After Hurricane Katrina, my community of family and friends was flung from San Francisco to Austin, Atlanta and everywhere in-between: Memphis, Indianapolis, DC, Houston, rural Louisiana, etc.  But the place I felt most at home, in spite of the fact that none of my family or closest friends were here, was NYC.  Simply because here, I can more easily experience the best aspects of New Orleans culture – food, music, art, architecture, drinking – than in any other city in the world.  New Orleans and New York have a special affinity for one another, and there is virtually no New Orleans specialty that New York cannot provide.  (I’ll argue the opposite as well in another piece.)

So for me, New York is like a giant playground of my favorite NOLA things – fried oysters, jazz, street ignorance, festivals, strong cocktails – interspersed with pockets of genuine NOLA lovers, folks who really do “know what it means” to miss New Orleans and are committed to keeping the love of the place alive in their hearts.  What’s even better is that there is a strong community of folks that works to ensure that NOLA music and culture is consistently brought to New York and exposed to new audiences: the NOLAFunk guys, as well as the venues Sullivan Hall, Highline Ballroom, Terminal 5, a bunch of places in Williamsburg, and more I’m sure that I’m overlooking.  I mean, Trombone Shorty headlined the Red Hot + New Orleans at BAM and it was outstanding.

More fun on a daily basis, however, is rooting out restaurants that dabble in NOLA cuisine.  NOLA’s culinary charms have drawn many an aspiring chef to its bosom, and many of those chefs eventually land in New York.  I stumbled onto this affinity purely coincidentally.  Fried oysters happen to be my favorite seafood dish – I used to eat a 12″ fried oyster po-boy about twice a week in NOLA – and it was in the course of hunting them down in New York that I realized that every place that ended up having a delicious fried oyster had a chef that either was from New Orleans or trained in New Orleans, or spent time living there.  Here’s a roundup of my favorite NOLA/NOLA-influenced (note I said *my* favorite; I’ve never been to Mara’s Homemade or Bourbon Street mostly b/c I think they’re tacky – hello purple, green, and gold exterior – AND I’ve heard mixed reviews from folks whose tastebuds I trust. So they’re not included):

Blue Ribbon

Eric and Bruce Bromberg are music aficionados who are no stranger to NOLA’s charms.  Eric Bromberg attended Tulane while pursuing a music career in NOLA, which is all the validation I need that he *knows* NOLA food.  Then they both went to Cordon Bleu.  I love every recipe they’ve ever touched.

The fable of their humble beginnings goes that they wanted to make a restaurant where they as food- and music- industry folk getting off work late could get great food – not pizza/hamburgers, etc – so their restaurant was one of the first with a kitchen staying open until 4:00 AM.  Ten restaurants later, we know it worked.  I’ve only eaten at four out of the 10, but I’ve never ever been disappointed.

Needless to say, It was like music to my ears when Blue Ribbon Sushi opened a location behind the Time Warner Center.  I no longer had to trek downtown or to Brooklyn for my fried oysters!  I could get them on the way home from work.  Also, their more casual fare at Brooklyn Bowl is delightful. (Hello, Oyster Egg Shooters!)  It also doesn’t hurt that Questlove and/or Q-tip spins there on a monthly basis, and there’s a constant roster of great music, much of it the stuff that can be found on the NOLA music circuit.  My last show there was Robert Randolph, the slide guitar king.


There’s an ACME on Decatur Street in New Orleans.  This one is as close of an approximation as you can get in NYC.  There’s also a cute little live music venue in the basement, featuring assorted indie acts.  I usually come here when I know I want assorted seafood but I’m not quite sure what to get.  You know the drill.  There were rumors of Acme’s closing earlier this year after a “can’t-refuse” offer was made to the owner, but I believe they’re back in business.

The Green Table

I love everything about this place.  The fact that the menu is largely seasonal items plucked fresh from the farmer’s market that day, the fact that they expanded from 6 tables to 12 and finally have a bar.  That they are dedicated to sustainability and social responsibility.  But most importantly, I love the fact that Brett Sims is a ragin’ cajun who has managed to bring a fried oyster po-boy to within walking distance of my office.

The Redhead

Duck gumbo, anyone?  Although I usually go for their outstanding southern fried chicken.  Meg Grace’s pastries also never disappoint; I’ve definitely purse-nabbed some of the cookie treats they sometimes give with the bill.  Her bacon peanut brittle is also quite notable, and there’s an annual Crawfish boil that’s done just right.

Fort Defiance

St. John Frizell – also a Tulane alum – studied the Central Grocery muffuletta and has created quite the tasty approximation.  The red beans and rice and hurricanes are also nothing to scoff at.  I was there the day the Saints won the NFC Championship in 2009.  We all cried and hugged, and ate King Cake from Randazzo’s.

