skip the breakfast items and get the shrimp po’boy (unless you can’t have shrimp, in which case you should get the beastly roast beef).

There isn’t a better po’boy inside the Quarter and eating in New Orleans without having a po’boy is like tossing a penny in a fountain without making a wish.

Johnnys PoBoy

Johnny’s shrimp po’boy starts with Leidenheimer bread, as all po’boys worth their crumb do — it has a particularly light, winsome flake to the thin crust, and an ultra-tender interior.  Stuffed with a generous amount of thickly breaded, crisp, fried shrimp and “dressed” with pickles, lettuce, tomato and a light touch of mayo, it’s a fine specimen of the New Orleans’ classic.

French-Quarter-Balcony

After beignets and po’boys, you’re full and you need to walk. The French Quarter covers almost a square mile (.66) and every inch is worth exploring. The west side, bordered by Canal Street, is mostly commercial, and the east side, bordered by Esplanade Avenue, is mostly residential. The architecture throughout is a captivating mix of French, Spanish and Creole.

GlassFence

Some homeowners have put their own artistic spin on their property, like this fence covered in glass flowers. It’s just one of dozens of eye-candy treats waiting for you as you stroll the residential side of the Quarter.

MapFrenchQuarter

Before you land at the next stop, Central Grocery & Deli on Decatur between Saint Phillip and Dumaine Streets, walk up and down some of the residential streets like Barracks, Governor Nicholls and Ursulines Avenue.

Central Grocery Sign

I’m including Central Grocery with some trepidation, based on my most recent visit, but for a food lover, I still think it is a mandatory stop.

Central-Grocery-Interior

Founded in 1906 by a Sicilian immigrant, Central Grocery has retained it’s old-world charm. It’s fun to wander the few but fully stocked rows of imported Italian goods, but the reason most tourists (and locals) come to this long, narrow grocery with a creaky, wooden floor is for the venerable sandwich invented here: the muffuletta.

Muffaletta

The large, round Italian bread is topped with toasted sesame seeds is split in half and layered with thinly sliced salami, ham and provolone.

It’s topped with a garlicky, oily, olive and caper chopped salad with plenty of dried oregano.

Muffaletta-Interior

There is something special about eating this monster of a sandwich (a whole is $14, half is $7) at a counter in the back of the deli, elbow-to-elbow with like-minded foodists that makes it worth the stop, even if the bread is a little dry, as it was on my last visit.

Now you need a little time for the muffuletta to settle, so head over to Kitchen Witch Cookbooks on Toulouse Street between Royal and Chartres Streets.

KitchenWitchSign

If you do the aforementioned weaving up and down every street between Dumaine and Tolouse, you’ll burn more calories and see more of the Quarter. Couldn’t hurt. Tolouse is the 3rd street over from Dumaine Street. 

Kitchen-Witch-Interior

I could spend all day in Kitchen Witch. This gem of a store is owned by Philipe LaMancusa and Debbie Lindsey, who are charming and warm and bursting with fascinating stories about the thousands of old and new books in their store.

Last year, I picked up a 1982 edition of Time Life Books American Cooking: Creole & Acadian, and this year, I found a copy of The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook, filled with recipes printed by the Crescent City newspaper from the turn of the century. Every cookbook lover, heck, every food lover should visit this amazing store.

Kitchen-Witch-Interior2

After perusing cookbooks for a while, I imagine you are in need of a little nourishment. After all, beignets, po’boys and a muffuletta can only take you so far.

I found the perfect spot — with the perfect late-afternoon pick-me-up treat — to end the tour.

Croissant-dOR-Patisserie

From Kitchen Witch you’ll have to hike a few blocks back to the residential area, but the reward is the irresistibly sweet Le Croissant d’Or Patisserie.

Croissant-and-Coffee

Sweeter still is a strong cup of coffee and the most sublime almond croissant I’ve ever tasted.

Almond-Croissant

Soft, buttery, flaky and oh-so-almond-y, this simple pastry is more than a just reward for a long day of eating-walking-eating-walking.

It is an old friend even though you’ve never met. It is the consolation prize for aching feet. It is pure, unadulterated joy and the perfect punctuation mark to encapsulate the French Quarter Tour de Eats.

Dinner, anyone?

French Quarter Tour de Eats Details:
Cafe Du Monde
800 Decatur Street
504-525-4544

Restaurant Stanley
547 St. Ann Street
504-587-0093

Johnny’s Po-Boys
511 St. Louis Street
504-524-8129

Central Grocery
923 Decatur Street
504-523-1620

Kitchen Witch Cookbooks
631 Tolouse Street
504-528-8382

Le Croissant d’Or Patisserie
617 Ursulines Avenue
504-524-4663

By Gwen Ashley Walters | APRIL 09, 2013 | TRAVEL EATS

BBQ-Shrimp-Poboy
“How far is it?” I asked Laura, the easy-going, pretty blond bartender at Johnny White’s Corner Pub in New Orleans.

