Talk about luck.
Last Sunday night I was packing for a work trip and picked up the new issue of Bon Appétit. Before throwing it in my bag, I was intrigued enough by the cover headline to flip through a few pages.
It was the magazine’s annual “Best New Restaurants in America” issue, with profiles of the top 10 spots on the list. I turned straight to the #1 pick to learn the best new restaurant in the country is a little place called Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans.
That’s where I was heading.
I squealed like a little girl knowing some way, somehow, I would find my way to that restaurant within the next few days. That is, if I could even snag a table. Given this big honor, surely they would be slammed for weeks and months to come.
I immediately Googled the place to call for a reservation, but the only restaurant I could find by that name was a somewhat questionable looking sandwich shop that’s only open for lunch.
Presuming this tiny spot was just an offshoot of the “real” five-star restaurant they must be talking about, I went back to the article to read more. Sure enough, that little ramshackle joint was the right place.
I closed the magazine in disgust. How can I take Bon Appétit seriously if they’re seriously going to snub countless new “legitimate” restaurants across the country that are surely more worthy of this honor? This was clearly just a publicity stunt to get people talking, so two days later I walked into Turkey and the Wolf to prove my point. Which seemed like a cakewalk at first glance.
It’s a no-frills painted cinderblock structure on the inside with no perceivable air-conditioning. (In the Deep South, I might add.) The tables and chairs are wobbly, food is served on mismatched plastic Disney plates and the drinking cups are circa-1960s Tupperware. Very used Tupperware.
The staff isn’t all that friendly, probably because they were sweating their souls away. The tiny dining area sits in a cloud of smoky haze coming from the open kitchen. I got the feeling that I probably didn’t want to look back in that kitchen.
And, shockingly, there was almost no one there.
But here’s what happened next ...
I ended up eating three sandwiches (and an appetizer!) for lunch — just for me — and they were unspeakably good. As in, the only words I could manage after each bite were various and sundry expletives. Bite. Cuss. Bite. Cuss. I was so blown away, there was nothing else I could say.
The fried bologna sandwich (yes, that’s their claim to fame) is the best you’ll ever eat. It features thick-sliced and charred local bologna topped with hot mustard, lettuce, mayo, American cheese and, oh yes, a mound of vinegar-brined kettle-cooked potato chips. Inside the sandwich. It was slap-your-mamma good, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. No fancy toppings, no riffs except for the chips, but un-freakin’-believable.
The Reuben-esque collard green melt is mind-blowing. Tangy slow-cooked greens share space with Swiss cheese, pickled cherry pepper dressing and coleslaw on rye. My Bon Appétit buddy declared this the best sandwich on the planet, a designation I can’t dispute.
The lamb neck roti was a knife-and-fork orchestra of shredded lamb slow-cooked in chiles and caraway, then topped with lemon yogurt, cucumbers, onions and a cacophony of fresh garden herbs on paper-thin grilled flatbread.
Before diving into those three masterpieces, I devoured a plate of deviled eggs topped with deep-fried chicken skins and housemade hot sauce. Yes I did.
After my visit, I immediately looked up the full article online to learn as much as I could about this place. I was jazzed to discover that not only did Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton have pretty much the same observations I did, but we also ordered two of the three same sandwiches.
He clearly has good taste.
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While Turkey and the Wolf was clearly the highlight of my New Orleans culinary adventures, I also enjoyed great food and a few other bucket-list restaurants while there. Turtle soup at the legendary Commander’s Palace, shrimp and andouille etouffeé at Muriel’s on Jackson Square, blackened redfish at Brennan’s, a Sazerac at Antoine’s Restaurant, and a duo of “apple-braised pork debris” and “shrimp with tasso ham gravy” eggs Benedict at The Ruby Slipper Café.
As I ate my way through the Big Easy, I was reminded how deep an impression the city had made during my first visit back in 2006, not long after Hurricane Katrina left parts of New Orleans in ruins.
The observations I shared after that trip more than 11 years ago still hit me just as powerfully today, so I’ve included them again, below:
Charleston Daily Mail: May 24, 2006
Having never visited New Orleans, I felt I had suffered a loss when the news broke of last year’s devastating hurricane. My heart went out to the countless residents there hit hard by the storm, but I was also sad that I may have lost my chance to experience the fun, food and phenomenon of such a storied place.
This made my first visit there last week all the more special.
Though still visibly shaken, much of the city is alive and well. Unspeakable damage of Katrina’s wrath remains on the outskirts of downtown, only a glimpse of which you see driving in from the airport, but the famed French Quarter is largely unscathed.
Outside of a little wind and water damage — and restocking perishable supplies after weeks of no electricity — the biggest problem the city’s restaurants are facing these days is a lack of people. Thousands of still-displaced residents make employees hard to find and customers have been slow to return.
It’s hard to blame them. Haunted by repeated footage of the 9th Ward (the hardest-hit of the city’s parishes, where house after house was simply washed away) gun-shy tourists may take a while to return to the Quarter. Until they do, most shops, bars and restaurants are making do with limited menus and shortened hours.
But there’s still plenty to enjoy.
I played the ultimate tourist during my stay, happily eating my way through as many of the French Quarter’s hot spots as I could fit in.
I enjoyed beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde. I had the original muffuletta sandwich from the 100-year-old Central Grocery. I tried fried green tomatoes, Cajun gumbo, pralines, cheese blintzes, spicy shrimp remoulade and more. It was all delicious.
I had no means of comparison myself, but an elderly gentleman sitting next to me as we listened to street-side jazz outside Cafe du Monde swore his piping hot, powdered sugar-covered beignet tasted even better than before the storm.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because we almost lost them.”
As he took his last slow bite, there was no doubt he meant it.
Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Facebook as “WV Food Guy” and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WVFoodGuy.”