Catching a Bite Between Beads

By: Ian McNulty

Two Fun & Iconic Mardi Gras Sustenance Stops: K-Paul’s Louisiana Restaurant and Cafe du Monde

People come to New Orleans ready to dig into America’s most distinctive and celebrated regional cuisine. This is, of course, no problem. . .unless your visit is during the riotous days leading up to Mardi Gras.

Many of the rules and norms by which the city operates are thrown out the window like so many strings of beads during this extraordinary time. Parades completely shut down major streets for long stretches and the city’s population swells to twice its normal numbers, with most of those new people crammed into the French Quarter and the neighborhoods around the Uptown parade route on St. Charles Avenue. Many businesses close or change their hours, restaurants are swamped with eager patrons or are simply inaccessible behind police barriers and rolling parades.

Even under these circumstances, however, no trip to New Orleans is complete without good, local food. More importantly during Carnival, regular meals can serve as both a sanity check and a chance to gird yourself for the next phase of the party.

Happily, revelers need not resort to bloody Mary garnishes alone for their sustenance. Below are recommended establishments that are inexpensive, good and accessible even during Mardi Gras madness. There are no guarantees about Fat Tuesday itself, though, so keep your itinerary flexible.

K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, (416 Chartres St., 504-524-7394), the home base of the world famous Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme, is one of the most celebrated restaurants in New Orleans, and on normal nights well-heeled patrons line the sidewalk waiting their turn for a table. On Mardi Gras day, however, the normal restaurant operation shuts down and K-Paul’s sells outrageously delicious food out of its dining room window. For the past few years, K-Paul’s has been serving fried ham and cheese po-boys – that is, an entire po-boy battered and fried, bread and all. Red beans and rice or redfish courtbouillon, both served in plastic bowls, are also popular. This is certainly among the best food served on the streets of the French Quarter.

Café du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504-525-5544) closes only for Christmas day and the occasional hurricane threat, and Mardi Gras is no exception. This is the quintessential New Orleans destination for beignets – the square Creole donuts – and café au lait made with rich chicory coffee. Service is always fast and the menu presents little room for indecision: the beignet, three to an order for less than $2, is the only food item served. Many a feather boa has been dusted by powdered sugar falling from these fried delights, Mardi Gras or not, and there is a take-out window for even faster service.

Angeli on Decatur (1141 Decatur St., 504-566-0077), surrounded by bars in the lower Quarter, is a go-to place for late-night eats throughout the year. The colorful dining room is peopled with a diverse crowd and the staff is accustomed to off-the-wall antics. The menu is extensive, with a pan-Mediterranean theme of pizzas, hummus, pastas and breakfast dishes. All of the sandwiches are served on excellent bread, which makes even the simple grilled cheese exciting. Vegetarians can also do quite well here, with meat-less pizzas, large salads and a very good Portobello mushroom sandwich.

Zydecue Bayou Barbecue (808 Iberville St., 504-565-5520) is located just steps away from the pulsing madness of Bourbon Street, but its kitchen is all business when it comes to barbecue. Influenced more by south Louisiana traditions than the well-known Texas or Carolina barbecue styles, Zydecue serves cochon de lait (or Cajun roast pork), fried boudin sausage and a thick gumbo along with ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket. Portions are large and inexpensive, and, since most of the dishes are smoked well ahead of time, they can be served quickly to large crowds. Zydecue will experience its first Mardi Gras in 2005.

The Country Flame (620 Iberville St., 504-522-1138) serves inexpensive, fast Mexican and Cuban food in a dark barroom environment one block off the parade route on Canal Street and two blocks down from the unceasing action on Bourbon Street. The restaurant is no frills, but stick to the specialties and you’ll have a filling meal for very little money in no time. Pressed Cuban sandwiches are among the best in town, and the ropa vieja, another Cuban recipe of shredded beef over rice, is also a good choice.

The Quartermaster Deli (1100 Bourbon St., 504-529-1416) is a 24-hour nellie deli located on the (relatively) quiet end of Bourbon Street. The Quartermaster has a sprawling menu of buttery comfort food, barbecue, greasy breakfast stuff and big sandwiches. They also deliver and will bring liquor, beer and wine to your doorstep as well.

Verti Mart (1201 Royal St., 504-525-4767) is another 24-hour, everything-but-the kitchen-sink-style deli, very similar to the Quartermaster. Combination plates and side dishes are filling, inexpensive and provide rare, precious vegetables to the Mardi Gras reveler. Creamed spinach, gigantic stuffed potatoes and elaborately layered seafood and meat po-boys are among their specialties.

Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”