Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chicago - The Two-Lunch Layover

Let’s imagine you’re traveling through Chicago, and let’s imagine you’ve become stuck.  Be it by the caprice of some always-sudden and unfailingly massive Midwestern thunderstorm, or the inevitable voyager’s travail of traveling through the world’s seventh busiest airport only to find that air traffic is tangled—yet again—with all the algebraic complexity of a Gordian knot, there you are, in some soul-crushing O’Hare International lounge area, seated directly under a television monitor, loud with that now-ubiquitous-in-airports CNN broadcast, and adjacent to that inexorable won’t-stop-crying newborn, with five hours of daylight to burn before the next available flight is able to carry you back home.

Were you elsewhere—Denver, Detroit, Dallas even—I’d declare your situation beyond remedy, without hope, and direct you to the nearest airport bar, where you might repair to a booth of worn Naugahyde, ply your doom with few warm, flat, and way overpriced pints of Sam Adams Light, and wallow in that unmistakably existential let’s-open-a-vein variety of despair endemic of any particularly suck-ass American airport.

But you’re not in Denver.  You’re not in Detroit.  You’re in Chicago, boy-o, a veritable wonderland of American gastronomy, where culinary greatness abounds in virtually every neighborhood the city over, and where a traveler exactly like you might hop on the El train, head downtown on the Blue Line, and eat two remarkably delicious meals in the span of a few hours.

Now let’s imagine this traveler is me.

Now let’s imagine this is exactly what I did.

Kinda sorta.

Lunch One – Publican Quality Meats – West Loop

Anyone remotely familiar with Chicago’s dazzling food scene will undoubtedly be familiar with the culinary wizardry of Paul Kahan.  Blackbird, Big Star, avec, and his latest brainchild, Nico Osteria, Kahan has long been at the vanguard of Chicago’s perennially white-hot food movement.  My last trip to Chicago (an impossible-to-believe and way-too-long-ago three years) featured a glorious, deeply memorable meal (the food being as remarkable as the beauty of the woman with whom I shared that table) at Kahan’s fabulous Publican.  So when that same long-time Chicago resident and all-time-favorite dining companion, with whom I dined that night at Publican, and whom I’ll now identify only as X (cuz I’m still mad-crazy-crushing on her, yo) suggested we return to Publican’s lunchier, and far more casual, charcuterie-obsessed sister restaurant, Publican Quality Meats (and just across the street from its flagship), I tossed an imaginary Lipitor and made haste, as they say, for a spike-a-vein kind of rendezvous with the really, really good stuff.  [Reader’s note:  that I was convinced, and bodily, that PQM would be good before I’d eaten there should be indicative of Kahan’s own greatness.  Not to mention I’ve worked with the guy at an annual charity event here in D.C., so I’ve seen him work.  And let me tell you friend-o, his slow-burn thing is something to behold].

And like its sister-restaurant, Publican Quality Meats seats guests at communal tables, picnic style, and elbow-to-elbow with their fellow meat-loving brethren, be they millennials, or nose-to-their-iPhone’s business professionals out for a midday meal.  X and I were seated in the extreme rear of the restaurant and greeted by floor staff with the kind of warmth and hospitality that can’t be faked, ever.  We took menus and decided to spelunk straight down into PQM’s carnivorous little heart:  we ordered their much-lauded Butcher’s Cold Charcuterie Plate.  What we received was a dazzling representation of everything glorious and good in Kahan’s work as chef and proselytizing Pied Piper of how to best eat the nasty bits:  venison salami, whipped chicken liver pate, lamb neck terrine, head cheese pate en croute—a proverbial mix-tape of charcuterie’s greatest hits and all-time classics, each as robust and original as the next. 

Following the charcuterie plate came a sandwich:  Bildt’s Beef, an open-faced and pleasantly imposing edifice of slagel roast beef, farmer’s cheese, and marinated tomatoes on volkornbrot that X and I paired with a side of marinated kale, the sum of which left us deeply sated with that kind of culinary afterglow that charcuterie lovers and offal enthusiasts will well recognize when optimal levels of organ meats and entrails have been calibrated and consumed.  It’s why we eat the stuff.  For that feeling.

That Paul Kahan decided to leave an early career in computer science and, instead, become a chef, suggests, even to this culinary heathen, that the gods of gastronomy will long be smiling on Chicago.  To have a chef like Kahan, so meticulous with his sourcing, so careful in his craft, whose restaurants are breathtakingly consistent in their achievement, and so effortlessly hip, leaves visiting eaters like me with bones of envy lodged in our throats.  Kahan is a treasure, Chicago; take good care of him.

Intermezzo – Nick’s Beer Garden – Wicker Park

The digestif.  That time-honored tradition developed long ago by the French, now sacrosanct ritual of industry careerists, food obsessives, and binge eaters alike, who invoke its charms to best regain metabolic equilibrium—with alcohol—and move one step closer to culinary nirvana.  For my digestif, I returned to Wicker Park, to Nick’s Beer Garden, a place I had frequented twenty years ago, when I lived in Chicago, and would hang out with fellow rockabilly musicians from Hi Fi and the Roadburners and Three Blue Teardrops in their filthy, rat-infested, abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here rehearsal space in the dungeon-like basement of the Flat Iron Building.  But those twenty years have changed Wicker Park in ways that on my most recent visit, made me want to throw up in my mouth.  Gone were the hookers.  The crack heads.  The gang members throwing signs.  Everything that made the neighborhood thrilling was gone.  In its place:  Starbucks, Lulu Lemon, Belly Dance Maternity, and sundry other harbingers of the fast-approaching zombie apocalypse of bo-bo economics.
Lucky for me, one place from the bad old days yet remains:  Nick’s Beer Garden.  When it opened in 1994, Nick’s was, for us broke-ass rockabilly musicians, a friendly (if non-descript) place to down a quick shot of rail whiskey, warm our bones, before moving on to Wicker Park’s occasionally-excellent Double Door, still very much extant, and back then, more our speed with musical lineups featuring bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers, or local greats, the Riptones.
But seeing that Nick’s Beer Garden has managed—for now—to beat back the quickly-rising tide of douchbaggery that’s consumed Wicker Park compelled me to visit.  I sat on a stool, alone (X had something to attend to at her place of business), and ordered the special:  a PBR and shot of rail whiskey.  Total cost:  $5.

If there’s a more two-fisted drinking town in America than Chicago, I’ve yet to encounter it.  I’ve thrown down any number of times in New Orleans and San Francisco, and while my fellow inebriants there might get all the ink and attention on their drinking habits, Chicago, Chicago, dude, with its nearly around-the-clock bar scene and ability for local motorists to purchase, say, liters of Jim Beam while gassing up at the BP, is the tipsiest of these megalopoli.  These Chi-Town tipplers mean business.  They do it hard. 