After a solid day of walking up and down every street in the French Quarter (it’s about 24,000 steps in case you track those sorts of things), I plopped down on a stool in front of her to get off my feet and wet my whistle.

While Laura was pouring me a Strawberry Harvest Ale, a gift from the Abita salesman sitting to my right, I had asked her where I should go to get a taste of something really special, something only locals know about.

She thought about it for minute, and said “Liuzza’s, By The Track. They have a BBQ shrimp po’boy that’s not like any other, but I have to warn you, it’s rich. Really rich.”

That’s OK, I can handle rich, but perhaps I should walk to the house of richness to offset some of the calories.

Secretly, I was hoping it was far enough to burn substantial calories, but not too far to reach by foot. I was without wheels and didn’t want to bother with cabs or buses.

Laura said she thought it might be 5 miles, give or take. Abita sales guy thought I shouldn’t walk there, especially alone — too dicey.

Laura rolled her eyes and said it was perfectly safe — especially in broad daylight.

Washateria

“Just go straight up Esplanade Avenue until you get to the corner with a Washateria. Turn right there, and it’s down the street on the right.”

Who calls Laundromats “Washaterias?” Anyway, there Liuzza’s was, just down the street from the washateria, only a couple blocks from the race track.

Liuzza-Sign

That race track, by the way, is where the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is held (this year’s April 26-May 5 headliners are Billy Joel, John Mayer & Fleetwood Mac.)

Liuzza-Exterior

It’s not much to look at from the outside, but that, to me, is generally a good sign, especially in New Orleans.

Liuzza-Interior
The inside is cozy and tidy, with all kinds of paraphernalia relating to horse racing, from old black-and-white photos to the flat screen TV tuned to … horse racing.

Jockey

Even the statute by the door is a reminder that this place lives and dies by the race track.

I’m sure the rest of the menu is fine and dandy, but that BBQ shrimp po’boy, the house specialty, is something to bet on.

BBQ-Shrimp-Poboy2

A pan-toasted “pistolette” (about half the size of a baguette) is cut in half and the soft bread on the inside is torn out to make room for a heaping portion of New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp.

What’s New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp? It’s got nothing to do with smoking or grilling or with BBQ sauce as we know it. This is a thing all unto itself.

Fresh, gulf shrimp is sautéed in a peppery, garlicky butter “gravy” enhanced with a splash of soy (generally it’s Worcestershire sauce, but in Liuzza’s case, it’s just soy).

BBQ-Shrimp-Poboy3

From our hotel in the French Quarter, Liuzza’s was a three-and-some-change-mile walk. Round trip, I walked close to seven miles.

And I’d gladly do it again for another shot at this insanely delicious, knife-and-fork specialty of Liuzza’s By The Track.

Details:
BBQ Shrimp po’boy ($14.95)
Liuzza’s By The Track
1518 N. Lopez, New Orleans
504-218-7888

By Gwen Ashley Walters | JANUARY 20, 2013 | TRAVEL EATS

Mac-Dog

In 2010, I put hot dogs on my Sweet 16 food trends list for 2011.

Not only had food trucks specializing in “haute” dogs popped up, like Short Leash in Phoenix, but high-end restaurants were embracing the ballpark standard, tucking it between filet mignon and grilled snapper.

I figured it wouldn’t be long before brick & mortar doggy joints popped up.

Mac-Dog-Interior

And they did. In September of 2011, Top Chef alum Richard Blais opened HD1 in Atlanta.

2012 saw even more openings: Bangers (Austin);  The Bowery (Dallas); Brat Haüs (Scottsdale, AZ); and Handlebar & Grill (Tempe, AZ).

I would venture a guess that a haute hot dog joint has opened recently in your city, too.

HD1 seems to be holding its own, and the menu is still mostly dogs of all barks of life. Reports of two-hour waits on weekends means Bangers, located on the trendy, pub-populated Rainey Street near downtown Austin, is doing a bang up job.

The others have had varying degrees of success, receiving lukewarm receptions from both critics and customers.

Exterior The Bowery

Situated in prime uptown Dallas real estate, The Bowery “temporarily closed” on December 26, noting on their Facebook page that they are relocating. When I dined there recently, my server said they had already re-tooled the menu since opening last summer, dropping the less successful dogs, and adding more burgers and sides.

Chili-Kicker

The Brat Haüs in Scottsdale also revamped it’s menu within six months of opening, dropping the pup count down to 9 from an opening high of 13, expanding their sides and salads, and adding a whole new section of entrees, like meatloaf and fried chicken and waffles.

