A Street Food Named Desire

by Zach Mann on August 1, 2013 · 0 comments

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Alligator Cheesecake - Jacques-Imo's Cafe - New Orleans, LA
Her neighbor wasn’t no backcountry hillbilly. Our cab driver stressed this point. She was telling us about the annual barbecues she attended out in the New Orleans suburbs, hosted by her neighbor, the chef. His specialty was squirrel and raccoon. “But gourmet,” she insisted. “It’s a delicacy here, you know.”

The cabbie might have been kicking it up a notch for us tourists, but her picture of local life agreed with the one I rode in on. My only prior first-hand experience in Louisiana had been the small town of Natchitoches, where car-struck armadillos, gators and crawfish paved the roads, and where, at age six, I saw my first and only domesticated possum walked on a leash. In Natchitoches the wide-hipped waitresses swooned over how skinny I was and served up mounds of smothered, fried food and gumbo pots full of who-knows-what.

Lazy Sunday barbecues with gourmet squirrel and mystery gumbo fit in with my childhood impression, cultivated first by Disney’s The Rescuers, and then by The Big Easy, where Dennis Quaid sings zydeco on a porch and says the phrase “crawfish etouffee” once every six seconds. And while our diet in New Orleans did much to confirm Natchitoches’ version of Louisiana, with turtle soup, alligator cheesecake and plenty gumbos and etouffees, what impressed me most about the city’s cuisine was something far more familiar – metropolitan street food.

Johnny's Po-Boys - New Orleans, LA Surf and Turf
I first learned the word po’ boy at Uncle Darrow’s Cajun Creole Eatery, a longstanding Los Angeles diner that moved from South Central to a strip mall down the street from my parents’ house when I was a teenager. The old black man behind the counter treated me like I was one heck of a customer just for walking in, compiling positive reinforcements regarding Louisiana cuisine, a vague sense that either Cajun and/or Creole food was my favorite kind of food – a seed planted at age six in Natchitoches.

But the po’ boys at Uncle Darrows were a poor preview for the ones at Johnny’s in New Orleans. Uncle Darrow’s version is typical of California, deep-fried something served on too-thick bread with cayenne-mayo and a bottle of Crystal hot sauce as garnish. Not a bad combination by any means, but a starchy meal that generally ended with half the hot sauce bottle empty. On the contrary, Johnny’s po’ boy leaves its wax-paper wrapping covered in gravy drippings.

Of course, the “surf and turf” at Johnny’s Po’ Boy in the French Quarter might be a special case. The location, with its long lines of tourists, tramples any local authority Johnny’s might have regarding NOLA sandwich culture, and a pairing of roast beef and shrimp precludes any po’ boy typicality. But New Orleans is a saucy city, and something tells me its sandwiches are no exception. Johnny’s surf and turf was still the best po’ boy I’d had, because it was just mushy enough. The juices soaked into the baguette. Flavor flanked each bite. And the hot sauce bottle on the table remained capped.

Central Grocery - New Orleans, LA Muffuletta Sandwich - Central Grocery - New Orleans, LA
It’s the wet approach that turns the muffuletta from a deli sandwich into a transcendent experience. While Santa Monica’s Bay Cities Italian Deli has given me a privileged relationship with Italian-style subs, where the crusty bread is soaked through with Italian dressing and each bite explodes with the aggression of vinegar and pepperoncinis, even Bay Cities’ sandwiches lack the dogged personality of a New Orleans muffuletta.

The Central Grocery isn’t much more than a convenience mart down the block from numerous French Market shops. In this case, the conveniences tend to be imported and jarred in oil, specialty items for the giardiniera lovers of the city. But the products on the shelves are secondary, because the Central Grocery is also the home of the muffuletta.

The famous sandwich is dependent on a couple key ingredients beyond its familiar Subway Italian BMT fillings. A medley of olives and garlic replace the usual vegetables, but most noticeable is the focaccia-esque muffuletta, a bread that acts as a sponge to the fatty meats and cheeses, and the olive oil soaked olive salad, which leaves each nook and cranny glistening and golden.

Crab Sandwich - Cake Cafe - New Orleans, LA Crab Cake, Grits - Cake Cafe - New Orleans, LA
The muffaletta, an Italian immigrant invention, was not the kind of specialty I expected in a city synonymous, from my vantage point in California, with the terms Creole and Cajun. But a closer look at Louisiana will show that the state’s older ethnic groups are more likely to style Natchitoches than New Orleans, and likewise their respective gumbos taste better on the bayou than in a city center. If I’d been chasing the words Cajun or Creole, I tracked the etymology back to the wrong place. Hell, even our talkative cab driver with the neighbor chef was originally from Buffalo, New York.

There’s no excuse for being surprised that a city the size of New Orleans, with multiple colleges and a long international history, is metropolitan in nature. But that’s not what six-year-old me expected. This was especially jarring when we walked east of the jazz clubs, deeper into Faubourg Marigny, where the humid front porches make way for coffee shops on the corners, and cafes where the menus dare to use the word “vegetarian.”

One of those spots is Cake Cafe, a place for local cupcake lovers and alternative dieters to kick it mid day, sipping iced coffee and playing checkers. The menu ranges from shrimp and grits to tofu sandwiches. It’s the kind of place that I can see myself returning to regularly if I lived in New Orleans and words like Creole and Cajun didn’t rate so unusual in my diner’s dictionary. I’d especially return for the crab sandwich, served with bacon and brie on challah bread.

I’m not mourning the bait-and-switch. I don’t blame those California spots for misadvertising “New Orleans” cuisine. This is the classic tale of putting something on a pedestal, and then finally climbing the pedestal and not finding gumbo, or crawfish etouffee, but some sandwiches. And some pretty darn good ones.

Johnny’s Po-Boys
511 St Louis St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
Central Grocery
923 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70116
New Orleans Cake Cafe & Bakery
2440 Chartres St.
New Orleans, LA 70117

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