It has been a decade since I have experienced the hot decadence that is New Orleans—sad but true. I miss the balmy, never ending evenings; the happenstance of finding an impromptu house party with lawn jazz in the middle of the night where strangers bear cocktails and smiles; the shotgun shacks concealing backyard poets, musicians and revelers; and the wafting smells of food everywhere, aromas that carry a Creole tang or spicy herbaceousness or swamp juiciness that reminds you that home is somewhere very far away. Fortunately for me, I found a little piece of the Big Easy this past weekend in Downtown LA.
The Little Jewel of New Orleans is a deli and market smack dab in the middle of Chinatown. What better place to reside in any big city, than the Chinese neighborhoods, which always display the unsterile, non-pretentious and colorfully, character-casted versions of existence away from the shopping malls and bland suburbias. In Los Angeles, it is the one area where you can still feel a little danger, witness true artists rolling out of their dingy lairs on Saturday mornings looking for 80 cent bao bun breakfasts and revel in the boisterous market scenes where the stank of fish mingles with the gargantuan reishi mushrooms on display at the herb emporiums. There is a constant sense of dashing life and nary a poseur hipster in sight, which is a good thing. Of course, a place purporting to serve authentic New Orleans sandwiches would fit right in with all this funk. All we need now is a parade … I envision royal dragon heads on drag queens and Mardi Gras leis over Chinese silk dresses.
A clean and bright market sells normal neighborhood pantry staples and convenience items alongside hard to find New Orleans standards like beignet mix, coffees, hot sauces and muffuletta olive salad. But it’s the deli, with a smattering of tables on a black and white checkered floor with cases full of banana and whiskey bread puddings that is the true gem. Walk up and order an oyster, shrimp or catfish po boy and you won’t be sorry. The fish is expertly cornmeal fried with just enough breading to cover the tender fish but not too much so as to distract from the texture and taste of the fish. The savory combination of mayo and hot sauce that lubricates the perfectly soft and sopping-friendly bread shipped straight from the Leidenheimber Baking Co. in New Orleans is an addictive and wondrous bath for the crispy pickles and crunchy lettuce. I have been looking all over Los Angeles for a po boy worthy of its moniker and I have finally hit eureka. The muffuletta, which in half form is still the size of a whole sandwich, is an incredible feat of meat, cheese, olives and hot mix that manages to curiously taste like a yummy pepperoni pizza.
As we ate, the cashier kept barking out orders from a microphone at the counter. When he wasn’t barking out orders, the air was filled with lively Cajun music and old school New Orleans jazz. At one point he announced that he had two king cakes behind the counter and the ability to order more per our desires. It took all I could muster not to buy one on the spot.
As if I needed more excuses to go to Chinatown. Now, I have another. I have been looking for a place to call my own in 2015 where I can spend whole days tapping on the typewriter keys while absorbing my kind of local color. I perhaps have found my very own spot.