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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Parkway Bakery & Tavern

The greater New Orleans area is home to roughly one million people, about one million of whom are restaurant and food critics. Were it possible to get 1,000,000 New Orleanians organized for anything, arguing the merits of restaurants and their fare would be the city’s official sport.

This is particularly true about po’boys – the sandwich you might know by the names hero, submarine, gyro, torpedo, grinder or any number of others. About the only thing po’boy purists can agree upon is that if it isn’t made with New Orleans style French bread, it isn’t a po’boy.

While po’boys can be found everywhere from white tablecloth places to corner grocery stores, natives generally seem to favor taverns or small cafes that run from tidy Mom-and-Pops to corner bars that can be called colorful, if not downright scruffy. One thing they all have in common is that their devotees are passionate.

Fans of the roast beef po’boy at Parasol’s will never concede that a better version may be found at Domilise’s since both have been featured on Food Network series. Those who prefer their po’boys stuffed with buttery New Orleans style barbecue shrimp will square off between Liuzza’s-by-the-Track and the original lunch special at Pascal’s Manale. French Quarter residents and visitors alike have chosen between Johnny’s and Café Maspero for decades.

A relative newcomer to the battle is Crabby Jack’s, a small cafe in front of a commercial seafood market, known for such unusual ingredients as crisp fried calamari and a slow-roasted duck in its own gravy. And fans of oysters, freshly shucked, battered and plunged in oil still bemoan the fact that Gail and Anthony Uglesich never reopened their rickety, ten-table restaurant after Hurricane Katrina and the ultimate oyster po’boy has faded into memory.

Beyond the eight establishments mentioned above, there are scores of places in every corner of the city offering their take on ingredients classical or creative, and each has its own retinue of die-hard supporters.

Trying to name a best po’boy or place to buy one would be a fool’s errand at best, and incitement to fisticuffs at worst. That said, people with enough time to visit just one po’boy place on short visits to the city would do well to consider Parkway Bakery and Tavern in the Mid-City, a short block off Bayou St. John.

Parkway is the very embodiment of old New Orleans neighborhood places. An unadorned frame building sitting on a corner in a tattered section of the city, it is at once a neighborhood landmark and a wistful reminder of better days behind. The place had been boarded up before a local entrepreneur restored and reopened it in the early 2000s before it had to be redone a second time in Katrina’s aftermath.

There is an essential honesty about Parkway that “is what it is” without pretense or affectation. The front room is a small bar, the back room is a utilitarian sandwich café, and outside there is a covered deck and patio, where bands sometimes play on weekends or the spontaneous, informal holidays that seem so often to spring up on the New Orleans calendar. The decor is mainly old signs and pieces of Saints memorabilia.

The sandwiches come to your table or barstool wrapped in white butcher paper. Napkins are in a dispenser along with salt, pepper and New Orleans-made Crystal Hot Sauce wrapped in a Parkway label. The wait staff is young and cheerful.

In such prosaic, workmanlike surroundings, everything succeeds or fails on the quality of the food, and in that sense, Parkway is an unconditional success. While eavesdropping suggests that the dressed roast beef and fried seafood po’boys are the runaway favorites, visual reconnaissance shows people diving into the spectrum of Parkway’s offerings with no visible indicators of the least discontent.

The menu lists nineteen po’boys in either regular (eight-inch) or large (twelve-inch) sizes, a grilled cheese on white or wheat and a grilled Reuben on rye. A good many of them are traditional and predictable (ham, turkey, marinara meatball, chicken breast, various sausages and the like). Some are indigenous to the city.

New Orleans roast beef is slow-cooked in a gravy that’s thicker than that generally found in Chicago Italian beef or French dip sandwiches. Once “dressed,” New Orleans patois for lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise (pronounced “my-nez”) with pickles, onions and Zatarain’s Creole mustard optional, there is usually little way to contain all the ingredients in the flaky crust and airy centered French bread is which the conglomeration is assembled. Oh, hell, let’s just call it what it is; it’s a mess, but a mighty fine one.

Because of New Orleans’ gulf location, fresh seafood is abundant, making fried shrimp and oyster po’boys the other main entries in the Parkway repertoire. During their short season, the restaurant occasionally lists soft shell crab po’boys as blackboard specials. For those with larger appetites (and a handy change of clothes), Parkway offers its own Surf’N’Turf, a combination of roast beef, gravy and fried shrimp.

Beyond the traditional standards, Parkway has a gravy only po’boy on the menu, as well as one made with French fried potatoes where one would expect to find meat. This has progressed, of course, into the fully dressed, gravy-slathered, French fries po’boy. In a nod to Louisiana’s Cajun heritage, the restaurant also lists an alligator sausage po’boy on its lengthy menu.

