I think I first visited New Orleans (NOLA) in 1995 and have since been back six more times. There are lots of reasons to frequently visit this most unique of American cities and none is more important than the food. NOLA is one of those places where you could never live long enough to experience all the restaurants that would deserve your attention. We got to spend a few days in NOLA recently and were able to put a check mark next to a couple more restaurants on the food bucket list.
One of the most famous chefs in New Orleans is Paul Prudhomme who founded K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and helped bring Cajun and Creole cooking to the nation’s attention. Every night people from all over the world line up to enjoy K-Paul’s take on traditional Louisiana cooking. The restaurant has three kitchens but none includes a freezer. This means that everything is prepared fresh and from as local as possible ingredients. What the menu was yesterday will probably not be what it is today because the same ingredients are not available.
On our way into the city we heard on the local NPR station that K-Paul’s has a daily lunch special they serve on paper rather than their normal China. You also order and pay at a counter and a server will bring your food to you. This cuts the costs and makes it a heck of a deal. Armed with this info it was on our lunch schedule for one of our days in the city. There were four of us and we shared two entrees, a bowl of muffaletta soup, and a couple of sides. The food was absolutely special, great ambiance, fast and friendly staff, and all at a very affordable price considering you were eating in one of America’s most famous restaurants. They call it their Daily-Deli Style Menu and it is one of the best kept secrets in NOLA. Most tourist don’t know about it and hopefully you won’t tell anyone.
Another NOLA legendary cook is Leah Chase. Chase is a 91 year-old matriarch who runs a restaurant in the Treme area of the city and is famous for her gumbo. She also once had her own show on The Food Network. Six of us planned to have lunch at her place, Dooky Chase’s but arrived to discover they were closed for a private function.
Looking across an empty block I spied another of Treme’s famous food joints, Willie Mae’s Scotch House. If you’re a foodie you may have heard of Willie Mae’s where it is claimed the world’s best fried chicken resides. Willie Mae’s is soul food and from the second you walk through the front door you can feel the comfort within.
There were six of us and we all went for the fried chicken which comes with a single side dish and cost about $10. But, you’re going to get more food than you should ever eat at one time and it will be fantastic. The chicken had a crust unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and the meat was incredibly moist. For a side I had red beans over rice which was a meal in itself. All the sides came on a bed of white rice and choices included green beans and butter beans.
Eating at Willie Mae Seaton’s makes you a part of an incredible story that evolved from the horrors of Katrina. Before the storm Willie Mae’s had been awarded the prestigious James Beard American Classic award honoring restaurants helping to keep regional foods alive. The honor came with a plaque which Willie Mae proudly displayed on the wall of her restaurant.
Following Katrina, the elderly Willie Mae was forced to abandon her property and seek shelter in Houston, TX with her family. Worried about her business she left Houston without her family’s knowledge and made her way back to New Orleans. She was found sitting on the step of her ruined restaurant embracing the James Beard plaque in her arms and somehow determined to rebuild.
When word of this spread the food community in America came to her aid. Donations were collected, celebrity chefs from all over flew in to help raise funds, and volunteers paying their own expenses came from around the nation to help rebuild the facility and keep Willie Mae’s soul food alive. In 2006 Willie Mae’s reopened and while Mrs. Mae is still alive the business is managed by her granddaughter.
For supper on Friday several of us went to a French Quarter favorite of mine, The Gumbo Shop on Saint Peter St. This was my third visit to the shop and it’s always been great. Not being too hungry I opted for a cup of chicken andouille gumbo with okra and a side order of jambalaya. Both were excellent and the blackened catfish got a strong review from a table mate.
Here’s a 9 minute video telling a little of the Willie Mae Seaton’s restaurant.