You'd think growing up with a mother from South Carolina that I'd be more than familiar with grits. Regardless of her heritage, my mom had no appreciation or desire for this ubiquitous Southern staple, so it never made an appearance on our table, for breakfast or otherwise. We were regaled with biscuits, fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread, pecan pie—you name it—but that simple, hominy porridge was always left out.
My first taste of grits didn't occur until I moved to New Orleans. After a late night of partying, my new friend introduced me to the incredibly cheap and glorious breakfasts to be had at the Trolley Stop on St. Charles Avenue. I ordered the French Special (it's become a tradition) with two eggs, two slices of French toast, two strips of bacon, ham or sausage, and, of course, a small bowl of grits for less than $7. When it came to the table, I looked at the grits, glanced up at my friend and back at the grits again. “What do I do with these?” I asked her. “You've never had grits before?” she responded in shock. She explained to me that everyone had his or her own way of doctoring a plain bowl of grits and I had to find my own preference. As it turns out, I like them in all their many forms. Add cheese, butter, salt and pepper, syrup, sugar, jam—doesn’t matter. I was hooked.
Since that fateful meal, I practically make it a point to order grits if I see them on the menu. Not long after my experience at the Trolley Stop Café, I visited Zea's Rotisserie & Grill when it used to be on St. Charles Avenue. I ordered their mouth-watering basil pesto-crusted trout with steamed broccoli and their roasted corn grits. Do you remember the fi rst time you tasted Zea's grits? For those unenlightened, Zea's roasted corn grits contain an ungodly amount of butter and cream (two cups of heavy cream and a half pound of butter for four servings), a combination likely to stop your heart, but you can't…stop…eating…them. One day, I am going to walk into Zea's and order a whole quart (only $12.95!) and see how much I can put away, diet be damned.
Not too long ago, I visited Miami chef Nina Compton's restaurant Compère Lapin in the Warehouse District. Located inside the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery on Tchoupitoulas Street, this casual restaurant offers phenomenal cocktails created by Abigail Gullo (bartender extraordinaire) and delicious New Orleans cuisine with a Caribbean flair. Among dishes like a spicy jerk shrimp roll with pineapple tartar sauce or baby carrots almondine, Compère Lapin offers a creamy bowl of stone ground, hominy grits topped with a tomato-based shrimp, sausage gravy and a fried egg. It's a dreamy combination, especially when served with her complimentary, fluffy chive biscuits.
Speaking of biscuits, brand new “South Market District” bakery Willa Jean knocks it out of the park when it comes to grits. Sure, you can order a side of their cheddar cheesy grits for a mere $6, but Willa Jean's menu is surprisingly fl exible. For example, in the “Build-a-Biscuit” section of the menu, one can substitute a biscuit for those creamy, perfect, stone-ground grits and top it with sausage, fried egg and pimento cheese, blue crab and hollandaise, or even their fabulous fried chicken with Tabasco honey.
Finally, and most recently, I scored a “Grits & Grillades BBQ Bowl” at a brand, spanking new 'cue joint on Earhart Boulevard dubbed LA Smokehouse. Opened by Aubin and Daniel Wender in the former Maple Street Patisserie et Bistro space, this cozy restaurant offers conventional barbecue fare like smoked chicken, pulled pork, pork spare ribs, and brisket, but I couldn't seem to turn from one of their more creative dishes once it caught my eye. LA Smokehouse has taken the traditional New Orleans “Grits & Grillades” and made it smoke with your choice of four different types of meat (sausage, chopped chicken, brisket, or pulled pork) and four different sauces from a traditional “gumbo gravy” sauce to a “SouthWestern” with smoked poblano salsa verde, roasted corn relish, and pepper jack cheese. I've only inhaled the traditional version with pulled pork so far, but you can bet your heavenly grits…I'll be back.