Of my can of PBR and a shot of blindness-is-a-possibility whiskey, there’s sadly little to report that hasn’t been written before on the subject of drinking in low places.  Suffice it to say that in a life graced with far, far more than my fair share of Willett and Pappy Van, it’s always nice to come home to one’s own humble beginnings and revel in that from whence one first came.  The burn-inducing hooch performed exactly as intended.  It cleared my head, piqued my appetite, and readied me for more. 

Lunch Two – Freddy’s Pizza & Grocery – Cicero

This was X’s idea.   This place.  Beyond glorious.  Beyond good.  Freddy’s Pizza & Grocery:  the apotheosis of neighborhood eating in Chicago and precisely the kind of establishment whose very existence locals will covet and protect with awe-inspiring ferocity lest that variety of must-photograph-my-food-before-I-eat-it eater ever descend, plague-like, with their white belts, their ironic beards, their snarky Yelp posts poised like knives at the ready. 

Because Freddy’s is most emphatically not that kind of place.  It is the kind of place, rather, that begs deployment of that most dangerous word in all of food writing:  authentic.  Italian-American authentic.  Chicago authentic.  Whatever authentic.  It’s insistently and demonstrably the real deal.  Totally legit.  The good folks at Freddy’s are not fucking around, friend-o.  They are not playing “restaurant.”  What they are doing is delivering dino-era, Italian-American classics that are almost without peer in their ability to deliver the kind food seen in the films of Martin Scorsese (think Paul Sorvino cutting garlic with a razor blade in prison; think a bugging-out Ray Liota chopping basil with coke powdering his nose) and that leaves you wondering why you don’t eat red sauce and Italian bread more often.

Enter Freddy’s.  Stand in line.  And prepare.  Because when it’s your time to order, you best be ready to swing for the fence.  Because hesitation of any kind will out you, reveal you as the interloper you are.  Not to worry.  Do what I did.  Confess.  Ask for guidance.  They will take pity.  They will take you by the hand and lead you, Virgil like, through an astonishing variety of in-house, just-made masterpieces in the Goodfella’s-esque gastronomic milieu. 

X and I ordered:  Ricotta-stuffed ravioli in red sauce; Italian sausage with red peppers and rosemary potatoes; an uber-Chicago-like take on cioppino (purists, though, best look away).  All of it dished onto paper plates by the Italian mother you always wanted and never had.  All of it carried outside to the patio and consumed al fresco with the kind of primal, moaning pleasures heard in such non-culinary, non-Scorsese classics as, say, Deepthroat and Behind the Green Door.  Such pleasures were these.  To undertake description of each individual dish would be foolhardy on my part, for the mysteries shrouding the all-too-rare successes of red-sauce gastronomy elude me, profoundly, and often exceed my capacity for culinary comprehension.  Just know that eating food this “local,” this good, with a woman as beautiful as X, and under a highly non-ironic portrait of Sylvester Stallone is, in fact, my idea of this side of heaven.

(Good call, X.  You rock.)

So.  Chicago.  Go there.  Get stuck there.  Eat there.  But you already knew to do this, didn’t you?


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Four Days In Charleston and the New Culinary South

My excuse was the marathon.  Twenty-six-point-two miles through one of the prettiest towns in the American South.  On the morning of my forty-fourth birthday, no less.  I boasted of it.  I told all of my friends.  I dropped the word like loose change on any who might listen.  Marathon.  Three little syllables that evoked cardiovascular health.  Clean living.  A conviction that within the great breast of the world there does not beat the heart of an assassin.  Marathon.  I wielded the word with the blunt-force prodigality of a Soviet propagandist.  Marathon.  Because my real mission was to pursue its opposite.  It’s anathema.  My true aim was gluttony.  Culinary debauchery.  The intemperance of a birthday boy so very deep in his cups.  Because this particular marathon was happening in one of the most interesting—and increasingly important—centers of American gastronomy.


I’ve long been aware (if only too dimly) that something of culinary significance was happening here.  One routinely hears “Husk” and “Fig” bandied around culinary Washington.  So, too, are names like “Sean Brock” and “McCrady’s” well-enough known inside the Beltway.  But there’s also a deep disconnect between the sleepy, Southern Washington of yore, and the city that now more closely resembles its frenetic neighbors to the north.  Culinary Washington is a place of extravagant gastronomic ambition.  Here, chefs use New York as their touchstone.  Or San Francisco.  Chicago, perhaps.  Rarely do District chefs look southward for inspiration.  Even more rarely does the mention of Charleston raise a foodie’s gastronomic mainsail to attention like Momofuku, Alinea, or Per Se might make him pop that proverbial foodie boner.

So it wasn’t until a client’s wedding at Middleton Plantation brought me to Charleston last June, that I divined something deeply important to American cooking was afoot in “Chucktown.”  This I first discovered—quite by accident—in a restaurant named The Macintosh.  Nothing more extraordinary than the desire for a cold, third-shift beer brought a few of my coworkers and me there.  The choice of restaurants was randomly made.  The Macintosh had a bar, we saw.  And food (if a palpable vibe of too-swank-for-industry-types-by-half).  But we were wrung out from our day under the South Carolina sun.  Sweat-soaked to our underwear and desperately in need of beer.  So in we went.  Air conditioning and beautiful people in candlelight as far as the eye could see.  The good folks of The Macintosh showed us to the bar.  They gave us menus.  They brought drinks.  They were extremely nice.  Bar food du jour like burgers and wings were what we had expected, but we were quickly—and all-too-happily—disabused of the notion that anything they offered would resemble the quotidian.  The Macintosh offered—then, as now—a menu both ruthlessly forward-looking, while still evoking all the comforts of the Southern home kitchen.  We fist-bumped to our good fortune, and very nearly ordered the entire menu.  Corned beef tongue.   Bone marrow bread pudding.  Sweatbreads.  Fried pork brik dough.  Grilled deckle.  Rudderfish.  Hot and sour pork belly soup.  Pecornino truffle frites.  Whipped foie gras parfait topped with lardo.  It went on and on and on.  Dish after dish.  Almost three hours of eating.  What started as a quest for beer quickly turned into a meal of epic proportions.  Belts were loosened.  Neck ties undone.  And smiles all around from eaters scarcely able to comprehend the scale of their culinary good fortune.  Something was happening in culinary Charleston, we agreed, something of importance to American gastronomy, something big.

