Some food stops are non-negotiable. Vivoli for gelato in Florence. McClard's for barbecue in Hot Springs. This last weekend in New Orleans, I had to break one of my rules, though. I've visited The City That Care Forgot more than a dozen times, and I never NOT went to Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee until this time. Less than 48 hours on the ground for a meeting with other rabid eaters just didn't allow for it.
But I've found a new place that I insist I will never, ever leave New Orleans without visiting. I've been seduced by the fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House.
I admit that most fried chicken doesn't excite me. I was introduced to Popeye's when they had only a few outlets in New Orleans, long before the word "mild" was ever heard on their premises; I feel it's the best of the drive-through poultry palaces, but it's not anything I go out of my way to get. When I come across fried chicken that's notable, I'm happy to pass it on, but as far as downright chicken madness - well, that's not my beat. (Although the attention being paid to the bird here in St. Louis is, overall, a definite improvement on what we've had.)
Willie Mae's is in the Treme neighborhood, totally inundated and much destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was touch and go as to whether the restaurant would ever reopen. But finally things came together. It's a very simple place, certainly, a soul food restaurant with a relatively short menu, although seeing veal on it reminds you of just where you are.If you're lucky, you'll walk by the kitchen, where the guys are blasting out stuff like Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing", en route to the second dining room.
Twenty or so of us descended on Willie Mae's from our taxis. They don't take reservations. The staff kept their calm, putting us at tables as they emptied. There is pretty much always a line - they open at 11.30 a.m., and we arrived around 11.40. Under other circumstances, folks like this swarm of food bloggers would have run through the entire menu, but we had another lunch stop after this and two more for dinner, so we stuck to the essentials: Fried chicken and a few sides.
The chicken is battered - what seems to be frequently referred to as a "wet batter" - but it's as light as tempura, but crispier. There's some cayenne in it, but not enough to set the mouth aflame. One dissenter thought it was greasy - but what's on your fingers is chicken juice, not grease. No further sprinkling of salt, pepper, or the New Orleans classic, Crystal Hot Sauce, is needed. The color is magnificent, the bronze of an Arizona sunset. Worth the inevitable wait here, definitely.
Many rave about the butter beans, rather like large lima beans, cooked to creaminess, but I voted for the red beans, more assertively seasoned. Fried okra wears a different batter, this one of cornmeal, but almost as light. Cornbread turns out to be corn muffins, surely the most tender cornbread in the United States, almost angel food cake-ish.
No alcohol - locavores know that the vin du terroir is Barq's Root Beer, a great match. Not a place to go for a light snack, but if there's any leftover chicken - ha - it's probably just as fine cold. There's now an uptown location, but I can't vouch for it, and the menu apparently is more limited.
Willie Mae's Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St. New Orleans
Lunch (through 5 p.m.) Mon.-Sat.