Tourists come to the Big Easy to fill their ears with music but they get an extra bargain (lagniappe) just by walking through the French Quarter snapping pics of sights they probably won’t see back home.
But where does one go to get great food and lots of it at a price which doesn’t require a close friendship with Queen Elizabeth’s Exchequer of Loans? That’s easy. First you figure out WHAT the locals eat, then you find out WHERE they go. But before I share the secrets of a native son with you, I’d better let you know a few things about local foods and customs.
Crawfish and oysters and crabs can be found in abundance in the restaurants of New Orleans. They are usually advertised as a “boiled seafood” item. These delectable creatures are dropped into boiling water which contains a savory mixture of enough exotic spices to resurrect a Marco Polo or embalm an Egyptian and all his cats. Certain sections of the French Quarter are famous for the odoriferous occasions caused by this daily ritual, as these crustaceans are fragrantly boiled in a huge vat in an open air window.
After crustaceans, the other great staples of New Orleans are a variety of sandwiches named Po-Boys and an item of Italian/Mediterranean extraction called a muffaletta. The Po-Boy is a sandwich made on a piece of French Bread, sliced lengthways and stuffed with all manner of good meats, gravies and sauces, or deep-fried crustaceans. Muffalettas are similar, but they’re made on a round piece of Italian bread sliced open and stuffed with chopped green and black olives, seasoned olive oil and sliced Italian cold cuts and cheeses of every type. A good muff measures at least 10 inches or more in diameter and fills two.
Along with the ever-familiar family of crustaceans we can include the ever-available fried catfish. Keep in mind that these are often used in Po-Boys. The name Po-Boy originates from earlier references to a time when the best meal a local “poor boy” could get cheaply was a huge sandwich stuffed with whatever could be placed between each piece of French bread, or long bread, as it is still called by certain native Creoles. Next on the list is what my Cajun mother, Josephine Marie Boudreaux, called “Great Depression Cuisine” (it sounds beautiful in Cajun French). Now as Josie used to say, “in olden days” there were some establishments famous for serving large portions of red beans, white beans, lima beans (giant and baby) and rice, for 65 cents. We refer to the mythical eras from the 1950s to the late 1960s when restaurants like Buster Holmes existed on the corner of Orleans and Burgundy Streets. Even through the ‘70s, this restaurant and others of its ilk continued to perpetuate the tradition of big portions of local food favorites at small prices. Currently there are still some places I will name that carry on the great tradition, even though 65 cents might now be three or four dollars a plate.
By now you should have some concept of the theological influence (in this Roman Catholic city) of the Holy Trinity of cheap foodstuffs: seafood and Po-Boys, legumes/rice, and spaghetti served a la simplicité (it used to be a sin to eat meat of any kind on Fridays, as any pre-Vatican II RC native will confess).
Now where can you go to get this combination of Great Depression Dishes at a low price? We must mention that many ethnic establishments have replaced the low-cost big portion local Great Depression Cuisine, but this has only served to enrich the variety.
They say New Orleans never changes, and that may be true, but everybody sees that sameness, hears that sameness and tastes that sameness in a uniquely different manner. We like it that way and you probably will too.
THE HUMMINGBIRD HOTEL GRILL
804 St. Charles Avenue, Open 24 hours, Phone: 523-9165
This is the Queen of the Big Servings at Low Prices. Walk eight blocks from the French Quarter down St. Charles Avenue. Keep looking toward the Statue of Robert E. Lee, high on his pedestal in the middle of Lee Circle. When you get to the corner of Julia and St. Charles, look straight ahead and you will see the giant Hummingbird Hotel sign, hundreds of light bulbs flashing its name twenty-four hours a day (the attached hotel is also so reasonable it attracts a majority of European youth). Remember, this place is always open.
Between the hours of 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. you can get the Breakfast Specials. Plate lunches cover the Holy Trinity of Basics: beans and rice, pasta and seafoods. Examples: a huge platter of spaghetti and meatballs, giant servings of black eyed peas over rice with sausage, and on Tuesday, my favorite, the short ribs or roast beef, mashed potatoes, lima beans, cole slaw, cornbread, and—get this—they only use real butter, for everything. The cost: from $2.95 to $3.00 (highest price on the menu is $9.00 for a T-bone steak). Depending on the hours, you get a free show via colorful characters of every persuasion, who habituate the place after dark. Popular with policemen. This is the greatest down-home secret grill in New Orleans. It’s not Commander’s Palace, but it costs considerably less. A fun and cheap place.
LA. PRODUCTS GROCERY & DELI
618 Julia Street, Hours: M-F 6AM-6PM, Sat. 7AM-6PM, Phone: 529-1666
Around the corner from the Hummingbird Grill is a small family-owned grocery store/deli. This secret place is a delightful anachronism. Exactly like a storefront eatery on Amsterdam Avenue or Columbia, NY circa 1960. A combination grocery store/deli, it sells groceries and serves homemade goodies. Lots of health-food salads and pitas stuffed with tuna and tabouleh, tomatoes, onions. All for about $3.00. Among others made fresh daily, they serve a great local salad favorite: sliced red beets marinated in raw onions and vinaigrette served on lettuce leaves. This small deli/store has four mismatched wooden tables and chairs for sit-downers. Lots of good Po-Boys and other sandwiches as well as a selection of the more health-food conscious deli delights, with all those bean sprouts and non-meat items. Popular with local artists and now you know about it, too. Try crawfish meat pies or the broccoli cheese pies, for about $3.00, all locally made by Mrs. Wheat. Located along Julia Row, a collection of historic townhouses dating from the 1830s.
