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April 10, 2009

New Orleans - Day III

The Original Muffuletta Dominic Armato

With my departure looming and more work to do, day three's adventures were a little chaotic. But in between some last-minute photography and rushing back to the airport, I managed to squeeze in a few more stops. I hadn't originally planned on hitting Central Grocery, but work took me back to the quarter and I love a good Italian sandwich as much as the next guy (more, probably), so I figured I'd drop in for a famed muffuletta. Central Grocery has been around since before the dawn of mankind, when neandarthals Ug and Thak tended the counter, selling Italian cold cuts and huge tins of olive oil to other passing protohumans. Point being: Dude... place is old. And it's awesome, with countless jars of marinated vegetables and sauces, antique olive oil tins lining the tops of the shelves and rows of specials stenciled onto paper signs that were presumably at one time white but now look more like something the Goonies would find in Mikey's attic. There's a dining area in back, but it was crowded with melamine counters and terrible light, so I opted to carry out. After a ten minute wait, I stepped up to the counter, received my sandwich, stepped out the door and found the nearest bench.

MuffulettaDominic Armato
While waiting in line, I'd thought to myself that the $13 or $14 tag (its exact price escapes me at the moment) seemed a little steep for a counter deli sandwich, but the moment the fellow at the counter handed it over the mystery was solved. Big as a dinner plate, four inches thick and wrapped in white paper, I was unsure whether to eat it or stake it to the ground and get the neighborhood kids together for stickball. I resolved to stop halfway through -- an action that goes against every fiber of my being -- tore off the paper and dug into what is universally regarded as a fantastic sandwich. Well, almost universally. Me? I don't get it. It's an Italian deli sandwich. Some nondescript Genoa salami, slice of ham (plain old deli-style ham ham ham type ham), slice of mortadella, Swiss(?!?) cheese and olive salad -- giardiniera that's unusually heavy on olives -- on a massive disk of bread studded with sesame seeds. And it's good. About as good as every other sandwich I've had of essentially the same composition, which is many. If you hail from some region of the country where mortadella and giardiniera are wacky exotic foods nowhere to be found, this is a must-have while visiting. Otherwise? I see no compelling reason to use a meal on this that could be otherwise spent with other New Orleans specialties. I understand the love for the store. It's a trip. But the sandwich, not so much.

Cafe au Lait with BeignetsDominic Armato
I hadn't planned on hitting the famous Cafe Du Monde, but with the smell of fried dough and chicory coffee wafting over from a block away, I couldn't resist. So I sauntered over, parked, and took in the scene and a little dessert. Not that the grub is lacking in any way, but the real charm of nearly 150 year old Cafe Du Monde is the atmosphere, a large covered patio open to Jackson Square where you can sit down for a sip and a bite, be serenaded by street musicians (a classical guitar arrangement of Ave Maria for my stop) and people watch. The house special is a cup of chicory-scented cafe au lait and a plateful of beignets -- pillows of fried dough covered with a truckload of powdered sugar. And me in my black pants en route to the airport. In any case, it's a great little stop. The coffee is smooth and delicious, even if I couldn't pick out the chicory (perhaps for lack of reference), and the beignets, though not as piping hot as I would have liked, were sweet, moist and delicious. Just don't inhale.

Crawfish BoilDominic Armato
Back to work, I spent a couple of hours cruising around the downtown area, and decided to swing through Uptown for one last stop on my way to the airport. Franky & Johnny's is another divey neighborhood bar that specializes in bar food, all things fried and crawfish, when they're in season. It was this last item that I was seeking, so I popped in, took a seat at a table covered with a vinyl red and white checkered tablecloth, and within minutes had a massive pile of boiled crawfish in front of me. This was some serious crawfish carnage. $15 must've gotten me 60 critters. So I got my shell basket ready and got to work. I've had crawfish worked into plenty of dishes before, but I'd never before had a straight-up crawfish boil, which is why I was so hell-bent on squeezing in an extra meal. For those who haven't partaken, you tear off the tail, bite the meat therein and give the end of the tail a strong pinch to release it, then give the head a good suck to get all of the gnarly crawfish flavor therein. The boiling liquid had onions, lemon, a number of spices I couldn't identify and, perhaps above all, red pepper. One thing I learned about Franky and Johnny's is that they don't screw around. Midway through the platter, my mouth was on fire. It was happy, but in significant pain. And I'm no flyweight when it comes to the spicy. Long story short, order beer.

And so, with my belly full of local crustaceans, I hopped back in the car and headed for the airport, feeling that I hadn't had enough time. New Orleans is a great, unique eating town and I could spend a month there and still feel like I was missing stuff. Heck, I didn't even get a great bowl of gumbo on this pass. But I squeezed in some mighty good eats where I could and felt that I did about as well as can be reasonably expected for such a short and busy visit. The hardest part about leaving, really, was the knowledge that I'm unlikely to be back for a long time, and this isn't food you duplicate elsewhere. But hey, I have kids now. And in a few years, they're going to want to go to Disney World. So who knows? Maybe I'll be back sooner than I think.

See also, New Orleans - Day I and New Orleans - Day II.

Central Grocery
923 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
Tue - Sat9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Cafe Du Monde
800 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA 70116
24 Hours a Day
7 Days a Week
Franky & Johnny's
321 Arabella Street
New Orleans, LA 70115
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 9:00 PM


Those crawfish look awfully inviting!

I think I like Central Grocery's muffs even less than you do, but I have a soft spot for CDM. If you get the coffee black, you can definitely taste the chicory.

I don't really get the appeal of a muffuletta, either. Too much bread for my tastes. But I hear they're better after they sit for a couple hours, so the olive salad soaks the bread a bit.

Cafe du Monde coffee is good, but Community is better. My friend Don, who runs Cajun Kate's in the Booth's Corner Farmers Market in Boothwyn, PA (near Wilmington) serves Community with his beignets, and I dare say both are tastier than Cafe du Monde.

Glad you stopped at Franky and Johnny's. I always make a stop there and have their alligator soup - it's a bit salty, but still excellent.

Cafe duMonde just smells so unbelievably good.

I've been on spring break, so I'm just catching up on my Google Reader.

You hit some of my old haunts. My family is from NO, and I've lived there twice as an adult. I was 19 when I got my first "real" job at a hotel in the French Quarter. Many lunch hours were spent sitting in Jackson Square with a hunk of cheese from Central Grocery and a cup of CDM cafe au lait. I agree with your assessment of the muffuletta. I've never personally cared for them, but no tons who do. You would have gotten a much better sandwich at Maspero's, or Johnny's, or Napoleon House.

I moved back to New Orleans in my 30's and lived Uptown near the river bend. Franky & Johnny's was my neighborhood restaurant. I'm ashamed to say I ate their far too often. Next time be sure to try their fried green pepper rings and the crawfish pie.

Even if the food didn't sound so delicious, the writing would have kept me fully absorbed. Way to go, Dom!

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