The scene changes twice a week, though, when the cruise ships dock along the riverfront and hungry Filipino workers spill out. Rather than Ely's front entrance, which faces the House of Blues on Decatur Street, they use the Clinton Street door around back, passing beneath the sign advertising Philippine Imports.
On the other side of the threshold, "Miss Ely," a native of Tanay Rizal, Philippines, washes mismatched dishes by hand, pausing to scuttle over to a pot of wilting cabbage, or to turn the sweet, orange pork sausages from Pampanga that sizzle over the electric flame of a hotplate. Her brother carries the dishes to a drying rack, which commences a buffet line crowded with warmer pans, rice cookers and dented pots that contain traditional Philippine dishes like chicken adobo in brown onion gravy, or a lemony broth swimming with celery, whole chile peppers and milk fish heads. There might be pancit, a sweet-sour dish made with both rice and wheat noodles, not unlike pad Thai; whole, salted herring that taste funky like hard Parmesan cheese and are meant to be eaten, bones and all, as condiments; and dinuguan, Philippine pork blood stew. It tastes less like blood than European blood sausages, which taste almost nothing like blood at all. Miss Ely's dinuguan contains soft chunks of fat from the pig's head -- she prefers the head to the stomach, because stomach "smells so bad" while it cooks.
The first time a friend took me to Miss Ely's back kitchen, the regular crowd of cruise ship employees wasn't there. Instead, a few of Miss Ely's friends had walked over from the Philippine Consulate in the World Trade Center, and lunch was the first stop for a young choral group of Filipino-Americans visiting from Miami who found that the cooking tasted "just like home." Miss Ely, who emigrated to New Orleans in 1968 and has worked the French Quarter store for 10 years, passed through her brimming restaurant's four tables with skillets of beef stew wider around than her waistline, and she distributed cans of young coconut juice from a refrigerator wedged between shelves of shrimp fry, banana sauce, salted fish and bean cakes.
When the all-you-can-eat feast wound down, the choir stood and thanked Miss Ely with a folk love song, performed in four-part harmony and one of the Philippines' many dialects. She sat in a folding chair facing the group and drew her hands to her face with emotion as the spring breezes carried the voices up and out to the back alley. Her brother danced around behind them.
Ely's hardly qualifies as an everyday restaurant experience. The best food finds often don't. Some of the most satisfying meals have never been rated, never reviewed and never advertised. You might hear about such a place from a friend who might know about it only because he works next door and one day followed an unfamiliar scent that had been seeping through the vents every morning.
Such places aren't always legal -- although every place mentioned here is. They take a bit of determination to find, and sometimes a good measure of curiosity to try. The goal is always to discover the most delicious thing you could possibly put into your mouth, although often what turns up is one of the most interesting things you've ever eaten, sometimes the oddest and, occasionally, to your tastes at least, the most repulsive.
But even in the most unpalatable mouthfuls, you're liable to find an unbeatable story. This was the case at 5 a.m. one Saturday morning, over at the Vietnamese open-air market in New Orleans East. The bustle there dissolves just a few hours later, around the time when Vietnamese restaurants start serving noodle soups and when other local markets, such as the Crescent City Farmers Market in the CBD, are just opening.
To find the Vietnamese market, turn left off Chef Menteur Highway to Alcee Fortier Boulevard. You're getting close when you see canals covered bank-to-bank in water lilies. You're there when you see shoppers meandering back to double-parked cars carrying red mesh sacks wriggling with live chickens, and clear plastic bags stuffed like feather pillows with finger-long bean sprouts. There's a cart of squawking geese parked at the curb, where a man sells fresh eggs.
Cutting between Ly's Supermarket and Tiem Thit Heo Tuoi Fresh Meat Store, a dark and narrow passageway is crowded with traditional silk outfits for toddlers and bundles of herbs: cilantro, purple basil and ngo gai, a jagged, acerbic herb with a metallic aftertaste. Further on, this market estuary spills into an inner courtyard where mostly old Vietnamese women push past each other, and where other mostly old Vietnamese women sit on the ground behind their wares: more herbs, sprouts, shallots, green onions with pinkish bulbs, lettuces, black-skinned potatoes big as garden rocks and various roots that are knotted and curled like old fingers. In the corners, customers pick with bare hands through coolers of silvery fish, frozen squid and spiny shrimp.