MacNCheese

The menu at Handlebar & Grill in Tempe, which opened last September, has already been reprinted at least once, dropping a dog and tweaking a few other items. The emphasis is now (maybe it always was, but it seems even more so now) on the beer side of the equation – not the sausages, even though Handlebar is smart enough to leave the sausage making to  Schriener’s, arguably the best sausage maker in town.

It seems that, at least for some restaurateurs, haute dogs aren’t hot enough.

I have a theory as to why. One word.

Southwest-Burger

Hamburgers. Yep, as much as Americans *think* they love hot dogs… and they do — on street corners and at ballparks, state fairs and Costco… they just can’t picture themselves eating a hot dog on a regular basis, even if it is gussied up with root beer braised onions or velvety mac ‘n cheese.

The hamburger, though, is a totally different animal. And we simply can’t get enough of the latter, gussied up or not.

What do you think? Do you eat hot dogs weekly or on a regular basis? Would you rather eat a hot dog or a hamburger?

By Gwen Ashley Walters | MAY 13, 2012 | TRAVEL EATS

Editor’s note: The Acadiana region of  Louisiana is made up of 22 parishes, mostly in the southern part of the state. At the heart of Cajun Country is Lafayette, where we set up “camp” to explore the surrounding towns in search of boudin. Here’s our report.

Mr. Wally Johnson doesn’t know why he spelled “TO-DAY” with a dash, but he did and it stuck.

The iconic red and white sign sways in the breeze, but it wasn’t the first sign Mr. Johnson painted. The first one wore out and he couldn’t bear to toss it, so it hangs above the pot that holds the Cajun specialty inside Johnson’s Boucaniere in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Boudin (pronounced boo-DAN) is a big deal in Cajun Country and in other rural parts of Southern Louisiana. Calvin Trillin and others have written about it. Websites are dedicated to it, including the Southern Boudin Trail, a documentary project from the Southern Foodways Alliance, and Boudin Link, a letter-grade ratings guide to dozens of boudin outlets.

A riff on the rural French sausages boudin noir (with pig’s blood) and boudin blanc (without), Cajun boudin is even more countrified.

To stretch the precious pork further, Acadians add rice to their boudin, making it even whiter than boudin blanc. It makes total sense. The swampy wetlands of Southern Louisiana are rife with rice fields.

Boudin recipes are a point of pride and closely guarded secrets. They vary from gas stations to meat markets (where most boudin is sold) to restaurants. Ask any local and they’ll tell you where to get the best boudin — and it’s unlikely you’ll get the same answer twice.

Most recipes are some variation of pork (usually braised shoulder meat), most times enriched with pork liver, but not always, rice, onions (generally yellow onions and sometimes scallions), red and black pepper, sometimes garlic powder, and sometimes parsley.

The soft, squishy sausage is sold by the link, but priced by the pound. Generally a link is between $1.50 and $2.00.

It’s wrapped in paper and usually eaten as a to-go breakfast or snack somewhere between the counter and the parking lot. Boudin is an original slow, fast food.

Poche’s Meat Market sits along a stretch of highway north of I-10 and the town of Breaux Bridge, about 15 minutes east of Lafayette.

Poche’s boudin simmers on low in big aluminum stockpots. It’s rice and spice heavy with plenty of moisture.

The recipe for Wally Johnson’s boudin has been in his family long before 1937, the year Johnson’s Grocery opened in Eunice, about 40 miles northwest of Lafayette.

The grocery closed in 2005, but three years later the family opened a smokehouse restaurant in Lafayette that continues to serve the family boudin, as well as other Cajun and BBQ specialties.

After 75 years of practice, the Johnson family has perfected the porky link. Balanced between pork, rice, and spice, it’s neither too wet, nor too dry — a fine specimen.

Back in Breaux Bridge, Charlie-T Specialty Meats steams boudin in a rice cooker on the counter behind the cash register.

The natural casing has plenty of snap, and the flavor is heavy on onion and light on pepper. Ask at the Breaux Bridge Visitor’s Center where to get house made boudin, and Charlie-T is on the short list.

Once upon a time, every gas station made their own, but nowadays, most gas stations buy their boudin from meat markets like Poche’s and others.

Rental cabins on the edge of Breaux Bridge may seem like an odd place to find great homemade boudin. Bayou Boudin & Cracklin, the little store in front of Bayou Cabins used to be a cafe.

No longer a full service restaurant, Bayou Boudin & Cracklin still serves up a mess of Cajun specialties, including boudin.

Cut into pieces and flavored with a good dose of liver and pepper, this boudin is thick and rich, best washed down with a glug of homemade root beer.

Don’s Specialty Meats opened in Carencro in 1993, just a few minutes north of Lafayette, and opened a second location in 2005 in Scott, on the northwestern edge of Lafayette. Don’s boudin, a favorite of the Buchanan Lofts innkeeper in downtown Lafayette, sports more meat than rice, with a subtle but building pepper kick.

