I was sort of disappointed by my first visit to Dooky Chase’s. Not because of the food or ambiance or service, but because of my inability to exercise portion control while feasting on their lunch buffet. Halfway through my gut-busting first plateful, I glanced at my husband’s plate and realized I still had much to sample. Word to the wise: pace yourself, people.
Upon crossing the threshold at the corner of Orleans Avenue and Miro Street in the Treme, there is this very warm, welcoming vibe. The giant photo of Mrs. Leah Chase in a grandmotherly embrace with President Obama and a drawing of her with Tiana from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog only enhance that feeling.
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Chase, who began working in the iconic family restaurant with her late husband – trumpet player and orchestra conductor, Edgar “Dooky” Chase II – in the 1950s. I just wanted to soak in a little of her energy. At almost 90, she is known to still be quite a freethinking, feminist spitfire with lots of stories to tell.
But I was sort of glad she wasn’t there to see the hot sauce sitting on my table like a beacon of shame. It wasn’t until after I’d accepted our server’s offer to bring some over that I remembered how she famously admonished President Obama for seasoning her gumbo. After the first slurp of her okra gumbo, I realized it would be total sacrilege to disturb the perfect balance of flavors with a clumsy extra dose of Crystal Sauce. The same goes for pretty much everything else I sampled. And by sampled, I mean devoured.
Okay, I have to admit, the main reason I wanted to eat at Dooky Chase’s was because of its iconic status. As a New Orleans resident and lover of the local culture, I felt it was my duty to experience it. But, I’m not a huge fried chicken fan, and though I love regional staples like jambalaya and shrimp creole and all their savory cousins, I’m not a fan of the kind of heavy-handed Louisiana cooking that smothers vegetables within inches of their lives. There, I said it. But don’t run me out of town, yet – I was truly shocked and delighted by how much I loved this food. I’m hoping Mrs. Chase’s fried chicken recipe is out there somewhere on the Internet because I, the girl who never eats the skin, left nothing behind except the bones. Perfect heat, perfect crisp (from a chafing dish, even!), and surprisingly not greasy. Magic.
My husband, the Louisiana-born, true foodie in this outfit, was skeptical about the stacks of whole, bony catfish in a neighboring dish, but curiosity got the best of him. He was amazed by the ease with which the tender meat easily separated from the bones. All I know is, it was perfectly cooked, the minimal breading was superb, and, best of all, the fish itself had a delicate, decidedly unfishy flavor. Wow.
There was also a lovely salmon stew in creole sauce, lima beans and shrimp, mac and cheese, a tangy potato salad (made with Creole mustard, was my amateur guess), and my favorite non-meat dish on the buffet, vegetable jambalaya. This lightly seasoned rice dish was riddled with fresh and firm broccoli and carrots, worthy of the cover of Cooking Light magazine. I’m probably the wrong person to ask about the greens, as I hate cooked greens of all kinds, but my husband claims that they’re the best in town. And, seriously, he would know.
I was not excited when our server told me bread pudding was not included with the buffet, but that he would be bringing us peach cobbler. Ho-hum. But once again, I got schooled. As I slid my fork through the crispy, crunchy, sugary topping, through the spongy cake, and down into the ooey-gooey peachyness, I knew I was in for a treat. Sure enough, heaven.
I’ve been reformed. I had no idea Louisiana cooking could be so filling and complex, without being heavy-handed. So, now I’m dying to get back for more fried chicken and to taste Mrs. Chase’s famous red beans and gumbo z’herbes (green gumbo). Who’s hungry?
Bring Dooky Chase’s to your own home with one of Mrs. Chase’s famous recipes.
All photos by Liz Genest Smith.