Growing up in Boston, I remember returning to the comfort of my home on harsh winter days with the smells of dinner rushing throughout the house. But it wasn't my mother cooking, it was my nanny and self-proclaimed "second mother", Bereniz. Bereniz, or Neffy as my siblings and I would affectionately call her, was a wonderful cook. She knew how to make the ordinary extraordinary. Whether it was simply spaghetti Bolognese or Brazilian rice and beans, everything Neffy made was outstanding.
Everyone has a "Neffy", whether it is their mother, grandmother, or anyone that would cook for them growing up. The food we ate growing up was unpretentious and yet seems so far removed from where we are today. However, this is all changing. Restaurants in New Orleans are bringing home-cooked or home-to-table meals back in fashion and there's no slowing down in sight. Some keep it classic, while others give the dishes a modern or unique twist. Here are some restaurants doing your home-cooked favorites the justice it deserves.
Let's start with the most important meal of the day: breakfast. It wouldn't feel right to speak about breakfast without mentioning Slim Goodies Diner. This BYO Magazine Street Diner caught my eye and taste buds several years ago. Walk into this cozy diner and sit in a booth, on the counter, or enjoy their lovely outdoor patio. But let's get to what is important: the food. The Jewish Coonass is where the 504 meets the 212. This not-so-classic comfort dish includes two fried potato latkes (L'Chaim), topped with fresh grilled spinach, two eggs & homemade crawfish etouffee. The latkes are fried so they don't lose their crunchy texture underneath the mountain of flavors on top. If you have a bit of a sweeter tooth, you can't mess up with the banana pancakes, filled with "monkey treats" and dressed with your favorites like chocolate chips and pecans for a decadent experience.
Perhaps the best example of home-cooked breakfast goodness is at Surrey's Café. If their Lower Garden District location is too busy, have no fear! They have another location Uptown. This is a breakfast experience you simply do not want to miss. Every morning, they make their own bagels and granola (with toasted coconut!) from scratch, which can stand on their own right. But it is their other dishes that have kept me coming over and over again. Take, for example, their Bananas Foster French Toast. The thought of having dessert for breakfast brings out the inner kid in me and I simply can't resist! This delectable dish features New Orleans style French toast stuffed with banana cream cheese. It is then topped with a classic Bananas Foster sauce of rum, brown sugar and butter, and dusted with powdered sugar. It is plated beautifully, with the bread sliced diagonally and the seemingly artistic placement of the powdered sugar. Also, you can get your Vitamin C on with any of their fresh squeezed juices.
Now think back to playing with your friends in the backyard or on the street. You've worked up an appetite and suddenly you hear the call "lunch time!" It draws you in like the Sirens calling out to Odysseus. You do not care what the score is or how much time is left in the game, you need to get lunch. You walk inside your home and there is a beautiful plate of golden brown grilled cheese and tomato soup. I don't know about you, but I almost cry just thinking about it. I think the masterminds behind The Big Cheezy do too. Check out their Uptown or Kenner locations for the grilled cheese of your dreams. You can go with the original cheddar and American cheese on country white bread paired with tomato basil soup. No shame in that game. But if you are feeling a little bit more adventurous, try one of their signature sandwiches like the Crawgator: crawfish and alligator sausage with cheddar and pepper jack cheese, caramelized onions, and grilled green peppers on sourdough. Oh, and their black angus burger melt with two fried eggs might put you in the most delicious cardiac arrest of all time.
I didn't grow up in an Italian family, but my heart and stomach certainly did. Few things in life can bring more joy than a simple lasagna with fresh tomato sauce and cheese. And believe me when I say this, the lasagna at Avo is **insert New Jersey accent here** to DIE for. Layers of fresh homemade pasta, short rib ragu, mushrooms, and Béchamel sauce create the perfect harmony that transports you to the streets of Naples where it originated. If lasagna ain't your thing, try their Cocoa Pappardelle, made with ground beef and pork and tossed with glazed turnips. Avo knows how to make fresh pasta, and you can tell when you bite into their dishes and have the revelation "Ah! Now I know what al dente should feel like". We're not in Kansas anymore.
Has there been a dish more signature to American home cooking and simultaneously more divisive than meatloaf? The often-misunderstood dish has European origins dating back to the 5th century. When the Great Depression began, families needed to stretch their meals somehow, so they adopted the meatloaf. Combining leftover meat with spices and grains, an American star was born. All too often, the meatloaf is perceived as a bland and (god forbid) dry dish, masked by ketchup. One local restaurant has turned that perception on its head. Joey K's bakes some of the most flavorful and juicy meatloaves as part of their Thursday Specials. Served with house-made gravy with a side of baked macaroni and cheese, Joey K's will never fail to meet and exceed your expectations. If you're feeling hesitant about the meatloaf, try the classic spaghetti with meatballs or the crispy fried chicken. No, wait. Try the Eggplant Napoleon: Fried eggplant medallions layered with a crawfish cream sauce and fried shrimp. Really, just try anything there, you'll thank me.
This part is a rapid fire round dedicated to fried chicken. In a city full of the country's best-fried chicken, here are my top 4:
- Willie Mae's Scotch House: It's not every day that a fried chicken joint in Treme wins the James Beard award. Well, that's how darn good this fried chicken is. Pro tip: go to the one in Treme for the authentic experience
- Dooky Chase's Restaurant: Just down the street from Willie Mae's is a New Orleans favorite. Leah Chase, "The Queen of Creole Cuisine" shows off her chops with some of the most finger-lickin' good chicken you can find
- Jacques-Imo's: Playfully proclaiming themselves as a place where they serve "bad food and warm beer", this Uptown institution led by Jacques Leonardi makes some of the most amazing fresh fried chicken with a fun and lively atmosphere
- McHardy's Chicken & Fixin: this Seventh Ward shop stays true to their slogan, "Always Fresh Hot And Good" Whether you just want a couple pieces or 100, they are always ready to feed the hungry mouths craving delicious fried chicken
I think we've learned a lot today ... or we've just mentally eaten a lot. Either way, the food of your childhood is not going anywhere. Well, hopefully, some things like Skippy Squeeze and the McPizza die and never come back. I'd be OK with that.