Other vendors sell warm, gummy rice noodles crammed with caramelly onions, and cups of sweetish fish sauce for dipping them. Steaming hot banana leaves wrapped into triangles and bound with twine contain odd mixtures of sticky rice, mealy yellow bean stuff, red beans and a brick-orange something that tastes like Mexican chicharron. In the meat store a woman may encourage you to try her mounds of colored sweet sticky rice wrapped in cellophane. When you instead choose a pocket of weirdly salty, yellowish bean powder hidden under a thick sheet of stretchy green rice wrapping, you might wish you had taken her advice.
Alongside a man selling cuts of unfamiliar meat, there's a Subway-style assembly line of supersonically quick women stuffing mayonnaise-slathered mini baguettes to order with garlicky orange beef balls, cold cuts, carrot sticks, chile peppers and cilantro. It might not be your customary breakfast, but think of these banh mi as po-boys with a Southeast Asian edge.
Discovering such a nearby faraway culture is addictive: there must be more food like this happening someplace close, you hope as you wander back to your car. Which is how I wound up in the parking lot of another strip mall, discovering a mini-market in another alleyway. When a man ducked into a trailer cafe nearby, I followed him, hoping to uncover the definitive Vietnamese noodle bowl. Instead, the other men glared at me over teapots and coffee cups, and pin-ups of Asian beauties hung floor-to-ceiling on the trailer's tea-brown walls. As I made a quick retreat, the waitress confirmed I was the only woman who had ever simply stopped by looking for breakfast. Sometimes in your eagerness for a good bite to eat, you bite off more than you can chew.
I have a local relative who thinks of himself as an urban forager. When he meets someone claiming to be a foodie, he whips out his ultimate challenge: "Have you ever been to that shack by the dump on Claiborne?" He hasn't been there himself, but he seems proud just to have noticed it.
Dorothy Ross Restaurant actually sits upwind from a recycling center, just past Alexis' Fried Chicken and Ms. Hyster's Barbecue. Where Claiborne Avenue wants to launch you up into a series of merges and exits, you gently nudge your car a few feet to the right instead.
When it rained for two straight days last summer, nothing changed about lunchtime at Dorothy Ross except that the usual long line outside this take-out became the usual long line outside with umbrellas -- a good indication that it was time to step up. About six people can squeeze between the counter and the screen door inside the narrow shotgun shed, where it smells like church: like scentless candles burning and corners that will never feel sunlight. Workmen, businesswomen in silk blouses and the neighborhood regulars found at any lunch joint wait in silence, aside from intermittent comments about the day's menu. "The riblets are good," or "I always get them turkey necks."
Dorothy Ross herself serves up massive portions of soul food that primarily exist in pairings of meat (ham hocks, pig feet, turkey wings, baked chicken, beef stew), beans (limas, black-eyed peas, whites and reds), and rice. Her assistant will ask if you want white bread or cornbread with that, and she'll dribble on the hot sauce until you say when. A small order gets its name only from the size of box it comes in; the rice, beans, meat and accompanying bones and skin are packed in so tightly that a toothpick fastener is necessary to keep the lid shut.
This is the kind of food you might crave after a 12-hour shift, which is the case with a postman standing in line. Plus, there's something welcoming and real about the proprietor. Ross is a trim, soft-spoken 68-year-old woman who wears jewelry and tucks in her blouse despite rising at 4:30 a.m. "to chop my seasonings." And she's been at it since she was 30, beginning in a kitchen at the back of the now-closed barroom next door. "I just love cooking. That's my problem. I think I'll die with a spoon in my hand," she says.
Of course, Dorothy Ross isn't the only woman in town cooking soul food to go. In the rare event that Tee Eva isn't working her window in the brightly painted cinderblock building Uptown, one of her nieces or nephews probably is. In addition to making pralines, pies and sno-balls, Tee Eva can work a stove. Seafood and sausage gumbo is taken from the freezer and microwaved, "so that it never goes bad," according to Tee Eva's niece. Thanks to crawfish tails, a briny stock and a crab piece in each pint, it's as murky and marine-like as seafood gumbo from a soul food walk-up window should be.
