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Chau Down: A New Orleans Food Diary

Seven days in the Crescent City, where the Ringer’s resident foodie ate some of the best fried chicken in America, quested for a perfect gumbo, and found home away from home

The scent of Popeyes fried chicken in a car is all my brother needs to be transported back to Day 1 of the rest of his life. He’d just turned 6, spending his birthday at an airport in Thailand. It was 1989; my family was sponsored over to the U.S. from southern Vietnam by my uncle, an army captain who was one of the earliest Vietnamese immigrants to settle in America after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He picked them up at the airport, but home would have to wait. First, a family order of Popeyes for the road. My brother’s first meal in America was a piece of fried chicken. It was specifically the aroma wafting within the car that he remembers so fondly, the smell of something completely foreign. That was his first memory of the States, a Proustian moment so vivid even our cousin retells the story as though it were her own. My dad’s first memory of America was of the giant mosquito that bit him just as he opened the airport doors. Two generations, two different perspectives; one rapt by the newness of it all, the other acutely aware of the challenges ahead. I was two years away.

In another timeline not too far diverged from this one, I’d live as an Orleanian. My family had a five-month sojourn in New Orleans, a prolonged layover on their way to their eventual destination: the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, home to some of the biggest Asian American communities in the country. It would’ve been a different life had we stayed in Louisiana. Maybe I’d have spent my high school years working in the back of Cafe Du Monde, cowering in anxiety next to the ladies who run the tight ship amid the bustle of the French Quarter. I would have definitely adopted the Saints as my religion early on. Maybe instead of staying up late as a 4-year-old watching old Showtime Lakers games bootlegged onto VHS tapes in our small garage nook, I’d start to notice the intricacies of defensive line play and kneel at the altar of Pat Swilling before Drew Brees arrived to be the quarterback of my young hopes and dreams.

A wedding brought us back. The same cousin who watched my brother take his first bite of Popeyes was getting married. It was all the reason I needed to spend time in the city that incubated my family’s American experience. The last time I visited, I was a 3-year-old eating his first crawfish. I felt I could do better this time around. Here’s what I ate.

At Last, Willie Mae’s

The weight of recent history bore down on me as we parked the rental van right along the side of Willie Mae’s Scotch House on Tonti Street. Eating at the tiny restaurant had been on my to-do list for years. Too many people whose opinions on food I respect have claimed Willie Mae’s as the best fried chicken anywhere. It has a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award and the enduring patronage of generations of locals and tourists alike—all catnip for the annoying, food-obsessed phylum of humanity that I unfortunately belong to.

I was distracted as I walked toward the door, my eyes affixed on the pavement and gravel along the edges of St. Ann and Tonti, where Willie Mae Seaton sat in 2005 in front of her ravaged restaurant after Hurricane Katrina left the entire Treme neighborhood a virtual ghost town. I’d watched a Southern Foodways Alliance documentary on the restoration of Willie Mae’s Scotch House; Seaton, 89 years old at the time, was resituated in Houston in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, but snuck away from sanctuary, boarded an airplane back to New Orleans, and rode a cab all the way back to that corner of St. Ann and Tonti, just to check on it. It’s a crushing scene to imagine: Seaton returning to her shop on a whim, as though, by chance, everything might’ve been restored just as it was before, and she could return to the kitchen and cook for her customers. The New Orleans police department caught wind of an elderly woman in the neighborhood in need of assistance; after Seaton identified herself, she pulled out one of the few items she had on her person: the James Beard medallion.

Seaton died 10 years later in 2015 at the age of 99, but not before the complete revitalization of a New Orleans institution. We walked into a stunningly empty dining area (I was fully prepared for an hour-long wait). The walls were a tinted a shade of marigold, lined with framed reviews, and displaying, of course, the 2005 Beard award. The centerpiece: a painting of Seaton holding a plate of her fried chicken before you outside of her storefront, a thin halo just above her head.

The chicken was immaculate, encased in a crust unlike any I’ve had previously. The exterior, almost auburn in hue, formed soft ridges, like waveforms of cooling lava suspended in time. Seaton’s recipe is heavily guarded, as all good Southern cooking secrets seem to be, but Willie Mae’s crust could only come from a wet batter, thin enough to yield an airy crisp, but substantial enough to essentially meld with the chicken skin, forming a sort of fritter that acts like a side dish unto itself. The waitress insisted I have a cornbread muffin; turns out it wasn’t necessary.

