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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

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Slider Bob Discovers Willie Mae's Scotch House

To the horror of hidebound traditionalists,
who adventurously made their way to Tremé
when Willie Mae’s still wallowed in obscurity,
there have been (gasp!) changes made.

It was more a matter of luck than good planning when I found my old pal “Slider” Bob on the other end of the ringing telephone, asking me the name of the fried chicken place I’m always raving about.

The name of the place is Willie Mae’s Scotch House and it’s on a dicey street corner in the Tremé section of New Orleans, the oldest African American suburb in the United States and still an area where urban re-gentrification has yet to gain a meaningful foothold.

Slider had a delivery to make across the Mississippi River on Algiers Point, and rather than give him directions, it was easier to ask if he had an empty passenger seat. All he had to say was that he did, and that was that. It was a cloudless morning with a hint of spring in it and the lure of lunch at Willie Mae’s was far more compelling than the prospect of a day wrangling nouns and verbs in advance of an approaching deadline.

To understand the appeal of such a slothful day, you should understand a little about Slider and a lot about Willie Mae’s.

I can think of no better advertisement for reincarnation than the possibility of coming back for another lifetime go-round as Slider Bob. He’s bald, middle-aged, undemanding and equally unassuming. He loves good food, finds it everywhere he happens to be, yet has shown the iron will to give up enough of it to lose sixty pounds without cutting a single drop from his prodigious consumption of beer.

Willie Mae Seaton opened the doors to her “Scotch House” in 1957, and proceeded to run it for the next 48 years in relative obscurity. Originally a neighborhood bar, the booze was eventually elbowed out of the way by food. Overshadowed in terms of both visibility and history by Dooky Chase’s restaurant one block away, Willie Mae’s remained more focused on feeding the neighborhood while Chase’s built its name by feeding the New Orleans civil rights movement, for which the restaurant served as a major meeting place.

Despite its backstreet location in a high crime neighborhood, Willie Mae’s had something going for it: namely, fried chicken. New Orleans has always been a fried chicken town (the Popeye’s chain was founded here, for heaven’s sake), and any discussion of whose is best can serve as the preamble to a protracted argument. Every place that fries chicken wants to put their name into the discussion, of course, but among the places most often mentioned are Dooky Chase’s, Fiorella’s in the French Quarter, Lil’ Dizzy’s on Esplanade and, of course, Willie Mae’s Scotch House.

It seems that every New Orleans restaurant has both a “secret ingredient” and a determination to never reveal it, and Willie Mae’s is no exception. If you buy into the legend (and why not?), you’ll discover that Willie Mae passed down her closely guarded secret only to her great-granddaughter, Kerry, who runs the restaurant to this day. In a National Public Radio interview, Kerry let it slip that the secret was using a “wet batter” and salt and pepper as the only spices. This was all well and good until people started trying to duplicate the recipe at home with predictably unsuccessful results.

The enigma of the recipe aside, word of Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken began to slowly spread across the city. Had the Scotch House been located somewhere other than Tremé, there’s little doubt that fame would have come quicker. New Orleans can be a very odd town, in more ways than those that are obvious. While talking about places to eat is seemingly the city’s favorite sport (even more so than their beloved Saints), a lot of people have a tendency to clam up when asked about their favorite restaurant, particularly when said place isn’t conventional. It’s as if talking about a place will cause it to suddenly fall prey to the curse of mediocrity.

Buzz about Willie Mae’s fried chicken spread at a speed that could politely be called “glacial,” but spread it did, and in the spring of 2005, Willie Mae’s Scotch House was cited as one of “America’s Classics,” a special designation for outstanding regional restaurants and cuisine in the ultra-prestigious James Beard Awards. That accolade even caught the attention of Slider, who began hinting that a road trip to a chicken joint sounded like a more than acceptable adventure (provided, of course, there would be plenty of beer).

The cat was out of the bag.

Lines got long, then longer.

Business boomed.

And five short months later, Katrina blew into town and the whole place was under water.

What happened next bespeaks volumes about the kindness of Deep South strangers. With the spirit of an Amish country barn raising, 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.

While the James Beard Award had made the restaurant famous to a small, passionate band of foodophiles, designation by Food Network for having “the best fried chicken in America,” plus regular mentions from media über-chefs, including John Besh and Emeril Lagasse, firmly plantedWillie Mae’s in the epicurean spotlight.

Since reopening, Willie Mae’s Scotch House has grown from a phenomenon shrouded in whispers into a full-fledged institution. Print ads touting honors now appear in magazines catering to both visitors and the local entertainment/lifestyle market. Taxis regularly disgorge hordes of French Quarter tourists at the door. The Tremé neighborhood has become temporarily trendy due to an eponymous series on Home Box Office. Beer, which disappeared from the place years ago, is once again for sale. After a half-century policy of “cash only,” they now honor most major plastic. To the horror of hidebound traditionalists, who adventurously made their way to Tremé when Willie Mae’s still wallowed in obscurity, there have been (gasp!) changes made.