If you can't find the take-out window at Dooky Chase, look for the cars parked illegally and still idling while their owners duck in for Leah Chase's fried chicken on the fly. Her husband, Dooky, sits behind a retired ticket window adjacent to a backroom bar, carefully crimping aluminum foil around paper plates of red beans, and slowly sliding fried shrimp po-boys into white paper sleeves; everything gets packed inside white cake boxes as old-fashioned as Dooky's guayabera shirt. The super-seasoned fried chicken is best eaten hot while your greasy fingers steer you home.
Le Petit Degarge is the only place to walk up -- the only local place I know of period -- for a Haitian brand of Creole food. The turquoise building is so well camouflaged by the neighboring turquoise apartments, and its location is so unexpected -- at the base of the Esplanade Avenue exit ramp winding down from I-10 East -- that you can miss it in a blink. Owner Isaac Antoine taped a for-sale sign in the window months ago; he hopes to find a more desirable space for selling the few peasant-style dishes from his homeland that he now prepares along with po-boys and burgers. While you can, try the tender, mildly sour stewed chicken with wilted onions; or whole fish cooked head and all in a citrusy sauce with parsley. Both come with side dishes: heavy rice and pigeon peas and sometimes-boiled, sometimes-fried plantains.
The tamale has been a staple of local window food since 1932, when Manuel's Hot Tamales opened. For some locals, a dependence on Manuel's wrapperless spicy beef tamales smothered in heavy beef chili and melted cheddar cheese began as a harmless after-school snack habit. Other natives were weaned on Old Style Hot Tamales. These are currently sold from parking lot carts scattered about the West Bank, like the one on Terry Parkway run by a woman who brings her television to work and cheers out loud at Wheel of Fortune. In order to love Old Style, you have to be OK with wet tamales wrapped in thin paper instead of cornhusks. Perhaps the closest-to-Mexico tamales sold as street food in New Orleans today are the pinto bean and chile-vegetable ones that the Mendez Family swaddles in corn husks at their farm in Independence, and then sells hot for $5 per half-dozen at the Saturday morning Crescent City Farmers Market.
Other walk-up food might require more of a drive. Veering from I-12 onto Highway 59 headed toward Abita Springs on the Northshore, there's an unusual way to decide which in a cluster of three gas stations is the best place to fill up. Hint: it has nothing to do with the going price of gasoline. Abita Bar-B-Q is a back take-out counter in an otherwise standard Shell mini mart, where for the amount you'd spend on two Slim Jims and a Coke, you can get a squishy bun loaded with thin ribbons of barbecue beef brisket smoked on-site. The potato salad is heavy on the mayonnaise and the baked beans are molasses-sweet. Abita Bar-B-Q's crown jewels, however -- the reason Shell would be wise to franchise this family-run pit stop -- are the pork ribs, best described as crispy slabs of bacon on a stick.
For a better side dish than you'll find at Abita Bar-B-Q, travel three miles down Highway 59 to the BP Gas Shop #6 where, among an entourage of fried things, you can get cylinders of sweet corn battered and fried as gorgeously as Leah Chase's fried chicken.
When you start poking around for food in unusual places, your friends tend to think they can't help you. And then, once you stimulate their appetites with your own great finds, they hit you with an onslaught of suggestions. You hear about a guy called Barbecue Dave who travels from bar to bar with meat and a grill. You learn about a man who harvests honey and bee pollen from hives in the country and then sells them out of his Uptown living room. You're privy to every Roman Candy cart sighting, including during Mardi Gras when an El Camino replaced the mule. You start dreaming about all the candy apple men you should meet. And then there's the ya cha mein guru at the second lines, the Samosa Man at the flea market, and the sidewalk gumbo salesman who's on Poydras Street every morning except on the mornings when you try to find him.
Quite a few people mentioned the Cake Man, but at first the closest I could get to nailing down his coordinates was that he frequents the boutiques and antique shops on Magazine Street between Napoleon and Louisiana avenues. So I started at Louisiana, avoiding the places I figured make their own cakes. Most people knew of the Cake Man but not his name or his schedule. I met one woman digging her fingers into a Rally's bag who said she told him never to come back because she was dieting. A clerk further on said that while she never ate cake, all the other girls often did. And a beautician begged me to send him over when he turned up. Finally someone yelped, "Do I know him? He's my hero!" (This shop owner's other heroes include the traveling Spring Roll Man and Salad Lady.)