Two Boots Pizza

The Two Boots = NOLA + Italy.  It’s my favorite NYC slice, hands down (Sorry, traditionalists. Crawfish pie!!!)  I usually get the Cleopatra Jones, but all of it, even the veggie pies, are outstanding.

Great Jones Cafe

Great Jones is probably the only place in New York where I’ll eat the two sacred staples of NOLA cooking: red beans and gumbo (only when I don’t feel like making it myself).  I also appreciated their fried oysters and andouille sausage.  It’s also one of the most non-assuming places in the city.  No flash and panache here, just good food and nice people.  You really do feel as though you’ve been transported to a little bayou town when you step inside.

NOLA PLACES I HAVEN’T BEEN, BUT INTEND TO (Shout out to Garden & Gun for a few reminders):

Imperial Woodpecker Snowballs – Yes, Real Snowballs in NYC. ‘Nuff said.
Ninth Ward
Cheeky Sandwiches – they’re only open 8am-6pm (time for a work field trip!)
Tchoup Shop at d.b.a. – I generally avoid DBA in NYC for a number of reasons, but if they reopen this summer I’m doing it.
Creole – I believe I got into an argument with the chef here at the Black Culinarian Alliance dinner at Tavern on the Green three years ago.  We were arguing about the texture of one of his dishes, which was completely wrong in my opinion.  I don’t remember which one, but suffice it to say that I’ve never eaten there either, but I’m still curious.

On my last day in town, I wanted a muffuletta.  While Central Grocery is a historical staple, I’d always found it a bit too oily for my tastes, and the line was always too long.  I had my sights set on a newer place that was making a big splash for itself in the city: Cochon Butcher.

The fine dining restaurant, Cochon, was nominated for a Best New Restaurant James Beard award in 2007, the same year David Link, the co-owner of Cochon and the popular Herbsaint, was named Best Chef: South.  Stephen Stryjewski, the other co-owner of Cochon, was bestowed the very same honor this year in 2011.  This butcher shop was their casual brain child – part butcher counter, part restaurant, part supply shop for amateur gourmet – the epitome of everything that modern “fast food” could be in my opinion.  My flight was at 3pm, and I had just enough time to bring back a muffuletta (and a few Hubig’s Fried Pies) to cram in before I returned to New York.

Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint.  It was the epitome of what I would classify as a nouveau-Creole muffuletta; herby, soft bread perfectly balanced with the finest cuts of meat, a distinctive olive tapenade that may have contained pearl onions and other spices…  simple with depth, exactly what would be expected from a Beard-nominee. And in spite of the fact that I was so entirely full that I didn’t think I could fit another bite of food into my stomach, I ate the whole thing.

My stomach was a wreck on the way home, due simply to the fact that I’d eaten entirely too much.  By volume.  I wasn’t hungry at all when I ate that muffelatta.  On the contrary I was quite full.  So I already knew that what I was doing could only be classified under the biblical sin of gluttony.

I sat shifting back and forth in my seat trying to find some comfort, to no avail.  So I made the utter mistake of consuming yet more – a ginger ale “to settle my stomach”.  Less than 30 minutes later, I was fumbling awkwardly in my seat pocket for the bag of terror, which I proceeded to fill to the horror of my rowmate.  I didn’t feel sick before or after.  Only sublimely embarrassed that I’d actually partaken in a romanesque purge.

A fitting departure for a whirlwind baptism, a forceful re-christening of my stomach into the ways of my old world.  Yet an awakening…  into a new awareness of health and balance.  A knowing, that I still craved another bite in spite of my puke mouth and that I wanted to enjoy eating these things forever, so I had to beat back my primal urges and create balance.  You can’t possibly eat rich and gaudy deliciousness for every meal.  It’s unsustainable.  Hence, my neverending quest for…

Sustainable gluttony.

Having your cake, eating it too, and walking it off afterward so you can fit into the skinny jeans.

Follow my quest.

(Start at the beginning? Intro, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5)

Reunion – Day 5

Sunday was July 4 itself and my gracious hosts brought me out to the sticks to their family home for dinner.  Lucky for me, they ground their own approximation of the Pat LaFrieda burger mix and made St. Louis gooey butter cake to bring for dessert.  I pretty much ate only that the entire day.

That night at Essence festival was my very reason for attending.  Mary J. Blige was headlining, with none other than Jill Scott opening for her.  Two of the most incredible voices of our times.  Jill tore the house down and Mary built it right back up.  Jill channeling Isaac Hayes or George Clinton with crazy pychedlic 70s fashions and silhouetted go-go dancers, with a marvelous Afro, dancing and laughing and being her all around radiant self.  And being at a Mary J. Blige concert is like being in church.  Laughing, crying, celebrating, and most importantly singing along every single word.  The entire audience – all 50,000 concertgoers – clings to and sings every single word, probably just like they do in their cars, showers, or anywhere else.  I didn’t take any pictures.  I was literally caught up in the rapture of the moment. (Except when I was elbowing chicks in the VIP for the chicken satay.)  It didn’t disappoint!