 You can throw a rock in any direction in Cajun Country and likely hit a link of boudin. Most of them will be good.

These five — Johnson’s, Poche’s, Charlie-T, Bayou Boudin & Cracklin, and Don’s — are some of the best.

Is it crazy to build a trip around a boudin hunt? We don’t think so. In fact, we ran into a couple from Houston on the same mission. But if it is, call us nuts. And happily stuffed.

Details:

Where to stay:

Buchanan Lofts
403 South Buchanan Street, Lafayette, LA
337-534-4922

Where to eat boudin:

Johnson’s Boucaniere
1111 Saint John Street, Lafayette, LA
337-269-8878

Poche’s Meat Market
3015 Main Highway A, Breaux Bridge, LA
337-332-2108

Charlie-T Specialty Meat
530 Berard Street, Breaux Bridge, LA
337-332-2426

Bayou Boudin & Cracklin’
100 W. Mills Avenue, Breaux Bridge, LA
337- 332-6158

Don’s Specialty Meats
730 I 10 S Frontage Rd  Scott, LA
(337) 234-2528

Resources:

Southern Boudin Trail

Boudin Link

By Gwen Ashley Walters | APRIL 01, 2012 | TRAVEL EATS

“I don’t get it,” my reluctant dining companion said. “It’s just a sandwich.”

I’ll admit the po’boy is technically a sandwich, but — and this is a BIG but — it is not  just a sandwich. Po’boys are as iconic as gumbo or étouffée in New Orleans, where they originated, and even throughout southern Louisiana.

The story goes that during a streetcar strike in 1929, the owners of the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant, both of whom had worked as streetcar operators, fed striking workers free sandwiches, calling out “here comes another poor boy” as hungry strikers walked through the door. The strikers lost, but the “poor boy” name stuck.

Who knows if the story is true, or what the original po’boy was comprised of, although these days anything goes, including fried shrimp, oysters, catfish, ham, all manner of sausages, roast beef, and yes, even French fries.

Somewhere along the way, “poor boy” was shortened to “po’boy,” although New Orleans Magazine is making a gallant — if futile – attempt to reinstate the original “poor boy” moniker. Good luck with that.

On a recent trip to New Orleans and Cajun Country, I wasn’t on a mission to eat as many po’boys as I could, but once you taste one, you’re bound to crave another.

We began at Domilise’s in New Orleans, based on a tip from Phoenix food blogger Dominic Armato of Skillet Doux. It’s a 15-20 minute cab ride from the French Quarter, west of the Garden district and two blocks north of the Mississippi River in a modest neighborhood on Annunciation Street.

I didn’t know it at the time, but these po’boys would be the best of the trip. Maybe it’s because of the bread, with a particular crust — crisp but not flaky — and a tender crumb. The bread, from Leidenheimer Baking Company, is delivered twice daily in tall, brown paper sacks holding bundles of nearly 3-feet long baguettes.

Maybe it’s the old charm of Domilise’s itself, with octogenarian Dot Domilise still standing at the counter assembling sandwiches, that makes these po’boys stand out.

They are everything a po’boy should be: simple, hot and delicious.

Order it “dressed” and you get sliced tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce, and a thick slather of mayo. Depending on the po’boy, other “dressings” are added — hot sauce on the shrimp po’boy and “chili ketchup” and creole mustard on the pork sausage. Roast beef gets “debris” — aka, gravy.

Our next stop was Lafayette, anointed the best small town for food by Rand McNally in 2011 and recently christened “Tastiest Town in the South” by Southern Living magazine.

Ask around, and locals will tell you the best po’boy is at Olde Tyme Grocery, near the University of Louisiana Lafayette.

For comparison, I ordered the shrimp po’boy. Inside this half market – half restaurant is a confusing scene, but you order at one counter, and then cool your heels until it’s ready at a separate counter where you pay.

The bread is crustier than Domilise’s, and the shrimp are slightly larger and have more cornmeal and spices in the breading. It’s a close second.

A short 15-minute car ride east from Lafayette to Breaux Bridge, we learn that Le Café is the place for po’boys.

They apparently make a mean hamburger, too, but if you’re hankering for a po’boy, Le Café is the place.

Le Cafe’s version is different from the previous two, but the shrimp is plump and sweet. The batter is thick, flour only (no cornmeal) with mild seasonings. The bread is different, too, softer and less bread-y in the center.

I liked it — alot — but there was something more appealing about the first two po’boys that put this one a notch below. If I was in Breaux Bridge again, would I stop at Le Café for another one? You betcha. The shrimp was cooked perfectly and the batter was over-the-top crunchy.

