Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A New Orleans diary: Why food matters in the Big Easy

Domilise's / Nothing fancy or elaborate.
Just one of the best meals in the Big Easy.

New Orleans takes its food seriously – gumbo, red beans and rice, and beignets come to mind – and it's been said that you can't come to the Big Easy and not eat a po-boy sandwich. So, why not try the best – even if it's made to order in a hard-to-find location up river from the French Quarter, where parking is difficult at best and getting a table (there are only five) or a seat at the bar (there's about 10 of them) is a matter of good timing. Yet, despite all of these obstacles, the locals swear by this hole in the wall kind of place.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar consists of a single-room bar
and dining area with five tables and about 10 bar seats.
Such it was on a recent Friday afternoon while visiting New Orleans that my wife and I dropped in at Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar, tucked away at 5240 Annunciation Street (corner Bellecastle), and treated ourselves to a po-boy sandwich for lunch. We had an hour to kill before we had to be on the highway headed west toward Lafayette in the Acadiana region of Louisiana to attend our nephew's wedding celebration.

We first visited Domilise's back in 2001 – pre Hurricane Katrina – and it was an enjoyable experience. So it was on our next visit to New Orleans earlier this month, we knew we wanted to revisit Domilise's.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar is an Uptown New Orleans restaurant known for its po-boy sandwiches. For the uninitiated, a po-boy is a traditional Louisiana sandwich served on baguette-like New Orleans French bread that's known for its fluffy center and crispy crust. The restaurant was founded in the 1930s by the Domilise family, who I learned lived in the house above the single-room bar/dining area. It was run by Sam and Dorothy "Miss Dot" Domilise for more than 75 years until her death in 2013. Although it was closed during Hurricane Katrina, since reopening Domilise's has been more popular than ever – acclaimed by many, including CNN's Anderson Cooper as well as Anthony Bourdain, who once filmed a spot on location for his Travel Channel program No Reservations.

My Domilise's meal /
A delicious ham and Swiss po-boy,
Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style chips,
Barq's root beer.
During our recent visit, my po-boy of choice a ham and Swiss cheese dressed with spicy Cajun mustard, shredded lettuce and pickles while my wife opted for a turkey dressed all the way. Both were made with love by the sweet ladies who manned the kitchen. The reasonably priced menu is full of excellent choices, including shrimp, oyster, catfish, roast beef and sausage, and come in two sizes: small and large. The small was plenty large for my appetite. Along with my fabulous po-boy, I complemented my "meal" with a bag of Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style potato chips and a bottle of Barq's root beer.

We sat at the bar sipping on our sodas and munching our chips – and soaking up the vibrant atmosphere – while our po-boys were being prepared with TLC, waiting for a table to open up. By the time our order was called, a table materialized by the back entrance. Nothing fancy, but plenty of space to spread out and enjoy our delicious – albeit sometimes messy – po-boys. Looking around as we ate, I couldn't help but notice we were likely the only tourists mixed among a crowded room full of white- and blue-collar locals who swear by this place for a great meal.

Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar /
Uptown at the corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle.
As Tom Piazza points out in his insightful 2006 book Why New Orleans Matters, "the real neighborhood places, tucked away usually in some unlikely corner of a residential street, animate the day-to-day grass roots culinary life of the city. There is nothing fancy or elaborate about these places to say the least, but also nothing humdrum or mass-produced, or even lackluster ... It is a point of honor to make food that tastes good – I don't think a New Orleanian would even understand the concept of turning out blah food so you could just eat and run.

"You can go into the most unassuming place – say, Domilise's, a sandwich shop with a hand-lettered sign in a very modest corner house a block from the river in a residential uptown neighborhood – and get a meal that you will remember for the rest of your days. Or at least for the rest of the day."

Indeed, you see food is a part of the rhythm and life of New Orleans, and it doesn't get much better than this. There's a reason that Domilise's is one of the best at what they do.

Photos: Cover photo courtesy of Google Images. All other photos by Michael Dickens © 2017.

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