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.


Catching up?  Here are the first installments for you…  Reunion – Day 1 / Reunion – Day 2 / Reunion – Day 3

Every. Monday.  New Orleans families serve red beans and rice for dinner.  Every family’s red beans is different, and everyone has a different method of cooking them.  Some people swear by soaking them overnight about 12 hours, “to get the gas out” or to cut down on cooking time.  Others add extra bay leaf for the same reason.  My family is in the latter camp, and this recipe takes about 2-2.5 hrs tops.  This is my grandma’s recipe; we rarely ever bothered to make our own.

In a vegetarian variation, I simply omit the meat and add extra seasoning to taste, everything else is largely the same.  Serves 8-12.

1/2 lb of smoked meat (optional, smoked turkey necks or legs OR slab bacon cut into cubes OR traditionally, ham or picklemeat)

1 lb dried red beans, washed/rinsed

1 large onion

1/2 bell pepper (optional, preferred in veggie)

1/2 pod of garlic, to taste

4-5 bay leaves

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 lb smoked sausage

salt and pepper to taste

1 heaping tsp of sugar

1. Cover the beans in a pot with about 5 inches of water, add smoked meat, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer.

2. Sautee finely chopped onions, garlic, and bell pepper in olive oil.  When onions are clear, add them to the simmering beans. Bring heat back up to a low boil for 15-20 minutes or so then reduce heat to a simmer again and cook for approximately 1 hour.  Stir occasionally to avoid sticking.

3. Add salt and pepper, bay leaves, and sugar to taste.

4. Slice smoke sausage into half-inch rounds, add to beans.  Simmer for another 20-30 minutes or until beans are thick and creamy.  The smoked sausage adds a strong extra meaty flavor to the beans…  some folks prefer to BBQ the sauasage and serve on the side…

Serve over your favorite rice (I prefer brown), with hot sauce to taste.  Some folks like to put a mayo or mustard dollop in the beans as a garnish (I think it’s because their parents really couldn’t cook that well).  I like mine plain and good, w/Tabasco and a slice of french bread.  They’re also extra delicious and creamy on the second day, after they’ve had a chance to cool, and great to freeze and reheat.

Have you ever danced in the streets until 6:00 AM on the third day of a 72 hour binge of sleepless excess?  Have you ever gorged to the point of nausea, walked it down for a few hours and then – impossibly – eaten and drank again?  Have you ever spent days reposing in bed, postponing every thought of responsibility and care while you lazily nibble a lover’s affections?  Pushed the limits of your physical and emotional ability to feel and reveled in the frailty of the overextended nerve ending?

The dank humidity hanging from the lush gardens of New Orleans creates a mystical aura of slow, confident calm…  invincibility at times.  It is a place where time slips away unnoticed because you can see, hear and taste each minute in the bud of a magnolia flower, the cadence of a marching band, the juices of a crawfish head.  Subsequently there is a sense of detachment, in the moment, from the consequences of one’s actions that can be gleefully entertaining at best, and woefully tragic at worst.

While growing up as a local, there was always a mysterious allure to the nighttime that called for me even as my staunchly religious family resisted most of the secular traditions the city reveled in.  My great-grandfather was a jazz musician, a trumpet or trombone player if I remember correctly, and was perpetually partially-employed.  Great-grandmother was a shrew of a woman who never held her tongue and lashed with both words and physical objects, turning to religion as a respite from the hardships which came from a “sinful” life of pursuing a career in art or music.  While my grandmother and her brother were mostly obedient and pursued stable careers in teaching and public service, my grand-aunt took up the family mantle and plunged headlong into nightlife entertainment.

Listen: LaVergne Smith – Stormy Weather

My grand-aunt LaVergne Smith – the New Orleans Nightingale – was a celebrated pianist and songstress on Bourbon Street for many years, for whom my grandmother sewed costumes and in general disapproved of her lifestyle choices.  She recorded a number of albums with Savoy Records in the 50s and enjoyed a successful career until it was largely derailed by alcoholism and abusive relationships.  I never got a chance to meet her as she passed away shortly after I was born due to complications from years of alcohol abuse.  However, I was told that she held me once before she died…  and I’m sure that she imparted into me not only a fever for showbusiness that took me years to shake as well as an affinity for “the sauce”, but a curiosity for all of the things that the nighttime streets of NOLA could offer up.