Our next stop was Baton Rouge, and this time I called on chef/blogger/radio host Jay Ducote of Bite and Booze for some expert guidance. He gave us several options, and we settled on two — one dive and one upscale bistro.

George’s, the dive, has three locations in Baton Rouge. We chose the original one, located next to an overpass. Order at the counter and pay when they call your name and hand over the food.

There is a lot to crow about George’s shrimp po’boy, from the crackly crust to the highly seasoned flour breading to the plump, juicy shrimp, to the minimal amount of “dressing,” ensuring the shrimp is the star.

I’d put George’s shrimp po’boy just behind Domilise’s and the Old Tyme Grocery.

The next stop, Beausoleil, is the kind of bistro any neighborhood would be lucky to have. Topnotch service, a chalkboard listing local purveyors, and a menu full of gussied-up regional specialties made me wish we were staying in Baton Rouge longer than a quick pit stop.

I desperately wanted to try the fried chicken special, or the fried catfish with tomato courtboullion and dirty rice, but I’d come for the shrimp po’boy.

I have mixed feelings about this one. Oh, I ate every bite and enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help think that this could be even better on different bread.

The shrimp were fat and lightly breaded, so sweet and succulent, and the spicy aioli was terrific. The tomato was ripe and juicy, and the upgraded butter lettuce was a nice touch, too. I just didn’t like the soft-crusted, thin bread as much as others that came before.

I thought I’d had my fill of shrimp po’boys, but that wasn’t the case. At the New Orleans airport, waiting for a flight back to Phoenix, I caught the unmistakeable whiff of fried shrimp.

Following my nose, I marched past the lengthy line at Subway to The Praline Connection, with no line, and ordered my last shrimp po’boy.

All I can say is why were those people standing in line at Subway, when a few feet away was another tasty po’boy?

A bucketful of small, cornmeal crusted shrimp on a toasted French loaf, this po’boy was very good. Certainly better than anything at Subway.

Oh, and my reluctant dining partner who thought a po’boy was just a sandwich? Let’s just say I left him here, somewhere in the Atchafalaya Basin, to kindly explain that faux pas to the alligators. I wonder how that worked out?

Details:

Domilise’s
5240 Annunciation Street, New Orleans, LA
504-899-9126

Old Tyme Grocery
218 West St. Mary Blvd., Lafayette, lA
337-235-8165

Le Café
123 Rees Street, Breaux Bridge, LA
337-332-2500

George’s
2943 Perkins Road, Baton Rouge, LA
225-343-2363

Beausoleil
7731 Jefferson Highway, Baton Rouge, LA
225-926-1172

The Praline Connection at Louis Armstrong International Airport
900 Airline Drive, Kenner, LA
504-465-8447

By Gwen Ashley Walters | MARCH 25, 2012 | TRAVEL EATS


Sitting at Cafe du Monde (a must on any trip to New Orleans), my phone buzzes.

I wipe beignet grease and powdered sugar from my hands and check the message. It’s from a Twitter chef buddy, asking if I’ve had the fried chicken at Coop’s Place.

“No,” I say, “I haven’t even heard of Coop’s Place.” Frankly, fried chicken wasn’t on my agenda. I only had eyes for crawfish, boudin, étouffée and shrimp po’boys (or poor boys — more on that in another post).

“Well,” my chef friend writes, “You have to go.” So I did.

Coop’s Place has been around since 1983. It isn’t so much off the beaten path — it’s on Decatur Street east of the French Market — but only locals and food-centric tourists who don’t mind a little seedy bar venture that far east. Make no mistake, Coop’s Place is a bar first, a restaurant second.

The interior is dimly lit and Cajun music blares. The only open tables are for large parties, so a bartender waves me to the bar, half full with locals sucking down Bloody Mary’s at the crack of noon.

I pick a barstool near a back corner of the “A” shaped bar, next to an old barfly sporting a USS Brooklyn ball cap.

He’s reading the paper and his tall cocktail glass is tucked in a coozie, so I can’t see what he’s drinking. He’s friendly enough, and he moves his paper over to make room.

He tells me his name is Brooklyn Joe, and he’s a regular, been coming to Coop’s Place for eight years, ever since he moved to New Orleans from New York. His thin, wiry hair sticks out willy nilly, but his arms seem thinner still. He says he gave himself a nickname because there were several Joes who work at Coop’s, plus a couple other regular Joe customers.

I take a look around, and stare for a moment at a pretty but sad-looking woman wearing a pinafore in the picture over the fireplace.

“That’s Aunt Ella,” Joe says, “Or that’s the name we gave her. We make up stories about who she was. Maybe she was a nurse, or maybe she ran a boarding house. She’s wearing some kind of uniform.”

