This past week, Anthony Bourdain visited New Orleans and Cajun Country in what was a true expression of Bourdain’s respect for this precious area and it’s adoration for all things epicurean. This episode isn’t for the faint of heart ~ but if you eat meat, you should be aware that the meat you eat was alive at one point. I’ll leave it at that, if you know what I mean.
I thought this episode captured the essence of this area well. Delight & beware, if you’re like me, you’ll be hungry afterward!!
Fried Chicken from Willie Mae’s Scotch House. A New Orleans institution. Not the absolute best fried chicken I’ve ever had, but pretty damn close, and it’s still something you should experience if you’ve never had it. When you don’t eat salt in your regular diet like me, this is a great fried chicken tasting salt lick. I’m still glad I ignored the locals and tried it (many claim there’s better, despite the fact they all eat here), because my meals were limited this trip, and there’s always next time. It’s a place I wanted to hit before I die, and now I can scratch it off the bucket list. You can skip the fried okra and macaroni & cheese (both VERY disappointing), but do NOT miss the red beans & rice!!!! I wish I had taken a photo, but I devoured half of it before realizing I should have taken a picture. It was the star of the meal!
I’m starting to crave green salad! But knowing this town, they’d fry it!
Things I miss most foodwise about New Orleans that I think about a lot:
The hot sausage po-boys from Gene’s at the corner of Elysian Fields and Saint Claude. Incredible and big as your arm and you want to puke after eating the whole thing but OMG it is good. Plus, just hours after I was in Gene’s it got robbed! I love the fact that it looks like the sketchiest drug money front business in the world and it has all the squalid ambience of a check-cashing joint and where it is located looks like a place one could score crack cocaine 5 feet from the door if they were so inclined and the counterperson was always wild-eyed looking and intelligible like they hadn’t slept for weeks but when your order came out it was so good even though it probably will take a year off your life.
The praline bacon from Elizabeth’s in Bywater. I don’t really even know what a praline is but the bacon tastes like it was deep-fried in liquid sugar or maple syrup and you know it’s wrong wrong wrong and you’re probably gonna die of a heart attack from it but it tastes great.
Big Shot pineapple soda that tastes so good when it’s 95 degrees out. I’ve never seen this anywhere else and it’s like some bargain brand that I got from the Walgreens by where I was staying but it tastes perfect when it’s 95 degrees out.
The Cuban Breakfast special at Cake Cafe (I don’t know if this was Marigny or Bywater), or any breakfast at Cake Cafe, these ladies make one hell of a breakfast.
Abita Purple Haze raspberry wheat beer, there are stores here in Minneapolis that sell Abita but every time I’ve been to them they are sold out of the Purple Haze. The Strawberry Abita is good also but I like the Purple Haze the best.
In the Marigny the R-Bar’s $5.00 Jameson Irish Whiskey shot/longneck beer special. They also had somebody giving $10.00 haircuts (in a bar!!!) but I couldn’t wait out the long line. It would have been cool if co-owner Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins) would have been there, they’ve long been a favorite of mine.
The fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme. I got turned around and confused on my rental bike and almost got lost in the sprawl of Treme and was delirious because it was so hot and humid out (was riding around with a bath towel from my bed & breakfast wrapped around my head because I was sweating so bad) but I will tell you this: They opened 15 minutes early for me, the waiter dude was perfect (he told me straight up what I should order and gave me a shortcut to Domino Sound Record Shack, no bill padding, and was efficient to the point of telepathy), it was undoubtedly the best fried chicken I have ever had in my life. On a $15.00 bill I tipped $10.00. Gladly.
Honorable mentions: The muffaletta at Central Grocery was pretty good but it was a chaotic scene, Flora’s in Bywater had the coffee I liked best, Zapps crawfish potato chips I wish I could get here, had some other Po-Boys and they were all good but couldn’t compare with the mind-bending monstrosities from Gene’s Po-Boys. I got one roast beef po-boy from Gene’s that was like a football of roast beef in a loaf of bread with a gallon of gravy poured over it.
I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface, but the itch is there badly now and I can’t wait to scratch it again. The food in New Orleans is cheap and mind-boggling. It kills Manhattan and San Francisco because it’s mostly everyday food, borderline street food, at fast food prices but just seems so right.
This is a plate of the chargrilled oysters at Drago’s, the place that invented it. Although I appreciate they were the first, I have to say, there are places that now do it better, like Acme Oyster House. That being said, the wood oven roasted oysters I had the other night at Cochon blow this and everything else out of the water! Skip it all, and head straight for Cochon and get 2 orders, it’ll save you the time of ordering again after you’ve tasted them. I mean, even the people next to me ordered seconds, just like I did! It is THAT good. I’m glad I tried Drago’s, but probably won’t return.
And if I had to pick one menu item that stands out above the others, it could be the simple red beans and rice from Wille Mae’s. It’s the simple things I love the best.
I think I’ll have time for one more meal this trip. A quick dinner on Saturday night. I’m thinking oysters again, a perfect paleo meal, but a little arm twisting could get me to devour a whole po’ boy. The problem is, most of the great po’ boy recommendations I’ve gotten close at 5pm, and I’ll be working way past that. Any suggestions on a last meal in New Orleans?
