Saturday I had the pleasure of entertaining a dear friend who’d never visited New Orleans before. Doing double duty, I offered to let her tag along as I visited my old homes and haunts that I’d avoided for so many years after the storm. There was also a restaurant that I wanted to visit that is way out past the burbs, that has a peculiar local appeal.
I grew up in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, an area that stretched from Fauburg Marigny all the way past the Industrial Canal (near the first levee breach) and beyond toward Chalmette (commonly referred to as the “asscrack” of the city due to the proliferation of gun-toting KKK recruits and white welfare queens in that area… I digress). My grandparents lived on the corner Louisa Street and Derbigny Avenue, square in the middle of the 9th Ward, off of Franklin Avenue and in what was once a middle class enclave for up-and-coming black professionals in the mid-20th century. They were proud homeowners who had a constant stream of extended family and neighbors coming in and out of the kitchen. During the 80s (*Disclaimer: when I was born) when things got “really bad” due to crack and subsequent crime hitting the streets of New Orleans, they remained in spite of most younger families moving to a more modern suburb, New Orleans East, also known (and disputed) as the “Upper 9th Ward” as it was northeast of my grandparents’ neighborhood and Chalmette.
My mother continued in the family tradition, building her own home from the ground up as well, albeit in New Orleans East: near Eastover, the ill-fated Jazzland theme park, and other normal suburban families and attractions. Plenty of strip malls, bowling alleys, chain restaurants, etc. While I was happy to grow up in a charming home, I was always terribly bored by the monotony, and as soon as I was able to began hanging out “downtown”, a place that my grandmother avoided purposefully and my mother visited only at my urging. “That’s for *those* people” they’d say, meaning white people and tourists. But I could think of no better thing than to explore the city as a tourist in my hometown!
As soon as I could, I moved onto Tulane‘s charming campus dormitories, and shortly thereafter to a drafty old home on Carrollton Avenue, where the streetcar still runs. Later, after a short stint in Los Angeles, I moved further down Carrollton Avenue to Palmyra Street in Mid-City, near Canal Street and nearby a lost culinary legend of greasy goodness… Manuel’s Hot Tamales. But more on that later. I said all of this to say that I wanted to go to two places during my driving tour: New Orleans East and Mid-City.
The first thing that people ask me when I tell them I’m from NOLA these days is, “How is it?” And no one is ever quite prepared for my response, which is always the same: “The touristy areas, they’re fine, back to normal… But the more residential areas, not so much.” Yes, five and a half years later, there are still some blocks you can drive down that have no residents returned, spray paint still on the doors marking where emergency rescuers found residents in need of help, or help that came too late. There has been very little concerted effort to reorganize the city, or rather, too many conflicting stakeholders wrangling for the city’s future bureaucratically, while exhausted residents burn through their hard earned savings. So I wanted to see who, of my neighbors, had returned and if my old favorite spots were still there. We’d sold my family home (after 6 feet of water flooded it) to a developer who’d renovated it quite nicely, so although I missed my home, that wasn’t the main attraction.
It was We Never Close.
On a desolate strip of Chef Menteur Highway aka Highway 90… past truck stops and strip clubs and hooker, I mean hourly motels… past malls of auto parts and dollar trinkets and churches and skating rinks, was a joyous place in a former McDonald’s (didn’t really bother to change much except the sign) called We Never Close. That is the open and shut to it. They serve pretty much anything you can think of deep fried and slathered on a french bread loaf w/mayo. We opted for a soft shell crab po-boy and a hot sausage po-boy.
On the way back, we tried to take the Lakeshore Drive back to mid-city which is a delightful drive, but unfortunately the Lakefront was still closed to the public. Yes, five years later.
The other important stop in Mid-City, after seeing the locked gate to my old apartment, was Pandora’s for snowballs. Not snow-cones, people. One of those might crack your tooth. A snowball is a syrupy concoction made of the most finely shaven ice you’ve ever had – think a Colorado powdery ski slope after a nice blizzard – topped in things like blood orange or wild blueberry flavored syrup, with condensed milk, whipped cream, cherries, gummy bears, pretty much anything you can think of. The perfect remedy for a ridiculously hot and humid day as it was that day.
I slurped away and quietly questioned my decision to leave such a comforting place.
Later that night, I’d wanted to check out another old haunt, Port of Call, a legendary burger and pizza shack that was the demise of my short-lived vegetarianism. But a local buddy of mine insisted that I try a new place called Yo-Mama’s. Impressive, but they didn’t have the amazing loaded baked potatoes or Huma Humas that are Port of Call’s staple. Yes, it’s much cleaner and probably more likely to pass an inspection than Port of Call, but if you’re worried about cleanliness… I just don’t know what to tell you. I will say that I barely finished this burger and was almost satisfied. Can’t find the pic, but… my pics aren’t that great anyway! So, imagine… The Yelp photo is pretty impressive.