1109 Decatur (in the French Quarter), Open Every Day 11AM-3AM, Phone: 525-9053
One of our residents said, “I came here for Mardi Gras and just stayed. That was 69 years ago!” Well, Jeff Cooperman came here for an education at Tulane U. and stayed, although certainly not 69 years ago. The place is operated as a hangout for locals. Hence Jeff’s concern that his seafood be as spicy and hot as locals want it. And it is. One pool table and a nice large center bar, stained glass and dark stained woodwork add charm and a laid back ambience. Prices range from a low of $1.75 up to about $10.00. About a half-dozen sit-down tables and two in a back patio. Great dishes from the beans and rice-pasta-seafood trinity, but also a vast selection of Po-Boys, seafood dinners, jambalayas, you name it, you get it. Coop’s is one of several inexpensive places on Decatur Street. They also serve ice cold draft of a delicious new beer, Abita Amber, made in the famous Abita Springs area across Lake Pontchartrain.
THE PALM COURT JAZZ CAFÉ
1204 Decatur Street, Hours: Wed-Sun Noon to 10PM, Phone: 525-0200
Nina Buck, owner of this beautifully designed restaurant/bar/jazz club, is the blonde-haired blue-eyed Botticelli of Decatur Street. Spacious, airy and bright, with large windows open onto Decatur Street, the layout is among the best in the jazz club circuit—this lady knows what she’s doing. Food selections are good, the favorite being Red Beans and Rice with Garlic Chicken at $3.75. There’s quite a variety of dinners, none costing more than $5.50, with an imaginative menu of creative dishes using seasonal items. A fine selection of desserts including a New Orleans bread pudding/rum sauce delight. A selection of records is available for purchase via the GHB Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation of the American musical heritage. Some of the great living local artists perform at this stylish but inexpensive venue.
817 St. Louis Street, Hours: 8AM-Midnight, Phone: 522-6440
Popular with locals, especially the late night crowd of entertainers. Famous for the world’s largest crepes, and they are. Priced from $4.50 to $7.95, you can get them stuffed with almost anything in the universe. Especially good with seasonal items. Good breakfasts from $4.50 to $7.95. Shrimp, catfish and oyster platters for about $8.00. Good jambalaya, gumbo and crawfish etouffee up to $9.95. Delicious food in the center of the French Quarter.
1210 Decatur Street/65 Market Place, Hours: Every Day 8AM-10PM, Phone: 522-0636
This is another fairly new business opened in a completely renovated old warehouse. It contains a fairly large selection of groceries as well as a great selection of salads, Po-Boys and special combo sandwiches including the muffaletta. Grill offerings are limited to traditional hamburgers, chicken breasts or steak and fries. Prices range from a low of $1.25 for an order of traditional potato salad to a top cost of $6.95 for the steak and fries. In between you get daily specials like Red Beans & Rice with Sausage, Beef Stew with Rice, Meatballs & Spaghetti for $3.50. Popular with locals, so you know the food’s authentic and plentiful. Items are made fresh daily.
501 Esplanade Avenue at Decatur, Hours: Tues-Sat 11AM-10PM, Sun 11AM-9PM, Phone: 948-2381
A New Orleans institution since 1974, Tortilla Flats began in the old Tomato Warehouse at the Flea Market, then settled at this corner into a larger place, featuring one of the biggest patio garden dining areas in the city. Bordertown cuisine for a low price. Lots of light and space and a great bar. Decor overrun with pigs of every size and shape. Check out the life-sized pig lamp inside the entrance. Lots of Mexicali-type pinatas and rainbow colors make the place happy and, of course, very laid back. Food prices range from $1.25 for chips to $8.95 for Steak Picado (not bad for a 12 oz. sirloin). The usual nachos, chili, guacamole appetizers and dinners of enchiladas and chimichangas, including a seafood enchilada all in the middle price ranges from $5.75 to $7.75. Some of the best Margaritas in town by the glass ($2.50) or pitcher (if you dare for $12.50). Great breakfasts, priced from $2.00 to $2.22 and up.
MAXIMO’S ITALIAN GRILL
1117 Decatur Street, Hours: Daily 6PM-1AM, Phone: 586-8883
This is a gloriously restored four-story building and it houses a magnificent, carefully thought out restaurant featuring Northern Italian cuisine a la San Francisco, according to owner Jason Manixter. You can sit at the bar and watch the food being prepared over the enormous flaming grill. There’s also a private dining area upstairs opening to a balcony with more tables. This area is summa cum pop with the set that likes to watch the kaleidoscopic activities on the street and hear jazz from Storyville across the way. A really elegant, clean, well-managed place, but the ambience remains very relaxed. Uses lots of seafoods in season, and offers great salads combining dried tomatoes, fresh, and home-grown greens. Has an herb garden on the roof. Arugula, black olives, red onions, eggplant and great Veal Saltimbocca, Marsala, Parmesan, and Piccata. Many items grilled, from meats to sausages, fish and shrimp. Pasta dishes galore, of course. A great wine list and bar. Classy and worth every penny. Prices range from a low of $2.50 (side dishes) to a high of $25.95 for a Mixed Grill For Two combining grilled Italian sausages, lamb chops, chicken breast, fish and beef tenderloin. A special place for that special occasion.