Instead of renting a car while here in New Orleans I rented a bike from Bicycle Michael for a week and it has been a great choice except for the fact that it’s been 95 and humid like a rainforest every single day. NOLA is as flat as a board so biking is fast and easy. Walking is much worse, when you bike the breeze dries off your sweat but when you walk it just gets worse and your hair is soaked and clothes are soaked. The bike is total cheapo hybrid cheeze but has done it’s job so far, getting me out to the Garden District and through Treme and out to Bywater.
Had the best fried chicken by far by a million miles than I have ever had in my life today at Willie Mae’s Scotch Housein Treme. Lots of critics say it’s the best fried chicken in the USA and I do at the very least say that the fried chicken and red beans and rice and iced tea that I had for a late breakfast was my best meal here yet and one of my best ever. I tipped $10.00 on a $15.00 meal, that’s how good it was.
Treme seems 100% black and the difference between Treme and the hipster neighborhoods of Fauborg Marigny and Bywater that I’ve mostly been in are sharp as a knife. Marigny and Bywater are green and leafy and colorful and artsy and full of coffeeshops and bars and every third house is being renovated and ambient music floods the streets. Treme is stark and there is no green, I don’t know if all the trees died or what, and the houses are plain and in disrepair. Treme is dusty and the sun beats down mercilessly and it feels like a construction zone but there isn’t much construction. It felt totally wrong to take photographs in Treme because this is people living and trying to survive. This is one of the areas in the Katrina/levee disaster that the US Government failed and some of the houses still have those spooky occult-looking FEMA cross symbols on them.
Also visited the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art and a small part of City Park but the combination of heatstroke and having had fried chicken and red beans and rice for breakfast made me call it an afternoon early and come back to my air-conditioned room.
On our last day in New Orleans, we felt comfortable enough with the city to try out the bus routes (thanks, mobile Google maps!) to more secluded places. It was easy enough to take cabs from our hotel to outside neighborhoods, but unless you’re in a high-tourist area, it’s near impossible to hail or order a cab (as we learned the hard way when we got stranded at the City Park until we found the streetcar).
Irish coffee, Mexican hot chocolate, red beans & rice, and classic glazed doughnuts @ District Donuts in Lower Garden District (there’s also incredible nitro cold brew coffee!)
Fried chicken, fried catfish with mac ‘n cheese and peas, red beans ‘n rice, fried okra, and green beans with rice ‘n gravy @ Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Tremé
Fried oyster and shrimp po’ boy and the best roast beef po’ boy of my life @ Parasol’s in Irish Channel
New Orleans is a perfect long weekend destination! Maybe if we had a car we would’ve done more exploring, but we managed to check off everything on our Nola hit list, so we left with no regrets. :)
32. Willie Mae Seaton (1914- ) was born Willie Mae Johnson, near Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen. In the 1940 Census, when she and her husband, L.S. Seaton (1915-1987 ) were living in Hinds Co., Mississippi, it says she completed the 4th grade. That same year, they moved to New Orleans. L.S. worked in the shipyards, and Willie Mae drove a taxi and became a licensed beautician. In 1956, she opened a bar in the Tremé neighborhood. Her license allowed her to sell liquor but not beer, so she developed a signature cocktail with Scotch and milk—and thus Willie Mae’s Scotch House was born.
A year later, in 1957, she moved the bar to a “double shotgun” house in the 7th Ward. Patrons could smell the food she was cooking for her family in the attached kitchen, and encouraged her to open a restaurant. When the hairdresser in the front part of the building left, Willie Mae took over the space and opened a 30-seat restaurant.
Willie Mae’s became especially known for its wet-battered fried chicken. Like the nearby Dooky Chase’s, Willie Mae’s became a “go-to” place for civic leaders and visitors.
Willie Mae’s national reputation was sealed in May 2005 when, at the age of 91, she went to New York to receive the “American Classic Award” from the James Beard Foundation.
And then a few months later, the flood hit. Literally. Hurricane Katrina struck, and the resulting flood hit the 7th Ward hard. The picture below shows a family being rescued on nearby North Miro Street.
Willie Mae’s, which wasn’t in as good a shape to begin with, was hit harder. Luckily, one of Willie Mae’s sons had taken her to Houston before the flood. But shortly thereafter, she returned on her own to inspect the damage. Like many people in New Orleans, she didn’t have flood insurance.
But she did have a fan base. Chef John Currence and the Southern Foodways Alliance raised about $200,000 and put in countless volunteer hours over the course of the next year to restore Willie Mae’s and get it up to modern code.
During the work, Willie Mae cooked for the volunteers, but wouldn’t let anyone watch her make her secret batter.
After the restoration, Laura Bush talks with Willie Mae’s grandson, Ronnie Seaton, Sr., as Willie Mae is escorted into the kitchen by Chef John Besh.
Willie Mae retired not long after the re-opening, and put her great-grand-daughter, Kerry, in charge. But at this writing (March 2015), Willie Mae is still alive and will be 101 in July.
In Feb. 2014, the New Orleans City Council honored Willie Mae. The bottom line is that after the flood, New Orleans lost about 100,000 people—mostly poor, and mostly black—who have never returned, but the city has added hundreds of restaurants. It is hoped that keeping places like Dooky Chase’s and Willie Mae’s open will continue to have a positive effect on the rebuilding of the surrounding neighborhood.