The other sides, beautifully stewed, however, were: I opted for the green beans, stewed in tomato and plenty of spices, with rice in gravy. Our waitress, dead tired from a work shift at another job she’d just come from, recommended the butter beans in a wistful tone that suggested it was a corpse reviver of a different sort.

I ate fried chicken from five different establishments in New Orleans (Manchu, I’ll get to you next time). Here’s how I’d rank them:

  1. Willie Mae’s
  2. The late-night two-piecer I got fresh out the fryer at the random gas station mini-mart on Rampart at the outer limits of the French Quarter.
  3. Popeyes
  4. Dooky Chase’s
  5. Coop’s Place

Sandwiches, Old and New

I’ve been collecting New Orleans food recommendations for years, long before I had any reason or means of getting there. I dug through all of my old emails and found one rec, from a mentor: Parkway Bakery in Mid-City changed my life.”

The line for Parkway at peak lunch hours (read: on Martin Luther King Jr. Day) is akin to the line for a dark ride at Disneyland. It goes through a dining area with old-time advertisements on the wall that emphasize the cultural impact and longevity of the po’boy. Then it snakes up a few stairs, and through another door. Parkway has been in business for a third of New Orleans’s existence as an established city, which is a serious historical statement when 2018 is the year of New Orleans’s tricentennial. It was Monday, which was fried oyster po’boy day. So we got one of those:

And we couldn’t leave the premises without a little debris from a surf and turf:

Classic Leidenheimer roll made in town, fully dressed and overstuffed. Both sandwiches were textbook executions. The biggest seal of approval? My dad, who is notoriously suspicious of most classic American food staples, was a fan.

Last year, First We Feast’s video series “Food Grails” captured an ongoing cultural dialogue in something as intrinsically New Orleans as the po’boy. The city’s Vietnamese community was established more than 40 years ago, and has become embedded in the local traditions. The lines blurring between po’boy and banh mi was inevitable. One of New Orleans’s most popular po’boy spots, Killer PoBoys, uses banh mi instead of the standard Leidenheimer bread. Their most popular sandwich, befitting of a city with a robust cocktail culture, is an ode to a Dark and Stormy: a roasted pork belly sandwich with a dark rum and ginger glaze. I admired the concept, but it skewed too sweet for my taste; better was the modified roast-beef debris sandwich, topped off with pickled long beans and horseradish sauce.

Alas, not every acclaimed sandwich recommendation hit the mark. Cochon Butcher was a near-unanimous pick from everyone I asked, but I left disappointed. In theory, the Butcher’s muffuletta is a sandwich nerd’s dream: It is a precise study in the geometry of a perfect sandwich. It is logistically sound, designed to deliver the perfect bite, every time. Meats are layered by texture; the olive salad and giardiniera are chopped extra fine to ensure an equal layer of brininess. But I was disappointed in how the actual flavors came together. The smokiness of the bacon wedged between layers upon layers of cured meats dominated the palate without much of a fight from the olive salad. It was definitely a sandwich that leaned heavily on its cured meat, which under most circumstances might not have been a problem for me. I was just surprised at the lack of balance from one of the most composed sandwiches I’ve ever ordered.

Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop

A year ago, I rang in 2017 with my specialty gumbo. I’ve been honing my gumbo-making technique for more than six years now, ever since I was a college student looking for a hearty stew with common ingredients that could last a week in the fridge. But only last year did I stop to think about how absurd it was to have so much confidence in my gumbo when the only frame of reference I’ve ever had was my own version of the dish. I soon became consumed with the history of gumbo. I read personal narratives lovingly written about gumbo and family. The writing couldn’t physically season my palate, but it granted me the relief in acknowledging I didn’t know a damn thing. With a new sense of levity, I resolved to try what I’d never had the guts to do before.