But what, exactly?

Only a return trip of culinary due diligence would provide answers, we knew.  Only an intensive schedule of heavy eating and drinking would reveal the Southern food wisdoms secreted in Charleston’s culinary heart.

So in January, back I went.  By myself.  Because I had my excuse.  I had the marathon. 

Day One - Lunch - Martha Lou’s Kitchen

To discover where a city is going is to first discover from whence it came.  And for culinary Charleston, that place is Martha Lou’s Kitchen.  Foundational.  Elemental.  Iconic.  For thirty years now, Martha Lou Gadsden has been nourishing Charleston—mind, body, and soul—with a culinary playlist of the South’s all-time greatest hits.  Not just soul food, mind you, but veritable gospels and anthems to a tradition of gastronomic greatness which none in the South ever tire of revisiting.  Fried pork chops.  Lima beans.  Cornbread.  Foods of the gods. 

My plane landed at lunchtime.

I drove with my foot on the gas like a man being chased by bees.

Martha Lou’s is, in the parlance of local Charlestonians, a sight.  Think roadhouse.  Think commercial kitchen little bigger than your own bedroom closet.  Think pink, and you’ll have the idea.  But like so many great things, Martha Lou’s is somehow infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.  Sit in the tiny dining room.  Feel the sticky remains of sweet tea across the plastic table covering.  Gaze at the totems to the civil rights era, on the walls, in curio shelves in the near corner.  MLK.  Obama.  Enjoy the unfailingly polite—if deeply curious—are-you-lost-son glances of working-class, middle-aged African-American men, and all memories of “post-racial” America will have left you.  For you, now, are most assuredly situated at the epicenter of the American South, my friend.  Martha Lou’s is all about black culture.  It’s about the celebration of a people—their folkways, their traditions—through a medium that ultimately transcends that which it sings.  Which is why I was made to feel perfectly at home by the lone cook the morning of my visit.  That same lone cook, who was also now doubling as the lone waiter.  And with a half-filled dining room to cook for and serve, a cook who was clearly in the weeds.  Deeply.  But she touched me every time she passed.  My arm.  My hand.  She called me “honey.”  She called me “boo.”  When it came time to order, I forgave her the wait for the way she smiled.  For the way she made me feel like the still point of her turning world.  I ordered.  Soon a Styrofoam plate was set before me.  It brimmed with Southern classics.  Fried chicken.  Green beans.  Collard greens.  Corn bread.  A death-row kind of meal.  The kind of meal one orders before being strapped into an electric chair by some prison warden to be shuffled off this mortal coil.  What made it so extraordinary was not the fried chicken.  It was the sides.  The sides.  To taste them was to win the inheritance of a lineage of black Southern cooks five, maybe ten, generations deep.  In a lifetime of eating beans and greens, I had never tasted anything quite like them.   I slurped.  I sucked.  I tried—and mightily—to tease out and isolate what was going on in my mouth.  Bacon?  Surely.  Cayenne?  Perhaps.  But there was something more at play.  Something at once simple, and extraordinarily complex.  String theory would have been more easily grasped.  Causation in determinism as it relations to the “prime mover.”  Cartesian dualism.  Conceptually, these famously big ideas paled in complexity when juxtaposed with what the fuck was going on inside the potlikker of Martha Lou’s greens.  I had to know.  So I raised my hand.  Impatiently.  Like a schoolboy who has to pee.  And when the cook came over to my table, I asked her.  I asked what, exactly, was the magical ingredient in her greens.  The look she gave me suggested I wasn’t the first to have so badly blundered.  The look wasn’t so much a smile.  It was forgiveness.  Benediction.  She closed her eyes.  Then she opened them, shook her head, and offered to freshen up my tea.

Dinner – Two Boroughs Larder

Carbo-loading is a time-honored tradition among long-distance runners.  The night before a race, we stuff mounds of enriched pasta and red sauce (dairy fat in cream-based sauces famously have runners freckling the walls of the race-course’s port-o-johns) into our gobholes on the theory that foods with low glycemic indices will have little effect—during the race—on our serum glucose levels.  More simply put, the complex sugars in pasta will burn cleanly and act as fuel.  But the idea of sitting down with other runners—usually at picnic tables in a civic area or high school gym—and laboring through a spaghetti dinner prepared by “race volunteers” has always given me pause.  So I bailed on the Charleston Marathon’s kind offer of Chef Boyardee.  Instead, I sought out—and found—the perfect spot to get my pasta on.

Two Boroughs Larder is the kind of place you wished existed in your very own neighborhood.  The kind of place that makes you want to be a restaurant regular.  The kind of place that is also aesthetically antipodal to Martha Lou’s.  Exposed brick walls.  Wood floors.  And the vibe:  utterly unpretentious.  Effortlessly hip. Emblematic of casual dining in the coastal New South.  But for all its easy elegance, entering Two Boroughs Larder is like putting on an old smoking jacket.  It’s like slipping into a warm bath.  It’s comfortable.  It feels right.  I arrived early and sat at the bar.  The menu glittered with gastronomically forward-thinking dishes of perfect proteins.  Black cod collar.  Tuna conserva.  Beef belly tartar.  All delicious-sounding, for sure.  But all of it sadly retrograde for my need for complex sugars.  My bartender understood my runner’s plight and began plying me with a can or three of carbo-dense One Claw Rye Pale Ale, brewed just across the river, in Mount Pleasant, by the good folks at Westbrook Brewing Company.  Soon after came my food.  Not just the food I wanted, but food I really and truly needed.  There was braised baby kale with pepperoncini and garlic.  There were roasted Brussels sprouts with soubise and salumi vanaigrette.  And for my obligatory spike-a-vein-and-give-me-pasta-before-the-marathon dish came their famous Bowl-O-Noodle—that decidedly Charlestonian riff on Taiwanese ramen:  pork confit, house noodles, soft egg, and kimchi, in broth.  Not just any broth, mind you.  Pork broth.  I bellied up to the bar and took a bite.  It was delicious.  But more importantly for the eaters of Charleston, I contend, was the fact that this bowl before me represented the pitch-perfect Southern appropriation of—and response to—the ever-increasing influence of Asian cooking on American gastronomy.  That Two Boroughs would pair house-made, Taiwanese-style noodles with a flavor profile as incontrovertibly Southern as pork broth suggested the apotheosis of fusion cooking in America, and that the American South—practiced for centuries in the assimilation and refinement of profoundly disparate culinary traditions—would be the place where this happened. 


In Charleston. 

Inside a bowl of noodles. 

