Day Tripping - Jan/Feb 2019
- story by Ellis Anderson
photos by Ellis Anderson unless otherwise attributed
It started as a simple idea; a Day Tripping story for our Mississippi Gulf Coast readers about the relatively new Fried Chicken Festival in New Orleans.
The fatal flaw became apparent early on, however. Readers from the coast who might be smitten with the idea of heading over for a fried poultry blow-out would have to wait until the next fest – in September 2019. It seemed cruel to tantalize taste-buds without the possibility of immediate gratification.
We planned to use a short festival overview as a lead-in to a few classic restaurants that served fried chicken. Since it’d be easy to go overboard in a city where fabulous eateries abound, we’d limit ourselves.
Four, we swore. No more!
But once word got around to friends, ideas for Can’t-Miss fried chicken experiences started arriving by text and Messenger.
How could I possibly write a piece about fried chicken without including Chef Carl’s at the Roosevelt’s Fountain Lounge? And what? I had never heard about the secret Chicken Bon Femme at Tujague’s - not on the menu, but served to those in the know? I wasn’t going to leave off Elizabeth’s in the Bywater, was I? What about the Original Fiorella’s in Gentilly?
What follows is a quick overview of the very excellent - and free - festival, along with our take on eight different restaurants who serve up superlative fried chicken.
If you’re really ambitious, you can head into New Orleans, hit one restaurant for lunch and another for dinner. Or, you may want to spread them out over the course of many months so your cardiologist doesn’t throw a hissy fit.
Of course, many restaurants on the Mississippi coast serve amazing fried chicken. But the pilgrimage gives readers another excuse to head into the city for a day trip, sample some cosmopolitan offerings along with the poultry, then drive home to the more peaceful coastal lifestyle. You'll feel full and satisfied and maybe even a little bit smug at having the best of both worlds.
The Fried Chicken Festival
Waldenburg Park, New Orleans
Festival venues simply don’t get better than Waldenburg Park. The Mississippi River runs along one side and the French Quarter on the other. At the top end of the park is Canal Street, gateway to the entire Central Business District. And it’s an easy stroll all the way down to the lower end of the park, where the French Market and Frenchman Street await.
Need a little respite from the flurry of activity? Stand by the river and watch the ship traffic for a bit. Or head up to the Westin Hotel lobby bar like we did and sip on a cocktail while enjoying a grand scale view of the river and the festival below.
Looking at the participating restaurants, we crossed off those from out-of-town (not relevant to the story), those that we planned to review in-house (like the official two-year festival winner, the Original Fiorella’s - see below for our visit to that amazing restaurant). We also skipped booths serving up jazzed-up versions of fried chicken (mango-curry-glazed sounded extremely interesting, but we wanted to compare classics).
No wings. They’re a category unto themselves.
We ended up sampling plates from four different booths before we threw in our napkins, declaring ourselves too full to continue. The stand-out favorite of the four? The crusty, crackling, juice-spurting pieces from Willie’s Chicken Shack.
Willie’s Chicken Shack
There are seven locations in the French Quarter and the CBD, check the website for addresses.
But in the world of fried chicken, chic décor and ambiance place far behind spices and crust. At the festival, my friend Jeannette had taken to looking at the plates people carried away after finishing their purchases, searching for chicken pieces exhibiting what she thought of as the ideal brownness. Perfection in appearance made her choose the line for Willie’s.
In this case, looks weren’t deceiving.
With Willie’s chicken, the crust offered exactly the right resistance as I bit down, giving way with a loud crunch to the tender meat below. Jeannette and I rolled our eyes in delight as we ate, surrounded by dozens of other people in the festival dining tent, chewing and talking and eating with their hands. We both declared Willie’s was the best of the four we’d tasted at the fest and the perfect way to end our day.
Fiorella’s Café – the Original
5325 Franklin Ave
In the 80s and 90s, Fiorella's was the go-to spot for locals and market vendors who wanted an honest working man’s breakfast and lunch. Tourists who stumbled into the place got a delicious meal with down-home pricing and a heavy dose of authenticity. Black and white photos of the owners’ family hung on the walls, capturing early 1900s life as fishermen and oystermen on the sparsely settled bayous surrounding New Orleans.
The family eventually sold the French Market location in 1999, but reopened in Gentilly in 2016, bringing their photographs with them (note: the original location is now Fiorella’s Bistro and Wine Bar, and while it’s a perfectly nice restaurant, it’s not owned by the Fiorella family).
The day my friend Arthur Severio and I went to lunch at the Original Fiorella’s, the counter was stacked with people waiting to order and the tables were full (but fortunately, the well-orchestrated staff kept things moving so swiftly, who minded?). The move to Gentilly for Fiorella's has simply built a loyal new fan-base - probably because it's still completely family-owned and operated. By people who love feeding folks. You can't fake that. And if you eat there, trust me, you're going to see multiple Fiorellas.
The fried chicken: We were warned it’d take a bit longer, since it was cooked to order.
Of course, it was worth the wait. The fry is lightly seasoned, the batter crisp, but not too thick. The meat encased within is savory and moist. It speaks to the primal carnivore within, who completely ignores the environmentally conscious part of you that longs to be vegan.
Speaking of - veggies of the day vary with limas, greens, and cabbage in the mix. The potato triad selections are all super: fries (thin shoestrings, crispy), salad and mashed. You'll have to come back to try them all. And bring friends to help.