I turn back around and notice my forearms stick to the wooden bar, thick with a couple of decades of spilled booze filling every nook and cranny of the worn wood. Fluorescent bulbs cast a yellow glow over everything and everyone, and fans spin at a snail’s pace, moseying the humid air along. The place has character, and Brooklyn Joe is very much a part of the vernacular.

The mission at hand is Cajun fried chicken, although the house specialties portion of the menu insists on seafood gumbo, and rabbit and sausage jambalaya. Fortunately, the fried chicken comes with a side of “famous” jambalaya.

By the time the plate arrives, I’ve made fast friends with Brooklyn Joe. He’s fussing about the Republican primary taking place the next day, snickering about how the candidates were all-of-a-sudden lifelong crawfish and oyster lovers.

Joe looks like he has missed a few meals, so when my plate of chicken arrives, I ask if he wants to split it with me.

His eyes widen, and his face lights up. “Why, yes!” he says, “But only if you have enough.”

He didn’t know that I’d already had a plate of Cafe du Monde beignets, and before the end of the day, I would sample four more New Orleans specialties. To me, there is nothing as delicious as sharing food with someone, especially someone who isn’t as lucky as I am.

We got another plate, and I placed a piece of the most fragrant, dark crusted chicken I’ve seen in a long time on his plate. I gave him half of the thick jambalaya and half of the creamy coleslaw.

He takes a few bites of the jambalaya first, and says, “I might have to take my hat off.”

Why? I ask.

“This is ha-ha-ha-hot!!!” he cries.

After eight years in the Quarter, Brooklyn Joe still hasn’t developed a taste for spice.

But he ate every bite.

And so did I.

 

Coop’s Place

1109 Decatur Street

New Orleans

(504) 525-9053

http://www.coopsplace.net

 

 

By Gwen Ashley Walters | FEBRUARY 26, 2012 | TRAVEL EATS

I always listen carefully when someone gives me a tip about good grub — especially when that someone is Dan Maldonado (half of the dynamic duo behind Tacos Atoyac, an outstanding Oxacan street food restaurant). He recently told me to get to a new Puerto Rican spot, so of course, I obliged.

El New Yorican, opened since last July, is run by a happy, smooth-talking guy named Alberto Rivera, a bona fide New Yorican (meaning a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent). Later I learn that Rivera sold discounted brand name goods at a flea market, where he met his chef, Haydee Sanchez, who operated the booth next to his. He longed for Puerto Rican food; she said she could cook it, and bam! They opened a restaurant.

It isn’t easy to spot whizzing down the busy West Thomas Road just west of I-17. I call for directions and Rivera tells me “we’re next to the pawn shop, across the street from the QT.” I ask if he’s on the north side of Thomas and he yells to his sister, “hey, are we on the north side?” And then he laughs, apologizing for his befuddled sense of direction. No matter, it was worth the hunt.

I’m more familiar with Cuban than Puerto Rican food, even though the two share some similarities. For some assistance, I grab a girlfriend, an ex-New Yorker familiar with New York Puerto Rican food and we head west. We order as much as we can without keeling over, starting with tostones al mojo ($2). These twice-fried, smashed green plantains are starchy and greasy and good. The two dipping sauces are heavy on the garlic (hence the al mojo), a foreshadowing of what’s to follow.

To wash down the starch, we order an understated coconut-flavored soda called CoCo Rico ($2.50) and our server (Rivera’s sister) suggests we try the Malta India ($2.50). It’s slightly fizzy, dark brown and tastes of molasses. The strong flavor comes in handy, somewhat mitigating the garlicky fare.

Whereas the tostones are a starch delivery mechanism, the pastelilio ($2) is a glorious fat delivery vehicle. A fried, flaky pie crust encapsulates simmered ground beef, onions and peppers. This little meat pie left us giddy with fat-drenched lips. We could have eaten another — or three. A vinegary, garlicky, spicy dipping sauce adds an appropriate punch.

Pernil ($9.99) is a national Puerto Rican dish, often served at Christmastime. Pork shoulder marinated in white vinegar, lots of garlic, black pepper and oregano (the basis of the seasoning mix called adobo), it’s slow-roasted for hours. Textural differences of tender meat and crisp bark play off meaty, porky flavor. Other than the garlic, it’s subtly spiced. We chose yellow rice (although it seemed more orange, perhaps colored with annatto) dotted with pigeon peas over the plain white rice option.

Mofongo (fried, mashed plantains liberally seasoned with garlic) is another Puerto Rican specialty. El New Yorican presents mofongo chicharrones de pollo ($9.99) — fried chicken with mashed plantains — in an interesting way. You can see below that the starch dominates the plate, surrounded by chunks of fried chicken. There is no batter on the chicken, but it, too, is marinated in vinegar and subtle spices. And it is finger-licking good — big seal of approval from my pal, a fried chicken aficionado.