Day Two – Breakfast

As far as food crimes go, this was my greatest transgression this trip:  a pre-race strawberry “waffle” of wheat flour and honey, carefully calibrated to tweak this runner’s blood sugar without unduly yoking me under, say, an ill-advised sausage patty, or cheesy eggs.  Because the marathoner who consorts with more-than-scant-amounts of fat and dairy before a race is the runner whom you’ll later encounter, on his hands and knees at mile 17, projectile vomiting across the race course, crying for his mama.  I’ve seen that before, and suffice it to say it made quite the impression.  So I forewent the temptations of “real” food until after the race.  Bananas.  Gatorade.  Bagels.  These are the foodstuffs typically (if indifferently) foisted on runners after we’ve crossed the finish line, and that’s precisely what I expected for breakfast upon finishing this marathon.  But not in Charleston.  Not in the American South.  Here, finishers were lavished with morning beer and helpings of shrimp and grits.  Fare proffered as true reward for a race well run.  Fare as proclamation, edict, and decree that in Charleston, what you eat matters.  Always.  Even after a silly footrace.

Dinner - Xiao Bao Biscuit

I slept through lunch.  I slept like the dead.  And when I woke, in the late afternoon, with the last of the day’s light paling across the winter sky, I was ravenous.  Starving.  Donner-Party hungry.  So I took off on foot, resolved to eat in the first place I encountered.  Lucky me.  That place happened to be the extraordinary Xiao Bao Biscuit, just two blocks from my hostel.  Housed in an erstwhile gas station, Xiao Bao Biscuit more fully explores (e.g.: confronts) the ideas of pan Asian influence on Charleston’s local cuisine first posited in my bowl of noodles the previous night.  Xiao Bao bills itself as “Asian soul” food.  It also bills a dish or two on its menu as “kick ass” spicy.  Xiao Bao is all that.  It’s also where flavor lives.  Thai dishes.  Chinese.  Vietnamese.  Each dish an umami bomb set for immediate detonation upon eating.  I sat at the bar, party of one, but flanked on either side by out-of-town runners still giddy with that much-coveted post-race endorphin high.  I ordered the Sichuan ribs.  I ordered Yu Xiang (fish-fragrant Brussels sprouts via done Sichuan style).  I ordered beer.  The woman seated left of me ordered Som Tam (green papaya salad) and Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake), while the group of ladies to my right ordered the lamb belly and Banh He (chive fritter crepe), and soon enough I found myself at the center of an impromptu family-style dining experience.  Plates were passed back and forth.  Forks traveled left and right.  My companions and I ate.  We wiped our brows.  We chugged our beers.  We smiled and laughed.  The food of Xiao Bao was extraordinary.  It was also remarkably intense.  Almost audacious in its dose of seasoning.  An implied “fuck you” to any diminution of authentic Pan Asian flavors, no matter how raucous they might play on the uninitiated palates of local Charlestonians, seemed to be the message encrypted in every bite.  And for all of the happy demands the food of Xiao Bao put on its eaters (the spice level did, I confess, prove too daunting for the woman to my left), nowhere was the implication that the food was trying to be anything it wasn’t.  Nowhere was the whiff of attempted “authenticity.”  Nowhere was there any insinuation that what I was eating was anything other than the product of a few, deeply talented white, Southern cooks riffing—wholly successfully—on an eclectic playlist of Asian B-sides they’d been lucky enough to stumble across in a friend’s garage.  One look at my newest dining companions, and I knew they were thinking the same thing:  that food this exciting, this good, could come from an erstwhile gas station was not insignificant for Southern eaters.

This meant something.

This was big.

Day Three – Brunch – The Taco Spot

There are a few tried-and-true ways runners recover from the rigors of a marathon.  Ibuprofen.  Water.  Ice packs.  Rest.  There is also one particular way a runner can further aggravate the injuries done to him in a 26.2-mile race:  drink a small bottle of Bulleit American Rye.  That’s what I did.  A half-pint of the stuff.  The inevitable hangover that followed was brain searing in its intensity.  Blinding.  Vice-like in its grip.  A self-induced skull buggery of epic proportions.  I’m a drinker, and yet, I had only myself to blame.  The antidote was food, I knew, whose calorically-dense grease content would be directly proportional to the rate of my recovery.  I needed protein.  I needed fat.  Guiding my late-breakfast quest as well was the knowledge that Charleston is full of institutions of higher learning.  Charleston Southern University.  Charleston School of Law.  College of Charleston.  Catering to that post-kegger, don’t-bogart-that-joint, I’m-so-stoned-I-drank-the-bong-water student population are any number of eateries, where the cuisine to the cognitively impaired is always on the menu.  So it was that I found the Taco Spot.  A tiny walkup/takeaway on Coming Street with room enough for hardly more than one ordering customer at a time, the Taco Spot walks that culinary tightrope of Anglo-owned/operated Mexican-style restaurants that try, with invariably mixed results, to be simultaneously progressive and traditional in their approach.  Here, “wraps” are offered.  Pomegranate Jerk Sauce is a component on their Caribbean pico.  Teriyaki appears.  Grilled pineapple basil relish is an option.  My own fish taco came with cilantro soy aioli; my chicken taco was dressed with cayenne ranch.  Hungover as I was, this bothered me, and out of all proportion.  But why?  Had not my most recent meals shown me that Charleston was relentlessly forward thinking in its appropriation of so-called “ethnic” cuisine?  Had I not come to understand that local chefs were happily playing heretic to the old-world orthodoxies of “authenticity?”  And were not the owner/operators of the Taco Spot demonstrating remarkable savvy in tailoring the flavor profiles of their menu to the I-might-be-twenty-but-I-know-more-about-food-than-you-do demographic of collegiate eater?  They were.  What bothered me about my experience at the Taco Spot was not the food, which, on balance, was perfectly fine.  It was something else.  It was how the food was made, and by whom.  For while all of my meals in Charleston had—up until now—been made by professionals demonstrably passionate about striving for culinary greatness, my sock-headed, half-bearded hipster cook (whose response to this appears in the comment section below) at the Taco Spot had assembled—and delivered—my tacos with palpable I’m-too-cool-for-school nonchalance.  He called me “dude.”  He called me “man.”  All in the same short sentence.  And this bothered me.  Because if thirteen years in the food industry has taught me anything, it’s that “cool” has no place in the kitchen.  It’s either go hard, or go home, boy-o.  Because “cool” shows up in cooking as indifference.   Because you can taste it, even in a taco.  And indifference never tastes good.  Ever.

