I like the way New Orleans trips my mouth up––from calling out street directions for Tchoupitoulas and Terpsichore, to attempts to shield my lips from powdery beignet dust.
My drawl grows from my gut here. And my gut grows. Every time.
I can’t fight it, because to fight either the slow reincarnation of my Southern lilt or my ever expanding waistline in New Orleans would be like fighting the urge to pull in a tug-o-war. It’s why I’ve come––to eat and to be at once swallowed by the South.
I took a trip down to mark my 37th birthday this year. It was June and the bougainvillea was crawling towards the slices of sunlight down the sidewalks, so pink it seemed something indecent. The heat was just shy of sweat-inducing, more of a warning, less of an affront. We walked around Governor Nichols and the quiet end of Bourbon, talking about living in this town finally––a repeated soliloquy I’ve sung for about 10 years now. This trip, we got so wrapped up in the daydream, we phoned realtors in charge of million+ mansions, begging for appointments to ogle their interiors. None to be had, we simply spooled words like “lawd,” “damnation,” and “mama,” outta our mouths, and devoted our time to food.
Here’s where I’d eat if I were you, and you were in New Orleans.
Chef Alon Shaya also owns Domenica (fabulous pizza/insanely good head of Cauliflower, served roasted right on a cutting board), and he’s giving his childhood in Israel a monumental tribute here. It’s modern Middle Eastern, with ingredients sourced from local farmers. They have a sweet little back patio, and it begs for a bottle of dry rosé and a loose hand when ordering.
Go overboard and dine slowly. I adored the paddlefish caviar with shallots, but even more so the soft-cooked egg on hummus with red harissa oil puddles, raw purple onion and chopped pickles. From the lamb to the falafal to the baby lettuce – there’s not a bad choice on this menu. It’s also delightful fun to watch their assembly line of sous chefs making fresh pita in the visible oven.
Meauxbar is not new for me. In fact, I always claim that this little restaurant/bar would be my local, if and when I ever move to New Orleans. Here’s what you need in a good local:
A reasonably affordable cocktail list that both impresses you and offers variety, as well as a great Happy Hour
A menu that skews the same
A staff who makes you feel like a member of the family
And … a setting that’s comfy enough to be your own living room
Meauxbar checks every box on that laundry list, plus some. On Mondays, they celebrate Chartreuse. Dear Lawd, how I love that pesky, high-proof tribute to anise and herbal monk-held secrets. They make Last Word cocktails and pour them over shaved ice to create adult Snoballs. I like to have two and then yell, “I’m moving to New Orleans. I’m really doing it this time!”
The wonderful people that own Meauxbar, and keep it so festive and friendly, also own Cavan. I hadn’t been here before and the arrival does not disappoint. You pull up to a classic, two-story, white house in Uptown. It’s haunted and has pretty, blue shutters. Inside, peeling, ornate crown-molding spools above velvet, antique chairs. Chandeliers splash errant spots of light onto the old hardwood floors. Glasses are clinking. People are laughing. The ladies are in high heels; the men in seersucker. And, in the kitchen, Chef Nathan Richard is humbly plating up what I feel is the world’s best burger.
Sure, you’d fall for the Fried Chicken & Collards or the Jerk Rubbed Fish or the Charred Oysters and get all, “I’m moving here.” However, the Double-Stack Cheeseburger at Cavan is a sleeper hit. It’s got a third-rail of bread soaked with pickle juice, a jaw-dislocating heft and a sauce that steals the show. It’s slightly sweet and runny, made with all the expected elements of BBQ sauce like tomatoes, celery, molasses and onions, cumin, smoky chilies and various spices. Then he pours a Sazerac into the pan. Think: rye whiskey and Herbsaint notes in smoky, classic BBQ goodness, sliding down a lava flow of American cheese and griddle grease. ‘Nuff said.
Another new one for me this trip, alongside Shaya and Cavan, was darling MoPho, where Vietnamese recipes get awfully Southern.
Listen, I live in Asia half the year, so you already had me at ramen, anyways. But when you serve it on a plant-littered back patio while Bob Marley is coming out of the stereo … and you tell me there is sweet-cured sausage in your Thai salad, Gulf shrimp in your turmeric curry and you make a sesame biscuit for the chicken and dumplings with spicy coconut gravy … I am your bitch, MoPho. Now and for always.
Don’t miss the cocktail list here, either. They have fun with booze in Boba teas full of tapioca balls, as well as vinegary tamarind, chilies and a lotta lemongrass in highball sodas and sours.
Well, that’s all I have for now. Let me know how you go, if you go, in the comments.
Bon App’ y’all.
**Top image in this blog is courtesy of Photographer Rush Jagoe.