I set a bizarre mandate for myself: I would stir the roux for 45 minutes, no more, no less. I wanted it to be as dark as my anxious heart could bear. I watched as the nascent mixture, the color of wet stucco, graded into deeper palettes: from blond to peanut butter, from cafe au lait to ochre, from mahogany to mole negro. A black roux tests your faith, your patience, and most importantly, your sense of smell—the line that separates a usable dark base and a scorched waste of time is nearly imperceptible. A black roux takes the combination of fat and flour to the edge of its life, and then gives it a new one. It is a near-death experience that nonetheless transitions into an afterlife.

As Robert Moss noted in a finely researched history of roux in New Orleans gumbo published in Serious Eats, a darker roux has become standard practice in the past three decades, a phenomenon largely indebted to Paul Prudhomme, an influential chef who altered the trajectory of New Orleans cuisine in the ’80s. Prudhomme emphasized the deep, sultry, swampy characteristics of gumbo, in flavor and hue. Before his recipes and machinations became gospel for a new generation of New Orleans cooks and residents, gumbos were lighter in color, and less viscous.

Ask anyone in New Orleans about who makes the best gumbo in town, and more likely than not, you’ll hear about someone’s mom. It is a kind of dish that preserves family traditions; it’s a dish with infinite variations. The idea of getting it anywhere but home might seem preposterous to those embedded within Cajun and Creole culture.

I ordered the gumbo at every stop we made that offered it. Some used too much roux as thickener, the texture disconcertingly close to a country gravy; others were little more than a tomato and okra soup; plenty were somewhere in between, with a lot of filé powder—a pungent, earthy herb that was historically used in gumbos during the winter when okra was out of season but has since become part of the regional palate. My favorite gumbo came from Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop in Metairie. Their Mumbo Gumbo is similar to the kitchen-sink variety that I tend to make at home: chicken, sausage, and seafood, all in one pot. But the expression of flavors was clearer in the Chef Ron’s version, as though the components were stratified, each lending a certain percentage of its essence to the dish that adds up to the whole. The seafood gumbo was even better, with the oceanic sweetness of shrimp, crawfish, and crabmeat peeking through the rich stew it’s interlaced with.

I told my brother about my gumbo, and how it was overstuffed compared with what we had at Chef Ron’s. We were in agreement: The essence of the gumbo was in the space between. Not in the bits of protein, but in the flavors that had culminated as a result of their union. It was an edifying experience. I can’t wait to try my hand at another pot.

Cocktail Break

Cognac was first exported to China and surrounding Asian countries in the 1850s, where it became a symbol of prestige and opulence. Asian wedding banquets, specifically in Hong Kong and Vietnam, will feature a bottle from one of the four houses of Cognac (but typically Hennessy or Rémy Martin) at every table. I have dreams of opening my own restaurant/bar in the next 10 years. The first cocktail on the menu will be called Vietnamese Wedding: cognac, sparkling water, and lime bitters—a nod to the 2-liter of Sprite or 7 Up that often accompanies the bottle of cognac on the lazy Susan.

I’ve been to dozens of Vietnamese wedding banquets in my lifetime, but in New Orleans, I encountered something new. During my cousin’s wedding dinner, the waiters at the restaurant were asked to bring out the stainless steel teapots, the kind typically used during dim sum. From there, cognac was emptied into the pots and diluted with water and ice. Agents of chaos walked around the dance floor and neighboring tables with teapots in hand, asking for the honor of pouring some straight down your gullet, the way Catalonians drink wine from a porrón. It was terrifying. It was brilliant. Angelenos: Invite me to your wedding banquets. Let’s bring this tradition farther west.

Here’s a quick rundown of my alcoholic intake in New Orleans:

Best Beer: Urban South Holy Roller IPA

Most Frequently Consumed Beer: Yuengling

Best Cocktail: Mezcal White Negroni, Bar Tonique (Shouts out to Mark.)