Dinner – The Ordinary

I had no intention of eating here.  That the Ordinary bills itself as a “fancy” seafood and oyster hall initially put the kibosh on that.  “Fancy” being antithetical to my mission as an eater.  But a chance encounter with a fellow traveler changed my mind.  His name was Evan, and I met him in the communal kitchen of the youth hostel at which we were both staying.  He was at the sink, sharpening a CIA-issue chef’s knife on a wet stone with the kind of brooding, stoop-shouldered intensity one sees in ambitious young cooks.  I walked over and introduced myself.  We spoke.  He told me he was from Boston and had been staging in any Charleston kitchen that would have him.  His run of Charleston gastronomic institutions had been impressive:  Husk.  McCrady’s.  The Macintosh.  Evan had staged in them all.  Now, only The Ordinary remained.  And this made him nervous.  Very.  Because the euphemism used around town to describe the chef’s temperament was demanding.  And because the restaurant was new, and his every move would be scrutinized, even if he was working for free.  I told him not to worry.  I told him I had his back.  I told him I would be there to cheer him on.  So the following night, visit Evan at The Ordinary I did.  He was shucking oysters.  He saw me come in, and he smiled.  I waved and took a stool at the bar and did what was expected of me.  I ordered the ordinary:  a weekly, rotating list of daily specials.  With it being Sunday, I was given the fried fish:  a three-course prix fixe (salad, entrĂ©e, dessert) paired with a porter of the bartender’s choosing.   Everything I ate was delicious.  And it should have been.  Because it was expensive.  Thirty-five dollars for three plates of food.  Nine bucks for the beer.  Not killer price points in a town where eating can be an expensive proposition, but clearly out of reach of Charleston’s laboring classes.  But that shouldn’t matter, should it?  Pricing at The Ordinary is hardly the point.  The Ordinary is fancy.  It is swank.  It’s Charleston at its upscale best: an erstwhile old bank turned seafood emporium whose aesthetic marches in perfect lockstep with the simple sophistication of its food.  The Ordinary is elegance without the affectation.  It’s culinary refinement without any seemingly requisite foodie nerdism, and altogether a truly lovely place to dine.

Day Four – Lunch – Hominy Grill

I did this on purpose.  I saved Hominy Grill for my last meal in Charleston.  Why?  Because I knew with perfect certainty that my meal here would be among the best of the trip. 

And it was. 

But for none of the reasons I expected. 

Because Hominy Grill is deeply and self-consciously Southern, and their self-mandated mission as culinary curators of locally sacrosanct low-country classics, I anticipated the possibility of it being rife with what local Charlestonians would call cornpone (re: hokey), and what visiting urbanites might recognize as “preciousness” and deem “too-cute-by-half.”  What I found, however, was a cheerfully hospitable neighborhood eatery (clean and well-lit, as they say) whose purveyance of Southern gastronomy strikes, and perfectly, that ever elusive and all-too-rare balance of seeming casual about an otherwise deeply serious, even personal, quest to preserve and prorogate time-honored Southern foodways and culinary traditions.  To discover how well Hominy Grill has succeeded in this mission, I ordered what the Hominy Grill calls their “vegetable plate,” and what the rest of the world calls sides.  Side dishes.  Four of them.  Plus cornbread.  God forbid I should omit that.  Because the word side in Southern cooking is a misnomer, they are hardly that.  They are the very essence of the region’s cuisine and best represent, front and center, heart and soul, the Southern custom of the vegetable being at the center of any Southern plate, with proteins (mostly second-cuts and offal) being used primarily as flavoring agents, or relegated to serving only as a complimentary part of the meal.  The six-ounce chicken breast, the twelve-ounce ribeye:  these are the culinary aberrations wrought by the modern industrial farming complex and a conquering Northern sensibility.  Visit any Southern holiday gathering, any Southern church social, and you will undoubtedly encounter impromptu buffets loaded with a veritable cornucopia of sides rendered with all variety of technique, and in all manner of deliciousness.

So I ordered my four side dishes.   Lima beans.  Field peas.  Stewed okra and tomatoes.  Collard greens.

What to say of these?  I say this:  each side dish was a minor miracle in achieving the sublime.  Each perfectly represented that magic Southern alchemy of teasing culinary magnificence from what one might cultivate in a rural garden and coax out of the hard and unforgiving ground of those hardscrabble, alluvial, coastal flats.  This was food of the profoundly poor, refined by tradition and elevated--by time and technique--to true culinary heights; the perfect summation of all that is immemorially golden and good in Southern gastronomy.  All of that, right there on the table before me, generations of cooking tradition at the tip of my fork.

Not to mention Hominy Grill’s cornbread was among the best I have yet tasted.

So when I next start blathering on and on about training for the Charleston marathon, you’ll know it’s all subterfuge, an act of misdirection, bullshit in the extreme.  You’ll know I’m going to Charleston to eat, to drink, and to embrace all that is great and good in this jewel of the American South

See you at the finish.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

New Orleans.  For me, it’s not so much a city than it is a place of worship.  It’s my culinary holy land, my Mecca of American gastronomy, where all that is sacrosanct about American cooking—that constant collision of highly divergent culinary cultures—might be attended, by you, by me, as acolytes going before the oracles, for whispers of acumen and insight into the great mysteries of culinary divination.  Wander into any of its vibrant neighborhoods, down any of its magical streets, and you’ll experience a food culture of such spectroscopic vitality, and of such prodigious potency, as to be largely without peer in culinary America.  African.  Spanish.  French.  New Orleans remains at the singular confluence of these extraordinary food traditions, and by their comingling, the city has played parturition to their culinary progeny, with each variant, however unlikely, speaking in an accent unique to the parish unto which it was born.  New Orleans.  It’s a city that has collectively agreed that red beans and rice be eaten on Mondays; a city that affirms that cocktails just might best be enjoyed in the open air, with friends, while sauntering down a city street.  Be still my beating heart.

I go to New Orleans as if on pilgrimage, as if on a devotional journey and spiritual quest.  I’ve been visiting New Orleans, yearly, since I first discovered its formidable charms nearly twenty years ago as a just-back-from-Oxford-University and still-wet-behind-the-ears wonder boy of twenty-six.  After suffering the heresies and heterodoxies of British cooking, as I had for my time abroad, New Orleans was a revelation, my own veritable burning bush whereby the gods of gastronomy first delivered their commandments in gumbos and etouffees.  New Orleans.  Made even more special that my brother, Brian, and his wife, Shae, live there in the Bywater neighborhood.  Oh, crescent-shaped city, object of my strongest piety, and recipient of my most ardent zeal.