And so, after spending my adolescence training to become a professional dancer and safely ensconced in a religious bubble of spiritual pursuit, even to the point of preparing for ordination, I moved onto campus at university and plunged headlong myself into challenging my own spiritual, emotional, and physical boundaries as I attempted to navigate my identity as a young adult.  I shaved my head, “lost my mind” many times over (abandoning a pre-ND biochemistry major for Dance and Women’s Studies), and indulged in experiences that challenged every notion I had of what was right and proper.  Eventually I became involved in nightlife promotion and made a career of going out, throwing parties, and the wasting of brain cells until such a point when I cried out for divine intervention, because the fruitless frenzy I’d whipped my life into had begun to take its toll.  That’s when Hurricane Katrina happened, and snapped everything back into perspective.

Moving to New York, I was exposed to a level of purpose and responsibility that I’d never known, and it was invigorating.  This is a place of limitless possibility, if only you can get through the first year without being “thrown off the horse”.  It was at this point in time that my entrepreneurial thirsts were rekindled, and managed to find gainful – a.k.a. salaried with benefits – employment while attending evening classes to get my MBA.  The luck of my opportunity was that I was able to work in marketing and business development for a hospitality technology company, meaning that I was able to get paid to research and stalk the owners of the hottest new restaurants and bars in NYC in hopes of selling them very expensive software before they opened the doors.  Not only was I getting paid to eat and drink my way through the city, but I was also developing an encyclopedic knowledge of where to eat and party in NYC.  After 3.5 years there, I’ve moved on to various and sundry things that are still unfolding in the most exciting ways, but my personal obsession with restaurants and nightlife persists in a way that has led me to writing this blog.

All that said, I’m 28 years old, skipping along on my merry way around the Capitol of the World, having the time of my life…  tag along!

Although I arrived too early to hit the drive-through daquiri stand on the way from the airport, I did stop to take out my first meal back home from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Co.: a half-shrimp/half-oyster po-boy.  My tastebuds tingled with delight as I realized my battered wedge fries were brushed with garlic butter, a recent development from what I could remember.

Half Shrimp, Half Oyster Po-Boy from New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co.

the Before

What remained of the po-boy after I got to it.

the After

But the highlight of this particular po-boy experience was (and always is in a positive po-boy experience): the bread.  A true po-boy is not on a baguette, nor a hero, and god forbid a wrap, pita, or some other sorry excuse for a bread.  A true po-boy sandwich is only made with crusty, flaky, soft and chewy French bread, made with the kind of water that makes it snap like an eggier portuguese roll but has the dry flakiness of a water cracker.  Is it even possible?  New Orleans French bread is the only bread like it in the world.

My hosts, spectacular foodies, home chefs, and longtime friends Paul & Chris greeted me with homemade cold-brewed iced coffee spiked w/Amarula that I’d brought them from South Africa a year earlier.  Among friends and family, I always get a kick out of enjoying the presents I gift.  At any rate, after that colossal po-boy I napped and tried to prepare my stomach for the evening’s main event, the event I’d been drooling and dreaming about for years by then…  dinner at Drago’s.

Drago's (Downtown, Riverfront Hilton, NOLA)

"Single best bite of food in America"

Drago’s is a sublime seafood restaurant opened in 1969 by the Cvitanovich family, of Croatian heritage.  One of the most beautiful aspects of New Orleans is its diverse heritage, in that it is a true melting pot – over generations of “settlement” – of African, French, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Creole, and American Indian cultures.  You’re likely to find colorful people from cultures flung all across the globe in every corner of the metropolitan area.  And although you may not be able to share in or even agree with each others’ religious or political beliefs, you can always revel together in praise of a sublime meal or a rousing song.  This is the glue that holds the community of New Orleans together, the fuel that fires the passion of resiliency and holds so many rapt in the sway of the city’s charm.

Drago’s is home to what has been voted “the best single bite of food in New Orleans”: the chargrilled oyster.  Oysters in the half shell are lined up on a hot grill until they stew in their own juices, seasoned with little more than butter, lemon, and breadcrumbs, maybe a bit of parmesan but I’ve never asked.  The first time I had one, a single tear slid down my cheek as the flavors played around my mouth, then I ate 11 more.  These beauties are served with the finest in French bread for dipping into the juices that usually pool in the plate below the shells.  Between the three of us, Paul, Chris and I ate 2 dozen as a first course.

We followed up with the lobster (stuffed with seafood dressing), crabcakes, and shrimp Ruth, an interesting mix between chargrilled tomatoes and breaded shrimp.  To drink, we split a bottle of Riesling and I had an Abita Purple Haze for good measure.  I trekked back home full and happy, ready to face the next day of…  eating!

Drago's Chargrilled Oysters on the half shell w/french bread

"Best single bite of food in New Orleans"

Stuffed Lobster, Crabcakes, Shrimp Ruth

the other stuff, delicious too!


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