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.
1109 Decatur Street