The Cake Man, who prefers to be called by his real name, Steve Himelfarb, agreed to meet me the following Saturday. As expected, his tray heaved with $3 slices of double-layer cake. Depending upon the season and his inspiration, the tray could contain any of the 25-plus cakes in his rotation, all polished with well-thought-out toppings. chocolate marble cake gets chocolate glaze; almond poppyseed cake is decorated with powdered sugar; and key lime cake is frosted with key lime buttercream. The slices I bought -- Divina's dream devils food cake with chocolate buttercream and red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting -- were picture-perfect, moist and slathered with real, butter-rich goo.
Himelfarb's baking career originated in 1994, as an assignment handed down from a woman named Divina who has been his spiritual advisor for 19 years. A former successful but embittered musical engineer and producer, he now lives this mission. Some people work in soup kitchens; Himelfarb bakes cakes for God, his route dictated by orders for whole cakes and requests from regular customers. "It has helped me to overcome fears and limitations so much," he says. "I love it more and more everyday." After baking only Divina's chocolate cakes for four years, he branched out with his own recipes.
"There are probably a million people I've sold cake to who have no idea why I do it," says Himelfarb, a straight talker who looks like a mature California surfer: thinning platinum blond hair, floral beach shirt, nice teeth, a tan. He recently took a rare vacation to attend his grandmother's funeral, where he caught up with siblings he hadn't seen for years. What does his family think of his unconventional profession? "In some ways they dig it -- they're fascinated. But then they also don't know what to think of it. Same with me, really."
There's another urban legend afloat that if you ring a bell at the monastery on the corner of Henry Clay Avenue and Magazine Street, the iron gates will swing open upon a world where nuns make miracle-quality pecan pralines. In reality, you can walk into St. Clare's Monastery during a few hours on all but the holiest days. Ordering the candies ahead is sternly encouraged, but it's possible to step into the monastery's cool, soundless foyer and see a scrap of paper taped beside a doorbell on which someone has scratched "Yes, we have Sister Mary's pralines today."
If you push on this bell, you'll hear a few moments of scuffling behind what at first appears to be a solid wall of stained wood, and then a little gray head will pop through a cubbyhole, much like the gatekeeper of the Emerald City. When you ask about the pralines, she'll excuse herself, scuffle behind the wall some more and then open a door that leads to the Clare Nuns' gift shop. "This isn't our important work," reminds the woman, who turns out to be Sister Mary. "Our important work is to pray."
Sister Mary started her praline business decades ago as a mission to raise money for water supplies in a drought-ridden area of Africa; these days, the proceeds go to the monastery. More crumbly than creamy, her silver dollar-size pralines melt in your mouth the way sugar cubes will if you can keep from chewing them. And while she only makes them to order "so that people can get them fresh," the leftovers occasionally do make their way into signature gift-wrapped boxes and onto the gift shop shelf.
It's safe to say that a handful of shoppers who show up at Whole Foods Market prior to closing time every Sunday night comes directly from a vegetarian dinner at the Hare Krsna Temple a few blocks down Esplanade Avenue. This is the only mission in town that serves patchouli-drenched twenty-somethings, tourists with backpacks, and the general bike-riding public indiscriminately, for free. (Unless Kermit Ruffins' barbecues, the Monday late-night food at Donna's Bar, and the free red beans at Igor's count as missions.)
The night I visited Sankirtana Puri Dham, upward of 50 other guests also helped themselves to basmati rice, stewed mung beans, curried potatoes, nubby soy dumplings in an aromatic brown gravy, homemade bread, lettuce salad and a dessert that tasted like Cream of Wheat and raisins left to gel overnight. Judging from everyone I saw bypass the donation box for seconds, I wasn't the only one who found this meal wonderful.
Most of the Hare Krsnas ate in a cafe-style room in the basement. The rest of us, perhaps too shy to mingle, perched along a low stone wall in the courtyard, where we made tables out of our knees. Noticing that one woman's dinner date preferred the company of a cellular telephone, I asked if she dined there often. "Oh yes, I come every week. I'll even skip work for this."
