As part-time residents of the French Quarter, my husband, Dan, and I have certainly enjoyed our share of New Orleans cuisine, so we’re often surprised by the places that garner the most press.
Growing up in the Big Easy, I constantly heard rave reviews for Port of Call, a moody, nautical-themed bar and restaurant on Esplanade Avenue. For four decades, this late-night institution has been celebrated for its burgers, drinks, and ambience, and I’ve often noted a throng of people waiting outside for a table.
So, last year, Dan and I succumbed to the hype and ventured inside. Boy, were we disappointed! The service was slow, our waitress was rude, and the burgers were nothing impressive. For a place that continually tops the Zagat survey, Port of Call offers only four choices – two of which are topped with canned mushrooms (a huge turnoff).
You might disagree, but our favorite hamburger joint is Yo Mama’s Bar & Grill  (727 St. Peter St., 504/522-1125, daily, $5-17), a place that not only claims to serve “the best hamburger in New Orleans and possibly the world” but also has legions of online fans and repeat customers. Open late, this popular eatery offers, among other things, a wide assortment of burgers – with toppings like mushrooms, bacon, avocado, jalapeños, peanut butter (surprisingly delicious), and blue cheese (the best we’ve ever tasted). Yo Mama’s burgers are huge, perfectly cooked-to-order, and accompanied by a fresh salad or scrumptious baked potato.
The location is stellar, too – it’s situated between Royal and Bourbon Streets, in the heart of the Quarter. The only drawback is its small size – with three booths and a curving bar, this lively hole-in-the-wall doesn’t accommodate many patrons, especially at mealtime. But you’ll often find a spot during the off-hours – and if not, the well-stocked jukebox and 89 tequila varieties will keep you busy while you wait.
Another overly praised place is Central Grocery on Decatur: an old-fashioned Italian grocery store that purports to be home of “the original muffuletta.” For those who have never tried one, a muffuletta is a truly amazing sandwich: a combination of ham, salami, mortadella, provolone, and olive salad on a round loaf of soft Italian bread. Definitely not a diet food.
Nowadays, you can find muffulettas in restaurants all around the country. But many longtime New Orleanians and frequent visitors believe that Central Grocery’s are still the best – despite the rude employees. A few months ago, my husband even spotted Meryl Streep sitting at the rear lunch counter, noshing on a sandwich of her own. While Central’s enormous muffulettas – which are quartered for ease of eating and sharing – are quite tasty, we’ve both had better.
In fact, our all-time favorite French Quarter eatery – Café Maspero (601 Decatur St., 504/523-6250, daily, $3-13) – also prepares our favorite muffuletta. Though slightly smaller than Central’s version, it’s five bucks cheaper, and the meat’s piled higher. A twist on tradition, Maspero’s sandwich includes pastrami and is served warm.
In addition to muffulettas, this spacious, long-standing joint offers a number of New Orleans staples – from fried shrimp to jambalaya. For most dishes, the portions are gigantic, with perhaps the lowest prices in the Quarter. (Just remember, it’s a cash-only establishment, with an ATM near the restrooms.) Although there are occasional lulls, Maspero’s is usually hopping – with full tables, bustling servers, and lots of munching. As I’ve often told my husband, if Café Maspero served gumbo, raw oysters, and hush puppies, I’d probably never go anywhere else.