Most Labor-Intensive Cocktail Consumed: Ramos Gin Fizz

Best Decision: Getting a 44-oz. drive-through daiquiri for a discounted $8

Worst Decision: Getting a 44-oz. drive-through daiquiri for a discounted $8

Harbor Seafood & Oyster Bar

We arrived in New Orleans a couple of weeks early for crawfish season, which, under optimal weather conditions, can start as early as Christmas. But the winter had been colder than usual, delaying the season. Finding fresh-not-frozen crawdads meant knowing a person who knew a person who had a local connection, or calling ahead to make sure. The last time I was in New Orleans, crawfish boils were a regional delicacy. These days, with so many Cajun seafood restaurants owned by Vietnamese families, the palate for that flavor has experienced a westward expansion. Los Angeles and Houston (two metropolises with significant Asian populations) have become hubs for crawfish import, but something gets lost in transit. Franchises like The Boiling Crab in Southern California approximate the experience of a boil, but so much of what they serve is drowned in a garlicky, spiced butter solution that amplifies a broad, vague Cajun flavor but overcompensates for the crawfish itself rather than accentuates. It’s a classic case of making the most of what you have, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a crawfish boil.

Harbor Seafood is a perfect restaurant, rightfully listed on Eater New Orleans’s essential 38 restaurants list. It’s a spot one of my uncles has been visiting since he was a college student. It still manages to feel like a hidden gem because it is; it’s a couple of cities away from New Orleans proper, located in Kenner, out by the airport. The oysters are sweet, the beer is cheap, and the crawfish is everything I dreamed it would be. We took down 12 pounds.

Trying to kill the hour wait for a table, my brother walked a few blocks to a nearby church where a Pokémon Go raid was occurring. There he met a local food truck owner, who asked him if he was waiting for a table at Harbor. How did you know? “Because if you’re not from here, there ain’t no other reason to be here,” the man said.

Back to the Beginning

Leonard Fournette looked indestructible as he bludgeoned the Steelers for three touchdowns and 109 yards, but he was no match for a 4-year-old boy given permission to wail on the drums. It was divisional playoffs Sunday. I was at a family lunch and there was a drum set right next to the TV. The kids and toddlers took turns giving it a go. It was a gallery of uncoordinated limbs and unmitigated joy. Only one was capable of maintaining a rhythm.

We were in a house that has been in the family for decades. It sits beside a canal that runs along Morrison Road in New Orleans East, a section of the city that was particularly ravaged by Katrina. There was a serious effort to rebuild the interior of the house, but upon walking in, everything seemed … normal. It wouldn’t be until I stepped back out onto Morrison Road and noticed the two adjacent parcels of land still empty, where houses used to be, that the lingering effects of the hurricane snapped into focus. New Orleans East has largely been populated by black Americans and Vietnamese migrant communities. That marriage of cultures made its way into this particular biracial household.

All the older women in the family were huddled in the small kitchen finishing lunch prep: on the menu, nem nướng cuon (broiled ground-pork patties wrapped in rice paper rolls) and chả giò (Vietnamese egg rolls). When it became clear there wouldn’t be enough food to serve visiting guests, the man of the household was sent off to acquire more. He returned, braving the cold in a Saints beanie and a billowing Saints winter jacket, with a family meal from Popeyes. It made perfect sense.

Nem nuong. Popeye's fried chicken. NFL playoffs. New Orleans.

A post shared by Danny Chau (@dannykingchau) on

One of my favorite essays of last year was written by Soleil Ho for Taste Magazine, about the food immigrants make with foreign ingredients from their new land in an effort to remember their old one. She called it assimilation food: “food that’s made to close the gap between homes.” Our Sunday lunch made no effort in differentiating the two. Cultures, cuisines—the spaces we feel safe enough to call home didn’t merge as much as expand.

Our final day in New Orleans was threatened by the coldest morning in recent city history. Our pre-flight lunch plans were thwarted. All the bridges that connected the city were iced over. All major highways from Lafayette to New Orleans were closed. (But considering how many big rigs I saw flipped over on their side on Interstate 10 during my trip under normal weather conditions, it was probably for the best.) Hungry and trapped in Slidell, roughly 40 miles away from city proper, we considered our options. But we knew there was only one right answer. Forty minutes later, after a slow-and-steady drive into town and a wait in line among like-minded residents, we returned with a family pack of Popeyes fried chicken. An American dream comes full circle.

They say Popeyes tastes better in Louisiana. I’m still not sure that’s true—Popeyes tastes good anywhere—but I understand the sentiment a whole lot better now.

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