Slider and I pulled up to the non-descript, white plank building that houses Willie Mae’s at about 1:30 on a weekday when business in the French Quarter was lighter than usual. Roughly a dozen diners were milling in front of the plain white door. Occasionally, the front door would open and a group of two or four of diners would jostle its way though those of us clustered on the sidewalk. Invariably one of them would tell us it was worth the wait.

The doorway at Willie Mae’s is interesting in and of itself since, instead of a host taking names or a formal waiting line, it runs on an ersatz honor system. Essentially, once you no longer see anyone who was there when you arrived, it’s your turn. By the time Slider and I were deemed to be the next through the doorway, the cluster had once again grown to a dozen or so diners, one of whom was a middle-aged woman seemingly undone by the relative informality of the situation. When she inquired as to the whereabouts of the line, she was told she was indeed in it. Commenting that it didn’t seem very organized, she was advised that (a) she was in New Orleans, and (b) for New Orleans, this was a very organized line.

Finally, Slider and I were ushered into the sanctum sanctorum, a dining room with ten tables. The room is plain. The walls are white and covered mostly with posters and photos, the most recent addition of which seems to be of President Obama. The functional, institutional furniture is more practical than pricey. The overall look is what one might expect of a neighborhood soul food place. About the only thing out of place is the framed James Beard citation inconspicuously hanging beside the front door.

The menu is simple. It’s fried chicken and a half dozen sides. There are some other entrees listed, why I don’t know, since I’ve never seen anything but plates and platters of chicken make their way out the kitchen door. What’s the point? This same kitchen door “research” indicated that the majority of customers picked red beans and rice as their side order. Slider fell into his “when in Rome” mindset and ordered the chicken and red beans; I’ve never ordered anything else at Willie Mae’s and saw no reason to end a perfectly good streak.

The food at Willie Mae’s is reputed to be cooked to order. Maybe it is; maybe not. Since at least ninety percent of the people coming in are ordering chicken and beans, I think it’s far more likely that there are jumbo pots of beans and rice simmering on a back burner, and that chicken is being battered and dropped into hot oil as long as people are parading through the front door. Such idle speculations may be neither here nor there, since the food keeps coming out of the postage stamp of a kitchen at such a clip there isn’t time or space for it to be anything but hot and fresh.

Once ordered, the wait for our food was between ten and fifteen minutes, during which time Slider Bob kept me entertained by constantly swiveling his head in expectation as a stream of plates paraded from the kitchen to other tables than ours. Our platter of chicken and plates of beans had no more hit the table when Slider grabbed a wing, trisected it and bit into the middle section.

Before the first droplet of Crystal hot sauce could land on my red beans, Slider had broken into a seraphic smile and, as I lip-synched along with him, I wondered how many thousands of people over the years had also rhapsodically claimed, “This is the best fried chicken I’ve every had in my life.”

Is the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House indeed the “best fried chicken in America,” as it has been cited on Food Network and at least suggested by the James Beard Award? I make no pretense to be an arbiter of such matters, but I can think of none better in my half century of experience, nor have I ever heard anyone walking out of Willie Mae’s claim “the chicken is better at (fill-in-the-blank).” It’s crisp outside, moist inside and has a taste that, while essentially unadorned, is anything but bland.

Slider and I didn’t talk much as we made short work of the chicken and beans, at least until there was a single breast forlornly sitting on the platter. I split it with a knife, but much to my surprise, Slider declined to take half, sighing “If I’d known it was going to really be this good, I would have ordered a side green salad instead of the beans.” With each bite I subsequently took, he somehow managed to look even more crestfallen.

Not long ago, I was reading a blog in which someone gushed that Willie Mae’s should be franchised into a national chain. I’m sure the softheaded son-of-a-bitch meant it as some sort of compliment, but the factors that make Willie Mae’s such a success are anathema to such shallow enthusiasm. The place works because, by the numbers: it’s ten tables small, open only 24 hours a week, defies the number one fundamental of real estate (location, location, location) and focuses 99% of its effort on preparing one item better than any other restaurant in America. And according to my old pal Slider Bob, “that puts ‘em one up on any other chicken joint in the whole U.S. of A.” All I can add to that is one rousing “Amen.”

Willie Mae’s Scotch House
Soul Food, Fried Chicken
(Approximately 1.9 miles by taxi from the
corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)
2401 St. Ann (on the corner of Tonti and St. Ann)
Lunch Monday – Saturday, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Accepts major credit cards, no reservations
Telephone: (504) 822-9503
No website

1 comment:

  1. I'm honored to be so prominently mentioned in one of my favorite blogs and, yes, it is the best fried chicken I have ever tasted. I'm looking forward to many more road trips! Slider Bob