While Parkway has full bar service, a look at the tables will show most of them covered with frosty beer bottles or longnecks of Barq’s root beer, a regional favorite long before it was purchased by the Coca-Cola Company and the traditional accompaniment for a classic New Orleans po’boy.

On a side note, while no one is absolutely certain of the origin of the term “po’boy,” the most commonly bandied about explanation is that it goes back to a four-month streetcar strike in New Orleans. Legend has it that restaurateur Clovis Martin, who had formerly been a streetcar conductor, offered free sandwiches to striking workers. The restaurant workers would joke, “here comes another poor boy,” and the name was soon stuck on the sandwiches.

Some people may – and some people will – take issue with the selection of Parkway Bakery and Tavern as a solid representative of the hundreds of po’boy places that New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The argument will last forever, and there will never be a definite winner declared.

So try this.

Ask a cabbie where to get the best po’boy in the city. Ask a bartender or a cop or a construction worker. Then go there. But make sure you have a lot of napkins handy.

Parkway Bakery and Tavern
539 Hagan Avenue (at the corner of Toulouse).
Open 11 AM until 10 PM Wednesday through Monday, dark Tuesday.
Major credit cards are accepted.
Telephone: (504) 482-3047
Website: http://www.parkwaybakeryandtavernnola.com

ADDENDUM: In late March, the Travel Channel taped an episode of “Food Wars,’” in which roast beef po’boys from Parkway are pitted against those from Domilise’s. Once the decision is announced, it will be included here.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Lola's

While Spanish cuisine may not be the first kind of food you associate with New Orleans, a quick look at the city’s history will remind you that the Crescent City was a Spanish colony in the latter third of the Eighteenth Century, the period of time when our Founding Fathers were signing the Declaration of Independence and inventing the United States.

Very few signs of the city’s Spanish heritage remain today, those most commonly sighted by visitors being the panels of tile found on many French Quarter buildings identifying streets by their Spanish names.

New Orleans is, of course, one of America’s true “melting pot” cities in terms of both its people and cuisine(s). The city’s signature dish, gumbo, is a flavorful hybrid of locally grown ingredients and the cooking traditions of France, Spain, Africa, the West Indies and Native America, with dashes of German, Sicilian and England tossed in to liven the mix.

Despite Spain’s influence on the city, there are surprisingly few Spanish restaurants; in fact, a recent (2010) ZAGAT guide listed only five. The oldest of these, Lola’s, opened in June of 1994, has grown into the kind of local favorite that a lot of natives would just as soon not see in dining guides.

Lola’s is very small, seating approximately forty in tight quarters on a pleasant stretch of Esplanade Ridge between the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Fair Grounds horse track and Bayou St. John. Next to a neighborhood grocery market and within easy waking distances of three other good, locally owned restaurants, Lola’s is the embodiment of a place that belongs in a tree-lined residential neighborhood.

Some people think just that getting in is half the fun.

Lola’s posted opening hour is 5:30 PM for the dinner-only bistro, but this is New Orleans, cher, where time is flexible and punctuality is optional, so don’t be alarmed if the door isn’t opened right on the minute.

Several guidebooks recommend arriving fifteen to twenty minutes before Lola’s opens, because the place doesn’t take reservations and lines form quickly. But they move quickly, too. Just the same, regulars know to bring a bottle of wine, sign up at the kiosk next to the front door and enjoy the revolving, spontaneous party on the concrete apron in front of the set back restaurant, particularly during cooler months.

Inside, Lola’s bustles. What minimal décor there is consists of brightly colored, local folk art. The tables and chairs are close together and constantly being reconfigured to accommodate the sizes of entering groups. Quarters can be so tight that at times, you’ll feel as if you’re sitting at the next table, at least until a member of the wait staff wedges his or her way between you with a raised tray in a newly makeshift aisle. Service personnel are casual and remarkably friendly, particularly considering how rushed they can be.

The semi-open kitchen is in the back of the house, and it’s more of a work than show kitchen. Mounted to the wall above the pass through are pans showing the size of paellas, the restaurant’s mainstay. While the menu states that paella is available for one, two or four, the pans’ sizes suggest they’re referring to appetites worthy of lumberjacks coming off a hunger strike.

Despite a surprisingly long and varied menu, paella is the centerpiece of a visit to Lola’s. The vibrant blend of colorful vegetables, meats and seafood cooked with rice and served family style makes this classic “peasant dish” a vivid centerpiece at table. Available in four varieties (seafood, meat, vegetable or any combination thereof) and served in the traditional two-handled pan for which the dish is named, the paellas are redolent with layer upon layer of fresh flavors and spices.