At this point, Rivera returns to our table from the kitchen and says his sister got carried away with the size of the mofongo mound. You don’t say?

After a serious attempt to knock it down, we decided the prudent thing to do was to ask for a to-go box so that we could still pretend to have room from the house-made flan. There was something about that flan — thick as thieves and totally delicious. There wasn’t a speck of it left, save the pool of unnecessary whipped cream we scraped off to the side.

Fortunately for Phoenicians needing a Puerto Rican food fix, there are options. Besides this West side gem, the East Valley boasts a Puerto Rican mainstay, the homey Millie’s Cafe. I’ve found that Millie’s cooking and plating is more home-style. It’s also slightly less expensive. Millie’s pernil is $6.50, and it comes in a styrofoam container with plastic ware — but it is equally delicious.

Millie's Cafe - Pernil

Details:
El New Yorican
2714 West Thomas Road, Phoenix
602-314-4330
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Millie’s Cafe
1616 East Main Street, Mesa
480-223-8217
Open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m to 8 p.m.

By Gwen Ashley Walters | DECEMBER 03, 2011 | TRAVEL EATS

Some cities outright own a particular dish.

Boston? Clam Chowder. Austin? BBQ — beef brisket to be specific. Atlanta? Fried chicken. Santa Fe? Green chile stew.

In Charleston, it’s shrimp & grits.

You can order shrimp & grits in any city these days — Southern food is a hot trend — but in Charleston, it’s not a trend. It is breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it is woven into the very fabric of this historical city. There is hoity-toity shrimp & grits, down-home shrimp & grits, and everything in between.

Here is a look at six Charleston restaurants and their version of the dish that defines this gracious Southern city.

1. Husk: Bon Appetit magazine’s Best New Restaurant, Husk, serves their seasonal shrimp & grits (above) in a bowl with a roasted tomato broth ladled over Anson Mills grits, with artisan sausage, lardons, and plump, jumbo shrimp. (here is the recipe in NYT.)

2. Jestine’s Kitchen: Rachael Ray, Anthony Bourdain and Roadfood’s Jane & Michael Stern all had a hand in putting Jestine’s Kitchen on the national radar for home-cooking Southern grub like meatloaf, fried chicken and of course, shrimp & grits (above). Jestine’s version features soupy grits with a meaty tasting brown gravy, onions and roasted red peppers. Very basic and delicious, although the shrimp were a tad overcooked.

3. Southend Brewery’s shrimp and grits (above) is more akin to cheese soup with tomatoes, Tasso ham and oh yes, shrimp and grits. The tomato wedges didn’t add much — it would have been better had they been diced, but the shrimp was perfectly cooked. Pair it with the hoppy Castle Pinckney Pale Ale.

4. Marina Variety Store: (left) There is always a line at this kitschy, seafaring restaurant overlooking the marina, but it moves quickly. Ask to sit in the front room for the marina view. MVS serves up a whopping plate of plain white grits topped with a modest amount of sauteed shrimp, cooked just right.

The fried green tomatoes pictured on the plate are optional. Adding a dash of hot sauce is not.

5. Poogan’s Porch: (right) uses yellow, coarse ground grits, thick and sturdy, along with a generous helping of onions, scallions, ham, sausage and tail-on shrimp, sauced in a blue crab gravy. I loved the rough and firm texture of the grits. I did not love having to take the tails off the shrimp.

6. Hominy Grill: I saved the best for last (below). Nothing fancy about this shrimp and grits plate. But everything in this dish has a purpose. The grits were firm but creamy. The shrimp were spiced and perfectly cooked. Bits of salty, smoky bacon and meaty mushrooms provide the supporting cast. Green scallions and a spritz of lemon, and this dish is everything I could ask from this humble, Lowcountry dish. If you love this dish as much as I did, pick up a copy of the recipe booklet. It includes the recipe.

 

Details:
All six restaurants are located in the historic district of Charleston.
Husk
76 Queen Street
843-577-2500

Jestine’s Kitchen
251 Meeting Street
843-722-7224

Southend Brewery
161 East Bay Street
843-853-4677

Marina Variety Store
17 Lockwood Drive
843-723-6325

Poogan’s Porch (next door to Husk)
72 Queen Street
843-577-2337

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Avenue
843-937-0930

By Gwen Ashley Walters | OCTOBER 12, 2011 | TRAVEL EATS

It was the best restaurant, it was the worst restaurant. This is a tale of two restaurants. It is, in fact, the same restaurant. On one occasion, I was an anonymous diner, a regular Jane Doe. On another, I was part of a group of professional food journalists. Here is what happened …

Bon Appetit magazine named Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, the Best New Restaurant in America in 2011. Them’s big shoes to fill for sure, because any restaurant lover within spittin’ distance or not, will swarm to the historic port town to see exactly what the fuss is all about. I mean really, a Southern restaurant is the No. 1 restaurant in all the land? Mercy.

