I got my April Bon Appetit today and was really excited to see their featured food map of New Orleans. Then I took a closer look. Of the 11 places they listed, there wasn’t a single one I’d set foot in when I lived there five years ago. For every number on the map I could think of a greasy spoon, bar, or takeout joint that was equally notable, even at 4 or 5 am…places that made that year one of the happiest/chubbiest eras of my life.
The Bon Appetit article claimed to cover “white linen highbrow to corner-bar lowbrow,” but one man’s lowbrow is another man’s monthly rent, so I proudly bring you…
The Lowlowbrow Guide to New Orleans Food
When Hurricane Katrina happened, my Aunt Betsy, my three cousins, two dogs and one cat evacuated to the serenity of my parent’s house in Pennsylvania, just in time for my birthday cookout. Knowing they were safe made my party twice as happy, but there were many others that were not as lucky. The one I worried about most was my praline man.
Sometimes I wanted a praline and the praline man wasn’t there, but there was never a time he was there that I didn’t want a praline. He stood on the corner of Canal and Carondelet, one of the busiest in New Orleans, and noisiest, because it’s where the streetcar turned around. The mythic image in my head is of a tall man with glasses, decked in suspenders and a straw fedora. He carried the pralines in a box hanging from a strap around his neck – like the ones cigarette girls carry in old movies – and they were the best pralines in New Orleans, and therefore, the world.
Their texture was like no other. The praline man’s pralines (pronounced “praw-leens”) were light as a feather, with a crunchy, thin crust that melted in your mouth almost on contact, and a chewy middle with just the right proportion of meaty pecans. They didn’t have a weird milky aftertaste like some others, and weren’t too candy-ish or cookie-ish…they were simply pralines and simply addictive.
(UPDATE: My memory is totally food-based!! I was almost dead-on. Read more about the praline man here!)
It will take more effort to pinpoint an ephemeral street vendor, but I was able to do a little research and see which of the old haunts that came to mind are still in operation, and without a doubt, worth noting. Please also note that I was 22 at the time, and words like “arugula” were not in my vocabulary.
Shrimp Lo-Mein @ Five Happiness
Unbelievably fresh Louisiana Gulf shrimp, extra thick noodles and a soulfully spiced brown sauce make this my vote for best shrimp lo-mein in the New World. New Orleans-style lo-mein is made with noodles that are as thick as fettuccine, so they soak up the sauce and shrimp juices and become swelled with flavor. Intensely pleasurable to slurp up and sink your teeth into.
One of my fondest memories of New Orleans was a lunch Five Happiness with my best friend Stephanie. I was in town for the weekend to catch up with her, and wanted to make up for lost time. Between the two of us, we ordered shrimp lo-mein, chicken fried rice, and a whole, fried red snapper…with egg rolls and soup. (And S got another entrée I can’t remember.) Our elderly waitress wheeled it all out on a multi-tiered cart, and required the help of a young busboy to unload the platters. When he muttered “is all this just for you guys?” she elbowed him and muttered something in Chinese.
According to a report from my local food scout (aka, my cousin Megan) Five Hapiness reopened their main dining room just a few months ago, but experiences like the one above are the stuff of memories because the dining room has paradoxically been restaffed with perky young blondes.
3605 Carrollton Avenue
Jerk Chicken Burrito @ Juan’s Flying Burrito
My favorite stretch of funky Magazine Street included a multi-colored wig parlor, a posh lingerie boutique, and a thrift store that wouldn’t haggle, but I couldn’t stop going because they had the most incredible collection of wide brimmed hats and delicate gloves, ever-so-gently used by Southern belles of days gone by.
But the main attraction on the block was Juan’s. Every time I walked in, I vowed to try something new from their diverse and creative menu, but I just could not resist the pull of my standard: the smoky and sweet jerk chicken burrito.
Like everything else in New Orleans, it took a little longer to make than you would imagine, but there were delicious chips and salsa to munch on. Then the burrito would arrive, with a slightly crispy tortilla exterior and a rich filling; the spicy, deep red (almost purple) sauce of the chicken mingling with chunks of mellow guacamole. A match made in burrito heaven!
The latest report is that they have expanded their basic burrito menu to include platters and appetizers. One welcome newcomer: a frozen strawberry lemonade to calm your post-burrito tastebuds.
Juan’s Flying Burrito
2018 Magazine Street
Chili Cheese Fries at F&M’s
This is one of those places you go to after going out. I’m talkin’ sitting on the patio, slow sipping your drink, watching the sky change from black to blue. But secretly everyone comes for the chili-cheese fries.
Sure, they look at you in horror when you arrive at the table with your mountain of waffle fries loaded with multiple cheeses, chili, chives, jalapeños and ketchup (or ranch dressing if you are not kidding around), but you’ll soon be maneuvering your way around other hands toward the bottom of the basket, battling for one more bite before the deliciousness disappears.
F&M Patio Bar
4841 Tchoupitoulas Street
French Fried Po Boy @ Alibi
Many have tried to replicate the po’boy outside of New Orleans, but without the crusty-on-the-outside, spongy-on-the-inside po’boy bread it is just not complete. Far as I know, you can’t get that bread anywhere else. Maybe it’s the humidity, or more likely, the water.
It’s like New York pizza. They say the dough is special because of the city water used to make it. There is even a pizzeria in LA where they truck gallons of NYC water in weekly to make the dough (um, no comment because they were super nice to me).
The Alibi was another New Orleans late night spot, though it was in the French Quarter, more 3am than 5am. Their French fry po’boy, or “French fried” po’boy was French fries smothered in gravy (speckled with chunks from their homemade roast beef), shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheese if you wanted it, and pickles. The combination of pickles, fries and gravy was irresistible at any time of night. I probably had this for dinner about as often as I had it for breakfast.
811 Iberville Street
Deep Fried Sushi Roll @ Mikimoto
Nothing in New Orleans goes without a local twist. At Mikimoto, you can get a special roll with crawfish in it, or you can get one topped with BBQ sauce. But the one I’ll never forget was dipped in tempura batter and fried before being sliced.
According to their website, the Hawaii-Five-O roll is: avocado, asparagus, tuna, and salmon rolled inside seaweed and fried in tempura.
The word around town is that Mikimoto has added a drive-thru! Just call ahead and you can have your Five-O fix in record time.
Mikimoto Japanese Restaurant
3301 Carrollton Avenue
*Stay tuned for part 2 of the Lowlowbrow Guide to New Orleans Food!*