But the New Orleans of today is not, of course, the New Orleans with which I first fell in love.  That she-devil named Katrina irreparably changed the city in ways that, lo these eight years later, are just now being understood.  The toll of human life was—we all know from the scars worn across our hearts—horrific.  Equally appalling was first response from our federal government, who—sin of sins—left a great American city alone to die.  But the long-term devastation wrought by Katrina has been far greater than the cost of repairing or rebuilding its infrastructure; Katrina’s truest and most insidious legacy has been to threaten New Orleans, ex post facto, with a spiritual crisis delivered from an invading army of venture capitalists, transient labors, and skinny-jeaned hipsters, whose collective, post-hurricane arrival has demanded of New Orleans a deeply inward gaze to see what of itself will prove resistant to change, or what would be corrupted by the scourge of carpetbaggers who have harried the pace of the city, made it a little less polite, and even changed the way people now drive.

My quest, this Thanksgiving, was to revisit my beloved and most favorite city to see if the Disneyfication of New Orleans (that Devil’s handshake of a social compact that requires a city to stop being itself, while only looking like the place it once was) had metastasized as badly as was now being reported, or if New Orleans was somehow shaking the disease of outside influence and showing new signs of resiliency—even recovery—in the way it was feeding itself, its natives, and nurturing its own culinary soul.

The rules I set for this quest were simple and imposed to achieve a maximum in purity of experience.  No cars.  No "restaurants."  No exceptions.  Ever.  That I must cross the city afoot, or by bike, meant that New Orleans would reach me in tactile, auditory, and olfactory ways that sitting behind the steel and glass of an American automobile would only discourage, even perhaps disallow.  That I must deny myself the not insignificant pleasures of New Orleans’ haute cuisine scene (re:  the culinary favors and free drinks of several notable NOLA chef friends) would require that I venture out of comfort zones, real and metaphorical, and into neighborhoods and local cuisines I would likely find unfamiliar, even challenging; I would eat only street food procured from New Orleans streets I had never before gone.  I had just three full days, my brother’s bicycle, and the kind of good luck that visits only the pure of heart.


In New Orleans, the po’ boy is hardly just a sandwich.  It’s iconic.  And it’s central to the city’s workaday food vocabulary and it’s emblematic—even at its etymological inception during the streetcar strike of 1929—of how a city like New Orleans can elevate such quotidian fare like the common sandwich into something truly sublime. Knowledge of how to properly order a po’ boy without having to be asked (re: you oh-so-politely request that your sandwich to come fully dressed) bestows instant street cred upon the prospective eater.  That’s all it takes.  Get that right, and you’re in; you’re suddenly one of us.   

My first po’ boy of the trip would necessarily have to come from my old friends at Domilise’s Po’ Boy & Bar, a place I’ve frequented for years.  Domilise’s is the gold standard in po’ boy purveyance in a city already crowded with deeply talented sandwich makers.  Located in the sleepy, working class neighborhood of Uptown, Domilise’s is a dive in the best possible sense of the word.  It’s unabashedly down-at-the-heels, unpretentious to its core, and, for me, comfortable as an old shoe.  I arrived early, just after breakfast, and found myself the first costumer of the day.  The matron behind the counter was polite enough to pretend to recognize me.  She smiled and asked what I wanted.  I told her I was putting myself in her capable hands, so she served me catfish, her favorite, and, as it happens, the one dish of culinary Americana that I, proud son of Missouri that I am, consider myself expert on.  Catfish it would be.  I took my sandwich and sat with my plate.  The matron stopped what she was doing to watch me eat.  Any good, she asked me, but question was rhetorical.  She knew it would be good.  Damn good.  And she smiled knowingly, almost triumphantly, when I pronounced it the best piece of catfish I had ever eaten.  And it was.  The best.  Catfish.  Ever.  But something bothered me.  It wasn’t the sandwich; it most certainly wasn’t the fish.  It was how much it all cost.  My one small catfish po’ boy ($11.50) and bottle of Barq’s root beer ($1.50) had just set me back a whopping thirteen fucking dollars.  For lunch.  In an out-of-the-way dive.  The pricing seemed mercenary.  It seemed set a levels designed to quickly thin the wallets of visiting food tourists—they with visions of the Food Network dancing in their heads—who were willing to pony up the exorbitant prices for local food authenticity, whatever that word means anymore.  I get it.  Every restaurant is a for-profit enterprise.  Every restaurant lives or dies by food cost, and given the volatility of seafood pricing, food margins are—even in the best of times—undoubtedly razor thin.  But to charge eleven dollars for a piece of deep fried bottom feeder—however expert and loving its preparation—sandwiched inside six inches of white bread seems hostile to the notion that the po’ boy has been—and proudly—the nourishment of blue collar New Orleans from their shared beginnings.  And this made me sad.  Very.  I left Domilise’s determined to find an equally delicious po’ boy that poor boys could actually afford.

I wasn’t long in the looking.

The Adam’s Street Grocery sits further Uptown, close to Loyola University, on the quiet and deeply unassuming street it’s named after.  Like all neighborhood groceries of the American South, it serves the needs and predilections unique to its own immediate community, as most national grocery chains simply can’t be bothered.  On the day of my visit, it was serving several tall boys of malt liquor at eleven o’clock in the morning (to wit:  it was Sunday, game day, after all, Saints versus Seahawks, so cutting the proverbial dust with a little pre-game nerve tonic was entirely understandable).  My own good morning to the crowd of drinkers was rejoined with the magical and ubiquitous-in-New-Orleans all right now.  Po’ boys, at the Adam’s Street Grocery, are produced from a deli counter at the extreme rear of the store, where all manner of I’ve-got-my-drink-on food specials—from hot wings to fried egg rolls—are produced.  I was asked by a friendly-enough young man what I’d like on my po’ boy, and as before, I deferred to my host’s own guidance.  He considered, and quickly produced a roast beef po’ boy, dressed with brown gravy, and precisely of the same size, heft, and likely caloric density as the sandwich I’d just received at Domilise’s, but for a fraction of the price:  $2.99.  I took the sandwich outside and ate next to my brother’s bicycle.  The roast beef was standard issue deli meat; the gravy was utility jus straight from the can.  But what was astonishing about my Adam’s Street Grocery, and what sent me running back into the store, was the bread.  The bread.  Holy shit.  The fucking bread.  It was nothing like anything I’ve tasted in this country, and it recalled (with perfect Proustian synesthesia) the bread I’d eaten in my time, years back, in Paris.  The smallish Asian man behind the Adam’s Street Grocery counter looked worried that I’d returned with jus on my chin and a crazed look in my eye.  The bread was all I could say before the man wrote the baker’s name on a tiny slip of paper.  Dong Phuong, or DP Bakery, a Vietnamese baker, supplies the bread on which the grocery’s sandwiches are proudly served.   Embarrassed that I’d startled the man, I coughed up the $10 for an Adam’s Street Grocery souvenir t-shirt, and left the store on the wobbly legs of a man drunk on epiphany.