Well before Husk was crowned the belle of the ball, I had a trip to Charleston on the books to attend the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists. A lunch at Husk was on the conference agenda, but it was on my personal agenda, too, which is how I ended up at the restaurant the evening before the conference began, just an average customer eager to experience the new mecca of foodiedom.

Jane Doe Diner vs. The Restaurant Critic

It turns out that my first visit as a Jane Doe didn’t go as well as when I was a member of the posse of journalists. Surprising? No, but it does illustrate a point about why professional restaurant critics go to great lengths to dine anonymously when reviewing restaurants.

It’s tough to get a handle on a restaurant with only one visit and I know lots of diners only get one shot. Some diners form their opinion from one visit and then write up the experience on Yelp, or wherever, and call it a “review.” Folks, that is not a review. That is a snapshot of one meal, one experience. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is what it is. But what it isn’t is a review.

If I’d based my impression of Husk from that late Monday evening visit, I’d wonder how in the heck anyone, much less a revered national magazine, thought that Husk was THE best restaurant in the land, let alone in Charleston, a town bulging with great restaurants.

Jane Doe

As Jane and John Doe, we arrive without a reservation at 8 p.m. on a Monday night. The hostess was sweet as sugar and said it would be about an hour wait, but we could pass the time in the bar next door. We did, and the bar was vibrant, bustling, enchanting. In fact, on a later visit, we chose the bar over the restaurant because of the ambiance — and the great craft beers and cocktail prowess of the bearded bartender.

An hour and a half later, thinking they’d forgotten about us, we moseyed back over to the restaurant. We were half right. The hostess said she’d mistakenly “just given away our table to someone else,” oops, but it should only be a few more minutes. It was only 15 minutes more.

Once seated on the second floor balcony (relegated for walk-ins and friends with benefits), I was sure things would go smoother. It was a gorgeous evening and the charming balcony was still full of other diners. But things didn’t go so well. Service was excruciatingly slow. The staff had a few friends dining that night and they couldn’t break away from their tables to attend to ours. There was no explanation of the menu or the restaurant. Service was detached.

It wasn’t just the serving staff that had issues that evening. The kitchen was wallowing in some troubles, too. A server dropped a dish off, with a “here you go” quip before spinning on his heels and walking a few tables over to chat with friends. The dish, fried green tomatoes with a dollop of dry pimento cheese and country ham, was 1) cold; 2) soaked in grease; and 3) rather skimpy, with three, silver dollar size tomato slices. Not impressive.

The Restaurant Critic

Three days later at the journalists’ luncheon, rustic serving pieces bearing hot, palm-size slabs of fried green tomatoes, with no apparent puddles of grease, were placed on the table with much fanfare. The pimento cheese was fresh, not dry, and the ham was obviously sliced with care. It was miles superior to the dish I had three days earlier.

Jane Doe

On Monday night, Jane Doe ordered the cornmeal dusted catfish with corn, cabbage and peas. The catfish, a generous portion, was more airbrushed than dusted with cornmeal. If it hit the pan for more than 30 seconds, I’d be surprised. It was pallid. The kitchen must have put away the salt and spices because this dish was a tasteless mix of lukewarm catfish and corn mush.

The Restaurant Critic

The journalists got the catfish dish that I had hoped for when I ordered it Monday night, but accompanied by BBQ pit bean succotash and pickled sweet peppers. To be honest, the luncheon catfish version, with a golden brown, seared crust and propped up by a pond of smoky beans and fresh corn, still wasn’t seasoned enough to make a lasting impression.

Best in the Land

One thing that was constant between my anonymous dining experience and the polished show for the food journalists was Husk’s cornbread.

Seriously, the cornbread might be the reason for the best restaurant award. I’ve never seen a more award-worthy skillet of crisp-crust, tender-crumb cornbread in my life. The gratuitous sprinkling of sea salt surely sealed the deal. That cornbread will forever be the standard against which I will measure all others.

The Case for Anonymity

On my first visit to Husk, they didn’t know me from the next tourist, and unfortunately, I caught both the kitchen and the front of the house on a bad evening. It happens.

Getting fussed over at the AFJ luncheon was fun … really, how could it not be? My job as a restaurant critic is to report what an average diner might experience. That means I go anonymously. That means I go more than once, on different days of the week and at different times.

Am I picking on Husk because they were named best new restaurant by a food magazine? Not intentionally, but it gives me the opportunity to point out why professional critics visit restaurants anonymously … and more than once.

My opening of the “best and the worst restaurant” was dramatic. In truth, Husk could never be a “worst” restaurant, but being an average one when you only have one shot is just as unfortunate.

Details:
Husk
76 Queen Street, Charleston SC
843-577-2500

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