Some self-styled connoisseurs have claimed a shortage of saffron in the dish, but considering that LaMancha saffron carries a price in excess of $300 an ounce (just a paltry $4,800 a pound), a little skimping on a dish costing around ten dollars a serving is an economic reality and a more than understandable sin.

If someone wants to be a purist and really split hairs, it could be pointed out that three time-honored Spanish traditions are violated with Lola’s paella: first, paella is traditionally served at midday and never after sundown; secondly, it is customarily prepared by men instead of women and, thirdly, it is traditionally eaten with fingers out of the pan itself. I have little doubt at some point during Lola’s years in business, very civilized and cultured people have literally dug into their paella without benefit of manmade implements much to the horror of their neighboring and less knowledgeable diners.

In addition to paellas, Lola’s substitutes pasta for short-grained rice to make fideuas, and fills out her long entrée list with garlic chicken, lamb chops with Gorgonzola, seasonal seafood dishes and more.

It has become a tradition for Mrs. McH and me to split seafood paella for one after loading up on Lola’s appetizers. Particular favorites include mushrooms sautéed and sizzling with garlic, and a calamari appetizer, consisting of a sautéed squid cutlet that has been matchstick sliced and served with what our waitress told us was a yellow pepper puree. The portion sizes of appetizers are generous, and their richness can make them deceptively filling, yet they are economical to the point that it can be tempting to order a passel of them and then wonder where to put the paella once it arrives at the table.

Everything is cooked to order at Lola’s, which means a wait between ordering and the arrival of the appetizers. This generally short time lag is filled by the arrival of warm rolls with a garlicky whipped butter that borders on the divine. It should be noted that each extra roll beyond your initial one carries a fifty-cent price, but it’s my guess that the surcharge is not levied out of chintziness on the restaurant’s part, but rather to discourage unsuspecting customers from filling up before appetizers and the main event.

Along those lines, it is necessary for me to admit a lack of personal knowledge whether or not dessert is served at Lola’s. Without a menu in front of me as I write this, the only thing for me to confess is a vague memory of a waitress asking if I wanted dessert (a flan, I believe) and my reply being the signal groan of the chronically overfed.

The menu is filled out with a selection of beers and a modest wine list, but one of the many joys of Lola’s is the presence of homemade sangria, the fruity sweetness of which is delightfully refreshing as an offset to vibrant spiciness of the cuisine itself. There is a small corkage fee for those who wish to brownbag a favorite wine of their own.

Considering the amount of food and the fact that it’s all cooked to order, one would think dinner at Lola’s would be a protracted Bacchanalia, but the kitchen cooks fast and the wait staff hustles, so what seems like a leisurely dinner rarely lasts much longer than an hour.

It’s been more than two centuries since the Spanish flag flew over New Orleans, and in that time, Iberian culinary traditions have quietly blended into the city’s own. With the presence of Lola’s on Esplanade, it’s immensely satisfying to see those once lost traditions return to the forefront.

Lola’s is located at 3312 Esplanade Avenue
(between North Broad and North Carrolton),
and opens for dinner at 5:30 PM daily.
No reservations are accepted and payment is by cash only. The telephone number is (504) 488-6946.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Willie Mae's

Will Willie Mae’s Scotch House be able to survive prosperity?

Seven years ago, the place was an insider’s secret – a neighborhood place in a dangerous neighborhood, dishing up plates of fried chicken with no suspicion it was on the threshold of becoming a culinary legend in one of America’s great dining cities.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House started life as a corner tavern in 1957 in half a double shotgun house in New Orleans’ Fauborg Tremé, one of the first African American neighborhoods in the nation and one of its more troubled. Somewhere along the line, proprietor Willie Mae Seaton started frying chicken for the saloon’s customers.

And oh, chere, could Willie Mae cook.

As the decades meandered by, word slowly got around about what Willie Mae was plucking out of her cast iron skillets and deep fat fryer. Oh, sure there was a pork chop, a veal cutlet and the occasional seafood dish, but the people were coming for the chicken, with most of them choosing the place’s creamy red beans and rice on the side.

Then came March 2005.

In the annual James Bead Foundation Awards, the most prestigious industry citations in the country, Willie Mae’s Scotch House was named one of America’s Classics, a special designation for outstanding regional restaurants and cuisine. Traveling foodies from across the nation started including Willie Mae’s on epicurean pilgrimages to the corner of St. Ann and Tonti in the Crescent City. Lines got long, then longer. The cash box filled up quicker. After 48 years, the place was an overnight success.

Then came August 29.