Because I now knew who was producing the best baguette in America. 

Dong fucking Phuong.

That the Vietnamese would outclass local French and Italian bakers should not have surprised to me.  Here in my current hometown of Washington, D.C., our large and ever-vital Vietnamese community has long dazzled American eaters with their extraordinary bahn mi sandwiches.  So it should have seemed almost inevitable that the Vietnamese would thrive in any place—be it D.C. or New Orleans—that rewards the kind of quiet culinary genius the Vietnamese so neatly possess.  My brother took my news about DP Bakery with a shrug.  Like, duh, dude.  Brian and Shae routinely trek across the Mississippi to the West Bank community of Algiers to score Vietnamese sundries at the Hong Kong Market, a Vietnamese superstore, where a person might procure decidedly Asian delicacies like duck heads and pig faces, should the fancy ever strike.  More interesting to me, however, was that Hong Kong Market advertised “Vietnamese po’ boy” sandwiches.  An investigation was in order.  So my brother and I drove (yeah, yeah, I know, no cars) to Algiers.  For those unfamiliar with the charms of the West Bank, just imagine New Orleans after the zombie apocalypse, and you’ll get the idea.  It’s the kind a place a writer like William S. Burroughs might build a love nest for him and his heroin habit (he lived at 509 Wagner for years 1948 and 1949), or the kind of place in which a people in diaspora—like the Vietnamese—might settle and find really, really pleasant after suffering the ravages of a gruesome civil war.  The Hong Kong Market itself is situated in an Asian-centric strip mall not unlike our own Eden Center here in Washington, and it’s host to any number of business interests, where anything from back rubs to bubble tea might be had for a price.  And like our own Eden Center, to enter Hong Kong Market is to effectively leave the United States of America.  It’s a wonderland of the exotic.  Its sounds; its smells:  they’re entirely Asian.  To procure my “Vietnamese po’ boy” sandwich (every bit the bahn mi I had expected) a series of hand signals was required to guide my sandwich maker to the desired ingredients.  Pate.  Head Cheese.  Sliced pork.  Vietnamese meatball.  Cilantro.  Daikon.  It was magnificent.  An epic sandwich for the eating.  Every element a minor miracle of flavor made transcendent by that fucking bread.

And all of it for just $3.22.  

I can only hope my old friends at Domolise’s are paying attention.

Enough said.


It’s easy to forget—while one is beached and blissed-out on brandy in some Bourbon Street bar—that New Orleans is surrounded by water.  The gulf.  The river.  The lake.  It’s water, water everywhere.  The crustations and bivalves that come from these waters are at the heart how the people of New Orleans define themselves as eaters.  In no other American city are crawfish, shrimp, and oysters devoured with the same ferocity or relish as they are in the Crescent City.  Seafood is also where visiting food tourists most often go terribly, terribly wrong.  You’ll see them lined up outside some highly marginal oyster house in the French Quarter for the all-too-dubious pleasure of landing a table where Guy Fieri once slurped an oyster and threw a fake gang sign at a television camera.  And that’s okay with the locals.  Really.  Because they know the good stuff is to be found far and wide of the Quarter at the venerable Cooter Brown’s, an Uptown institution.  And while Cooter Brown’s bills itself as a tavern and oyster bar, my experience there was more like that of a house party.  The kind of kegger that teenagers might throw.  The kind that happen when the adults have fled, and no one’s in charge.  And that’s a good thing, because a little culinary chaos is a whole lot of fun.  Granted, my meal at Cooter Brown’s happened to coincide with the oh-so-dramatic final play of the Alabama/Auburn game (spoiler:  Auburn won), so the sight (and sound) of eight-five strangers yelling at television screens was, I guess, something of an anomaly, perhaps.  I went with Brian and Shae, who have been frequenting Cooter Brown’s for years now.  We ordered oysters.  Two dozen on the half shell.  I ordered beer, of which Cooter Brown’s offers hundreds from around the world.  Our oysters came from Area 3 of nearby Lake Bourne.  Big.  Meaty.  Beyond fresh tasting, and utterly delicious.  My beer, Hopitoulis (the name’s a play on words) came from the NOLA Brewing Company, located a half-mile down from where we sat, from their brewery on Tchoupitoulas Street.  If there’s a pairing in this world that harkens culinary divinity more than oysters and cold, local beer, I’ve yet to encounter it.  The experience of slurping bivalves while shoulder-to-shoulder, on benches, at wooden picnic tables, with a rowdy mob of high-fiving, fist-pumping, and deeply drunken strangers from the South is, on many levels, living at its best. 


Show me the hungry traveler who reconnoiters the foodstuff of the urban American South and fails to bump his nose on that hard-to-see-coming-but-unmistakable-when-it-happens sliding glass door of racial tension, and I’ll show you the culinary journeyer who’s doing it all wrong.  Any culinary quest, especially those across the American South, requires (for the white food tourist, at least) that one forsake the creature comforts of room service, that one disavow the pickled promises of the in-room mini bar, and venture out, way out, to those neighborhoods and barrios, where beats the true heart of all American cities, and where the site of white people (the kind, at least, so given to  Volkswagens, flat-fronted Banana Republic chinos, and black Labradors named Rex) bring a decidedly mixed response among the local population.  But that’s the point.  America has always been—and will always be—about collision.  It’s about cultural cross-pollination.  About finding commonality and camaraderie in the other.

When I first declared my intention of seeking out the Crescent City’s finest examples of tamales and ya-ka-mein (long-storied food staples among the city’s African-American population) to a crowd of fellow tipplers in my favorite 9th Ward bar this last Thanksgiving, I was told by the bartender (an earnest and well-intended sock-headed hipster) that I was wasting my time.  That white people simply didn’t eat those things, and that the prizes of my own culinary quest were unattainable—shining examples of New Orleans’ black-only cuisine.  I was gobsmacked.  I hardly knew what to say.  How could such a flimsy and deeply false correlative like this be accepted as doctrine amid the newly emergent zeitgeist of post-racial American gastronomy (re: post-racial insofar as the culinary traditions of the perennially impoverished have been embraced by the forces of haute cuisine) by people seemingly smart enough to know better?  How could food—this food, any food—be remanded, purely, to the confines of race or ethnicity?  How could food be black or white?  And wasn’t food, like music, always at the vanguard of all cultural diplomacy and exchange?  It was madness, this mindset, and it made me angry.  How angry?  Angry enough to rise from my barstool, walk outside, and climb onto the seat of my brother’s bicycle.  Fuck the hipsters.  It would be tamales now, I decided.  Ya-ka-mein or bust.

