New Orleans has always a been a great drinking town, Sazeracs and huge-ass domestic lagers served around the clock. Better beer? Not so much. Till now. For Imbibe, I traveled to NOLA to find out what's fueling the festive shift.
Meet the crew from Louisiana's Bayou Teche, who are rewriting the Southern template for beer.
As a city, New Orleans excels in the culinary arena. It makes the marvelously meaty, olive-strewn muffaletta sandwich. Crusty po’boys packed with fried oysters and shrimp are tasty to the last crumb. The absinthe-haunted Sazerac cocktail exemplifies potent balance. But beer, well, that’s barely an afterthought.
In New Orleans, beer has long been consumed by the Big Gulp, with quantity mattering more than quality. Miller High Life and its watery ilk are as omnipresent as beads come Mardi Gras. Down in the Crescent City, it seems like nary a shot has been fired in the craft beer revolution.
At least that’s what I thought until I arrived at the Avenue Pub last week. Ostensibly, I was in town for a family reunion (it’s a long story how three dozen New York–bred Jews ended up in the Big Easy). While there, I thought, I might as well add a stop to my Brewed Awakening book tour. But where to go? I doubted anyone on Bourbon Street, home to three-for-one Buds and Hurricanes as sweet as Halloween candy, gave a damn about a book on craft beer.
“Go to Avenue Pub,” offered my friend Joel, a longtime NOLA resident. In the last couple years, I learned, Avenue Pub seriously upgraded its tap lines, offering dozens of drafts focused on of-the-moment American and European ales and lagers. Sure, it’s terrific to carry Sierra Nevada and Stone. But upon arriving at the Avenue (located off the St. Charles Avenue street-car line), I was more struck by the breadth and scope of novel locally brewed beer. From Mississippi, Lazy Magnolia made a marvelous stout hewn with sweet potatoes, as well as an ale dosed with pecans. Louisiana’s Bayou Teche turned out beers suited to the Southern palate. And right in town, NOLA Brewing crafted the pungent Hopitoulas IPA, which could stand toe-to-toe with anything from the West Coast.
I spent the evening sampling brews from below the Mason-Dixon Line, finding a delightfully idiosyncratic craft beer culture on the rise. Curious about which Southern beers are worth seeking out next time you make it down to New Orleans? Check out the rest of my story at Food Republic.
“I think we've traveled far enough for a piece of fried chicken,” my friend Matt says, applying his bike brakes. Like a game-show girl, he fake-smiles and gestures to our impediment— an industrial canal featuring a 15-foot plunge into fetid water, with train-topped railroad tracks looming beyond.
“Maybe we can swim,” I replied, my mind set on crunchy wings, breasts as juicy as a summer melon.
“Think again, Bernstein,” Matt said, edging his bike from the precipice. “The quest for chicken has ended.”
To what lengths will a man go for food?
That question faced me in New Orleans last week, where I attempted to spike my cholesterol 50 points in 10 days. This is no chore in the land of gravy-sodden roast beef po’ boys, oil-crisped cornmeal oysters and praline bacon. It’s a sugary, fatty foodstuff that engineers both diabetes and heart attacks. But the meat of my quest was fried chicken.
I know, I know: In New York, I can gnaw on fine fowl at Locanda Verde, Blue Ribbon, the Redhead and Momofuku Noodle Bar.These restaurants, however, offended my delicate sensibilities—well, my wallet. I despise paying $15 or $20 for a few bites of bird. I quickly did mental math (a skill learned during college breaks spent working on factory assembly lines, when I tabulated how much I earned per second). Instead of paying highway robbery prices for Big Apple chicken, it was cheaper to fly to New Orleans and eat Big Easy fowl.
Quicker than you can utter irrational, I booked a flight, rented an apartment and convinced fellow carnivores to come.The days dissolved in a greasy blur.We consumed Cajun-spicy chicken at Coop’s Place, then peppery wings at takeout-only McHardy’s Chicken & Fixin’.The James Beard Association–designated Willie Mae’s Scotch House was worth the hour wait. Its chicken was deeply golden brown and discounted ($7.50 for a heaping plate), with crust as crisp and flaky as French pastry. But I will stop torturing you with sweet words about distant fowl.You’d rather devour a tale devoted to my overeager idiocy.
I’d heard whisper of McKenzie’s Chicken in a Box, which sold whole birds for about eight bucks. I consulted Google Maps, which showed an 8-mile ride—simple, since New Orleans is flatter than day-old Diet Coke. I departed with Matt, a tour guide and iron-forged adventure-seeker.We navigated Nola’s topography, passing homes rebuilt, ruined and somewhere in the middle. It can be heartbreaking to cruise through block filled with resplendent dwellings, while the next approximates war-savaged Kosovo, the streets possessing potholes the size of golden retrievers.Then we hit the canal. Then Matt and I squabbled like a sexless old couple.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t want this chicken,” Matt said, “but there’s no way to get this chicken.” “You want the chicken.” “No, you want the chicken.” I turned Buster Keaton quiet, as I often do when perturbed. I consulted my map. My eyes brightened, like sun sneaking out from clouds. “We just have to cross that.” I pointed to a nearby bridge, the speeding drivers seemingly practicing for the Daytona 500.
“I don’t know…” Matt began. “Adventure,” I whispered. “You love adventure.”
Like a dog resigned to follow his thick-headed master, Matt followed as I weaved onto the sidewalk—no bike lane, naturally—and crested the viaduct. I glanced at the water and tracks below, earning a sweet dose of vertigo, before gravity hurtled us down the incline.We entered the whizzing traffic, avoiding swerving cars and a dead-dog obstacle. In the distance I spotted the ’60s-style signage for McKenzie’s, the faint grease scent as heady as perfume.
“We’re there!” I high-fived Matt, finding empty air. He was several blocks back, crouched at his bike. I circled back. “My scarf,” he moaned, pointing at the blue fabric ensnared in an oily chain. I tugged. He pulled. I yanked. He jerked.The scarf shot out like a bullet. “No more delays,” I said, putting his scarf in my bag as we rolled to McKenzie’s. The seat-less Southern restaurant was a vision from a time when saturated fat was known as good eatin’: fried okra, deep-fried crawfish pies, fried sweet-potato pies. Fried, fried, fried! We ordered a box of half chicken, hustled it to a stoop and bit into bliss.
The bird was fresh and peppery, with skin as crisp as Saltines. A perfect end to an imperfect adventure. “Was I right?” I asked Matt, who was busily tearing into a meaty breast. “You wouldn’t be happy unless you were right,” Matt said. “Now eat a wing and shut up."
Cure cocktail bar. Photo: rdpeyton, Flickr
I don't have gout yet, but I sure am close, especially after spending the last 10 days stuffing my gut in New Orleans. Lord, I hope I don't see another po' boy soon, for serious. If you want to read about my dining adventures, I penned a tale over at Slashfood. Curious? Read it up!