Katrina. The storm. The bitch. The collapsing levee system and water that wouldn’t stop until eighty percent of one of America’s signature cities was underwater. The red, spray-painted hieroglyphics on doors and walls telling of horrors lying within. The stench of forsaken death on 95-degree afternoons in a powerless city.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House was not spared. Her restaurant and connected home were flooded, and Willie Mae Seaton herself was nearly ninety years old. The very notion of starting over was more than her tired bones could bear. But in a city where food grows from a topic of conversation into a hobby and finally into an obsession, the idea of life without Willie Mae’s golden fried yardwalker was unbearable to the municipal belly.

What happened next bespeaks volumes about the kindness of Deep South strangers. With the spirit of an Amish country barnraising, people united only by appetites for good food and good works rolled up their sleeves, picked up often-unfamiliar tools and pitched in. Spearheaded by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a ragtag coalition of writers, chefs and everyday chowhounds dedicated to protecting the culinary traditions of the American South, an army of volunteers spent more than a year of weekends repairing and restoring the Scotch House.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House reopened under the watchful eye of Willie Mae and in the more than capable hands of her great-granddaughter Kerry, the only person to whom the kitchen’s secrets have ever been passed.

While the James Beard Award had made the restaurant famous to a small, passionate band of foodophiles, designation by Food Network as the best place for fried chicken in America, along with regular mentions from media über-chefs John Besh and Emeril Lagasse, among others, put Willie Mae’s in the middle of the media mainstream.

Business is booming these days at the Scotch House. Steady streams of taxis disgorge French Quarter tourists and convention delegates at the front door, and the waits are getting longer at the no reservations, two-room restaurant. Grumblings from locals that “their” place is being overrun with outsiders are inevitable.

Mrs. McH and I went and waited a few weeks ago. It was our fourth visit since Katrina. Did the fried chicken continue to live up to its pre-ballyhoo reputation? It did. The red beans were as good as any I’ve had anywhere, and the home-squeezed lemonade made for a remarkably refreshing washdown. The tab (cash only) ran about thirty-two dollars including tax and a nice but not extravagant tip for the pleasant young gentleman who waited on us.

We had absolutely no complaints about anything.

And now I’m scared.

While sudden success may not have killed off as many restaurants as chronic under-capitalization, it’s taken out more than its fair share. Try as hard as I might to look the other way, I’m beginning to see the telltale signals of a place that has its eyes on expansion and not keeping an eye on what they already have.

Business hours are expanding. Willie Mae’s is a lunch-only place with posted hours from eleven until three Monday through Saturday. A new print ad says they’re now open Sundays.

They’ve started to serve beer. Despite Scotch House’s origins as a tavern, the place had been dry for years. While anyone who knows me might find my objections to an eatery selling beer ironic if not downright comical, there has always been a certain charm to be found in a place that makes all its money selling food. Also, a restaurateur’s knowledge that he or she will succeed or fail based totally upon the quality of the food will make for a restaurateur who keeps a sharper eye on the quality of what’s coming out of the kitchen.

According to an ad in one of the tourism magazines, Willie Mae’s is said to be accepting all major credit cards. When asked about this, our waiter said it wasn’t true, that it still has a cash only policy. As nice as he was, I’m not sure he knew what he was talking about. For now, the cash only status and lack of an on-premises ATM still offers the amusing moment of a panicked out-of-town customer trying to find a cash machine in a dicey part of the city or facing the grim prospect of a long afternoon washing chicken grease off dishes in a crowded scullery.

Finally, I had spent great amounts of time in New Orleans over the past 35 years without ever hearing about Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Now it’s in every tourism pub in the city with ads pushing the Food Network “Best Chicken” kudos. Uh-oh.

It’s unsporting at best to chastise restaurateurs for capitalizing on glittering reviews that start bringing in so many customers that expansion becomes inevitable. But I can think of few prospects more deplorable than Willie Mae’s Scotch House opening a new location seating 200 somewhere along a soulless commercial strip in a suburb like Metairie or Kenner, the kind of place where a twenty-foot tall neon drumstick would fit right in.

I don’t pretend to be smart enough to tell anyone the secret of the success Willie Mae’s Scotch House is currently enjoying. My suspicion is that it’s a combination of its very limited menu, dining rooms that aren’t too big for its small kitchen and a dogged determination to make sure that everything is not only cooked to order, but cooked the way Willie Mae herself would were she still manning the skillets.

All to often, the price of changing success is failure. A key question is whether or not the new generation, as personified by great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton, will have the patience to continue doing the same old thing in the same old way that made a small fried chicken joint in Tremé an American culinary landmark. All of us can only hope she will.

Within the time she has to make her decision, go there. And make sure to take cash.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House is located at 2401 St. Ann,
on the corner of Tonti and St. Ann
in the historic Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans.
The hours are uncertain and subject to change,
but traditionally, lunch has been served from
11 AM to 3 PM Monday through Friday.
Cash is always honored; credit cards are questionable.
The telephone number is (504) 822-9503.