I wasn’t long in the looking.  Just off the sidewalk in the neighborhood of East Riverside stands the magnificent Magazine Deli, so named for the busy city street just spitting distance from its take-away window.  Shack.  Shanty.  Hut.  Hovel.  Magazine Deli is all of these things, surely.  But look a little closer, talk to its proprietor, peer behind its sliding wire fly-screen, and you discover a temple of culinary worship devoted to African American street food.  Ya-ka-mein.  Tamales.  Sno balls [sic].  The holy trinity of Crescent City gastronomy.  Magazine Deli has all three.  Except the day of my visit (falling so closely to Thanksgiving, as it did).  That day presented one and only one culinary offering:  tamales.  So tamales it would be. 

Brought to the Mississippi Delta by Mexican migrant workers in the early 1900s, the tamale (known in New Orleans and regionally as hot tamales) has played a vital nutritional role in the development of the agrarian American South (insofar as we equate dietary calories with increased labor production).  Corn meal.   Ground meat.  Paprika.  Garlic.  Cayenne.  All of it rolled in a cornhusk and packed with enough caloric density to sustain a Delta field hand though a workday of—by today’s standards—almost unimaginable toil.  Tamales.  Robert Johnson sang about them in his 1936 masterpiece, “They’re Red Hot.”  Reverend Moses Mason sang about them in his equally inspired “Molly Man” of 1928.  Dial the former up on Spotify (insert irony here) and you’ll get a pure, if auditory whiff of what how completely the tamale pervades African American foodways.  My own tamales, those made by Magazine Deli and delivered in a small, Styrofoam clamshell, were, in fact, everything I’d hoped them to be:  large caliber culinary bullets easily capable of penetrating, and quickly dispatching, the most resilient of hungers.  I expressed my delight in what I was eating, and was repaid with the name and address of what the proprietor of Magazine Deli assured me was the second best ya-ka-mein in the city, second only, of course, to his own.  Laughter.  Handshakes.  Hugs.  This from a man with whom local hipsters had forecast an interaction rife with odium and contempt.  Alas.  Hipster wisdom at hipster its best. 

While but a short, five-minute ride from Magazine Street, the Red Rooster Snowball Stand seems another world away.  Located in the neighborhood of Central City (where, by all outward appearances, the city’s poverty seems at its most abject) the Red Rooster has quietly emerged as the new paradigm for development-done-right.  It’s the for-us-by-us business model in the best possible sense, and the vibe there is more gathering place and community center than a just for-profit restaurant.  It’s beautiful.  It’s new.  The occasion of my visit found the sidewalk picnic tables just beyond the take-away windows crowded with neighborhood eaters speculating on the Saints’ upcoming chances, and trading local gossip.  I stepped up to the window and placed my order:  one beef ya-ka-mein.  What I received, moments later, was nothing short of a culinary revelation. 

The etymology of “ya-ka-mein” is curious as the dish itself.  It’s believed to derive from the Chinese phrase “yat-gaw-mien” [phonetic] for “one order of noodles” (Chinese labors were brought into mid-19th century New Orleans to build the railroads between it and Houston).  The dish of today involves a seemingly inharmonious amalgam of beef broth, spaghetti noodles, scallion, and hard-boiled egg.  The results—what locals still call “Old Sober” for its restorative properties to those afflicted with hangover—are unexpectedly delicious.  Salty.  Rich.  Possessing an umami of surprising complexity.  Ya-ka-mein.  Like soup, only better.  Like the whispered history of an entire city secreted inside a tiny Styrofoam cup.


I had them.  And bad.  Those last-day-in-New Orleans blues.  I woke that morning, a moody bastard, not wanting to leave my favorite city with which I felt—and deeply—a love of place, newly rekindled, and afire in my heart.  So I fled my brother’s house, knowing I had time for one (and only one) last meal in New Orleans before my flight home.  And of course, like all desperate people, I overreached.  The idea was to eat in, and photograph, a 9th Ward local grocery.  A sundry store, which, in addition to selling household staples like milk and bread, potted meats and peanut butter, also served lunch to local workers.  Fried chicken.  Red beans and rice.  Field greens.  Southern classics.  But my presence—and especially that of my ubiquitous and ever-raised iPhone camera—seemed to disturb, and set on edge local, say, entrepreneurs whose business models were founded on, well, not being photographed.  Ever.

Crestfallen, defeated, I aborted the mission, and started back to my brother’s house.  And while cutting through the lower Bywater, I chanced upon a construction crew at lunch.  White guys.  With lunch pails and sardonic smiles and dick jokes aplenty.  But what caught my attention was the throng of Latino laborers across the street and gathered around a burgundy minivan.  In the air was the whiff of chili powder.  Cumin.  I approached and everyone there visibly tensed and went silent.  Chins down.  Eyes to the ground.  Was I la migra?  La policia?  Was I some gringo health inspector with a hard on for immigrant busts?  I spoke in Spanish.  Restaurant Spanish.  I said hello.  There was laughter among the men, affirming, yes, my Spanish really did suck.  I asked if I, too, might get lunch.  The proprietrix smiled.  Si, flaco.  She opened, in turn, each of her six coolers, and urged me to look inside.  Chicken.  Beans.  Rice.  Chiles rellenos.  Mole.  Fucking mole. 

Todo, I told her.  Todo, por favor.

To say the mole was simply good would be an understatement of epic proportions.  It was beyond good.  It was transcendental.  For me, however, that was beside the point.  What made my heart sing, what made me lightheaded with ebullience, there, on the curb of that Bywater street, eating mole with a plastic fork from a Styrofoam clamshell, was the fact that I—you, anyone—could experience food this good—and as good, if not better, than say, the bread at DB Bakery, or the oysters at Cooter Brown’s, or the ya-ka-mein at Red Rooster—made in a home kitchen, and sold out of the back of a beat-up minivan. This was New Orleans.  This was at the very essence of the city I knew and so well loved.  I knew, too, that however greatly she had suffered by Katrina, and how terribly she endured under that invading army of hipsters and carpet bagging venture capitalists, she had emerged from the experience a better place.  Of greater resilience.  Of purer soul.

New Orleans.  My gastronomic holy land.  The city I most love.  Spared from philistines.  Immaculate, still, in her glory.

She’s going to be just fine.

I just know she will.