I like good food, but I find that good food is not always found in the fanciest restaurants at the highest prices. And New Orleans is the poster child for fine eating at inexpensive, out-of-the way places. I discovered this years ago, when we ventured to Austin Leslie’s Chez Helene. Unpretentious food in a plain setting at a reasonable price. To this day, a memorable dining experience.
New Orleans has it’s share of celebrity chefs, trendy venues, and tradition-bound restaurants where patrons pay others to wait in line for them. But those are not the places I frequent.
No, I’m not talking McDonald’s or Subway, but locally owned places, with well-prepared, traditional food. The places where you’ll sit next to a group of elevator repairmen. Where servers might offer you a draft beer if you’ve waited in line too long. Places where you consider it lax service if the waitress fails to call you “baby” at least three times.
I do not consider myself an expert; I’d have to visit New Orleans more than once a year, which would be just fine with me, by the way. But over the past five years, I have acquired a list of places that I return to again and again. And they are:
- Mena’s Palace, in the French Quarter, on Chartres at Iberville. Friendly, inexpensive lunch counter for hearty breakfasts and fabulous lunch specials. Attentive waitresses, frequented largely by locals, it is a New Orleans experience waiting to happen. Favorites: fried chicken plate, red beans and rice, and fried oysters. I have to eat there at least once when I’m in New Orleans.
- Rocky and Carlo’s Restaurant on St. Bernard Highway in Chalmette, LA. A wonderful melange of Creole, Italian, and fried seafood. Clean, moderately priced, with an overtly friendly staff and clientele. it’s like eating at home without having to bother with the dishes.
- Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. OK, this is right up there with Cafe du Monde as a tourist spot, but it is a singular experience. As someone for whom food and cooking is close to being a religious vocation, the vibe of this century-old Italian grocery cuts to the bone. Add to that, muffalettas on incredible Italian loaves and cold beer out of the cooler; it doesn’t get much better.
- Domilise’s Po-Boys, Uptown on Annunciation Street. A nondescript frame building in which the most fabulous po-Boys in New Orleans are prepared. It features a wide range of sandwiches, but for me it is impossible not to gravitate toward fried seafood po-boys, fried and made to order, fully dressed. While many locals go with a Barq’s as an accompaniment; it’s an Abita Amber for me. Check out the autographed photos of the Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning behind the bar.
- Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street in Faubourg-Marigny. Maybe not the best-known Afro-Creole restaurant in New Orleans, but for a music lover, it’s location, location, location. And, reasonably priced entrees coupled with friendly, attentive service. Favorite’s: fried okra, fried catfish, and vegetarian sides, i.e. prepared without meat. And when you’re finished, you are only steps away from the music on “The Street.”
- Wild card. OK, there has to be one fast food alternative, found most everywhere and consistently good. For me, it’s Popeye’s Fried Chicken. Seldom a first choice, but never a last resort, it is real fried chicken with passable sides. The meal of choice when on the go.
Every year, I find at least one new thing, but for the time being, these are the kind of places you’ll find me at mealtime.