As one of only four visitors (two others of whom I dragged with me) who had felt duty-bound to attend the Hare Krsna's 90-minute chanting-and-dancing service prior to the dinner, I was surprised to find that you could just show up and eat. In fact, I felt downright indignant. Perhaps this reaction indicates my own level of Krsna consciousness. Checking my impression with one of the kind, sari-clad women inside the temple, I asked what she thought about the freeloading. "We just hope that being in this environment will touch them. It's like we're giving them a bath from the inside," she answered.
The closest you can get to free food outside your own kitchen on a regular basis is in the dirt-cheap arena of institutionalized food: It's impossible to spend more than $5 on a three-course meal in most cafeterias. The bargain does usually come at a sacrifice to quality and care, but I've deduced lately that it might not matter so much. People's standards of taste seem to plummet several degrees automatically when they enter a restaurant through a turnstile and pluck forks from the plastic cups they were washed in.
Which is the only reason I've forgiven several acquaintances for sending me on a wild goose chase through their favorite cafeterias.
For awhile I received a call every Monday about the awesome red beans at the Tulane University Hospital cafeteria. The truth: the caller had become such a regular that the cute girl in the hairnet was serving him double portions for the price of one. Then there's a doctor at the VA hospital whose pet students are the ones who follow him to the first floor for "the only New York-style pizza in New Orleans." What I found at Papa's Best Pizza indicates that even the best doctors should leave the hospital more often. University of New Orleans alumni talk about Wednesday's spicy fried chicken and garlicky smothered cabbage like somebody's grandmother lives to cook at that cafeteria alone. It's not bad, but after making the pilgrimage, I can report how generally thankful I am not to be back in school.
It is true, however, that the honest chicken pot pie served in the basement of the Hale Boggs Federal Building is the only pot pie that could get me to shed my shoes for another intensive security check. When shoveled from an industrial-size roasting pan, the pot pie's solid sheet of flaky crust collapses onto a filling of pulled chicken chunks, the usual peas and carrots, and thick noodles cooked almost to porridge. The employees scoff at anyone who tries to order more than one giant-sized entree, so you'll have to sneak back for a worthy bowl of gumbo with drumsticks, and a scoop of nutmeg-kissed peach cobbler.
There's no valet at the courts. If you can't find parking by closing time (around 1:30 p.m.), you'll have to settle for the snack shop upstairs.
At the epicenter of the downtown cafeteria community sits another bearer of culinary mystery: Mitchell's Fruit & Snacks. For some reason, there's an entire population that finds it perfectly acceptable to eat terrible food prepared within the walls of a medical complex, but thinks it preposterous to order a po-boy from Mitchell's. After chasing down a pair of mobile food trucks that barrel about the Mid-City area at lunchtime, I've concluded that there's something appealing about a roach coach that sits still. It's not as transient. It doesn't need mudflaps. I imagine less food ultimately hits the floor.
Provided it's not raining when the woman who runs Mitchell's kitchen wakes up, you can always get French fries peeled, cut and fried to order. Only dunked into hot oil once, they become fragile sticks of potato fluff coated in a brittle, peppery film. Her oil is clean, her tiny fried shrimp are like spicy popcorn, and her ya cha mein -- an intriguing, soupy, satisfying dish -- is a heavy-as-a-dictionary quart container filled with beef broth, tender beef bits, spaghetti noodles and two hard-cooked eggs split lengthwise.
When nurses on break step into the coach to chat, the wait at Mitchell's can be more excruciating than the one in the emergency room. So you eavesdrop on Charity employees who grab 10-minute patches of sunlight, and you note that the man selling produce under Mitchell's awning has much redder tomatoes than the ones from the truck down your street. When another man -- the one organizing Mitchell's bags of potato chips for pocket change -- saw me inspecting a package of cracklin', he made a disgusted face and snatched it away. "Look at those cracklin'. They look like they were cooked too long, don't they?" I nodded for lack of a more educated response. He shuffled through the cracklin' selection and came up with another bag "from a better batch" and opened it for me.
This gesture was as much a reproach as it was a friendly tip, as if to reinforce that there's no good excuse for slacking in one's pursuit of that truly perfect bite.