2301 Orleans Avenue
When you walk into the small lobby, the first thing you'll spot is a photograph of Barrak Obama hugging Leah Chase. He looks very, very happy. The future president dined in the restaurant when he was still a Senator. But he must have found the food unforgettable. Flying through New Orleans later on Air Force One, the president had a Dooky Chase meal delivered to the jet.
President George Bush dined there as well, along with musicians, artists, writers and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. The dining room, hung with pieces from the Chases' extensive art collection, exudes a sense of relaxed elegance. You'll want to go dressed in fine casual or business attire here. According to their website, "Leah Chase requests that all diners adhere to a dress code that promotes a family and professional atmosphere."
While you can order off the menu, it's really, really, really hard to pass up the buffet. The fried chicken tray alone seems to beckon you. It's always steaming hot, just out of the fryer, because it disappears so fast. With sides like red beans, greens, mac and cheese and green beans, why resist?
601 Gallier Street
Everything coming out of Elizabeth's kitchen is made from scratch, from the beer/BBQ oysters, to the praline bacon, to the hog jowl BLT. They even grind their own hamburger meat. The restaurant is best known as a breakfast/brunch/lunch spot, but if you want the fried chicken - and you do - it's only served at dinner (Tues. - Saturday, 5pm - 10pm). $12 gets you a half order and two sides, while three dollars more gets you a full order.
Elizabeth's version is much like the fried chicken my Appalachian grandmother made on her wood stove (after she beheaded the chicken herself). The breading is more of a light shawl embracing the pieces as opposed to the traditional thick batter coat of the Deep South. The dill pickle garnish tweaks your taste-buds while you're crunching. Since each bite presents a different flavor though, it's hard to restrain yourself for reaching for just one more piece.
Our rating? Real Good. For Real.
Li’l Dizzy’s Café
1500 Esplanade Ave
He smiled and pointed to a photo in a frame over the door. “That’s you," he said. “We hung your picture right there.” She looked a bit surprised and then beamed at him, saying she’ll be back soon. Watching this exchange, I realized she was CCH Pounder, who plays Dr. Wade in NCIS: New Orleans.
I did not partake of the extravagant soul food buffet and ordered the fried chicken plate off the menu. It didn't take a forensic scientist to figure out why a television star is slipping in between shooting scenes. The spice spoke to me, but subtly, and the blond-crust crunch provided the perfect contrast with the flavorful, tender meat beneath.
Just go, y'all.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann Street
I remember the servers ministered to us kindly, as if we were shell-shocked survivors (which we were) who'd come to this shrine looking for a little peace, in addition to a meal. The divine fried chicken we ate that day filled our bellies and soothed our hearts, adding a new layer of meaning to the term "soul food."
The James Beard Foundation named the restaurant as one of ten Deep South winners of their America's Classics Awards in 2005 - just before Katrina. It took the restaurant two years to come back after the storm, but it was soon awarded more national kudos: the Food Network and the Travel Channel both named Willie Mae's as the restaurant serving up "America's Best Fried Chicken."
Owner Willie Mae Seaton started the restaurant in 1957 and her great-granddaughter is now heading up this family enterprise. Its Tremé location hasn't changed, although there's now signage around the block reserving spaces for all the tour buses. But don't let that keep you away. We've had good luck going for lunch after the main crush.
The menu is simple - three chicken entrees, veal and fried fish - with sides like seasoned green beans covered with gravy (yes!), New Orleans style red and butter beans (but vegan!), sweet peas, candied yams, brussels sprouts and fried okra. Leave your low-carb diet at the door and gorge on the cornbread muffins. The fried chicken has a light crust that was the spiciest of any we tried - yet those who prefer mild flavors will get a very gentle introduction into Louisiana's peppery cuisine.
823 Decatur Street
Thankfully for us all, some good-sense hold-outs still provide locals and tourists alike with atmosphere islands of bliss. Tujague's, on the corner of Madison and Decatur street, is one of the best. Founded in 1856, it's officially the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans (in case you're wondering, Antoine's opened in 1840). Standing at the antique bar, with one foot propped on the brass rail and the other on the tile floor, make a toast to timelessness with a big smile on your face.
The chicken is fried in a cast iron skillet with thinly sliced potatoes. Then the whole platter is smothered in a parsley-garlic topping called "Persillade." The recipe for Persillade calls for three entire heads (not cloves!) of garlic. So while you won't be kissing anyone for the remainder of the evening, the dish is so amazing, you won't care.
The Fountain Lounge
The Roosevelt Hotel
130 Roosevelt Way
Fried Chicken feast on Monday nights ONLY, from 5pm - 8pm
Family-style isn't just a convenient adjective in this case. It means that baskets of chicken and honey-butter biscuits, bowls of slaw and red beans and rice are brought out to the table and folks fill their own plates. And included in the $18.93 dinner price (the date the hotel was originally built) is a glass of beer - pick from four different Abita brews. Dessert? Eat another one of those honey biscuits. If you can.
The whole affair takes the New Orleans tradition of red beans and rice on Mondays to a new level. For those who are tempted to skip this classic experience because they believe parking might be a hassle? Fountain Lounge patrons get up to four hours free parking.
We can only hope the hotel keeps offering Fried Chicken Nights through their 126th birthday year.