That's when you're most likely to fall victim to the carnival midway come-ons of Will Jenkins, the impresario, money-handler and general wise guy working the window of Que Crawl, the catering truck that serves as a mobile showcase for the barbecue and inventive Southern cooking of his friend Nathanial Zimet. The truck is painted K&B purple and can be found right outside the doors of Tipitina's late at night Thursdays through Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons.
"So good, you'll crawl for it," Jenkins screams out the truck's window, jacked up on coffee at the beginning of what will be a long night.
"Y'all come back now when you get the munchies," he hollers to a group of young people tumbling out of the club a few hours later. "We got it right here, guaranteed to soak up alcohol."
Jenkins makes bold claims, but Que Crawl is no ordinary catering truck. Zimet makes his own fried boudin balls. Bowls of gumbo have a country-style dark roux and are crowded with smoked meats. Pulled pork, smoked then caramelized on the grill, is topped with purple cabbage slaw and stuffed into crusty French bread from the incomparable local Vietnamese bakery Dong Phoung for one of the best barbecue po-boys around.
Sometimes Zimet will serve a grit cake with shrimp sauted in butter and garlic with a bacon vinaigrette over it all. He makes crawfish beignets and tamales stuffed with crawfish and papaya. Crawfish and corn pies are the size of dumplings, and their flaky crusts are filled with stuff like bisque. The generously proportioned pork ribs are gritty with seasonings.
One of Zimet's specialties is a plate of grit fries, dark logs of cheesy grits with a squeeze of spicy, thin vinegar barbecue sauce over them. They beat French fries hands down, but those aren't bad here either, with each plate fried to order and tossed with the rust-colored barbecue rub of salt, pepper, coriander and chili powder.
Practically everything is made from scratch, including a choice of sauces that on any given night could include grilled green onion mustard aioli, a roasted Anaheim pepper cream sauce and barbecue sauce made from Coca-Cola.
Normal late-night street food stacks up to this like a Subway sandwich compares to a Domilise's po-boy, like a can of franks and beans compares to your mother's red beans and rice. In fact, there is no comparison, and the offerings at Que Crawl can sometimes catch first-time patrons unaware.
"People see the truck and don't even look at the menu," says Zimet. "This one guy walks up and says, 'Yo, gimme a cheeseburger.' I say, 'We don't have that, how about a ...' and before I can say pulled-pork po-boy, he's like, 'Alright, gimme a hamburger then."
Que Crawl does its strongest business among the buzzed or blasted, but there are others. The truck keeps very late hours and that has earned it a solid following of restaurant employees who want good food cooked by someone besides themselves at 2 a.m. In many cases, the restaurant customers are people Zimet once worked with in local fine-dining kitchens.
A native of North Carolina, Zimet is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts program and worked at some of the most ambitious restaurants around his home state. He followed his girlfriend to New Orleans in 2003 and has worked at a long list of local restaurants, from Stella! to Commander's Palace. He likes to play with Japanese cooking knives, wears chef's clogs in his truck and throws around culinary terms like mise en place as casually as he tosses an order of French fries with barbecue rub. His grand plan is to open his own restaurant, and he sees the Que Crawl as a way to earn some start-up money for the future venture and learn the business end of running a kitchen.
He returned to North Carolina last year to research barbecue and hooked up with Jenkins, a friend-of-a-friend, who joined him on a tour of back-road joints. It was like a pub crawl, Jenkins explains, but devoted to barbecue, and that's where they came up with the name Que Crawl. Jenkins had never been to New Orleans, but decided to move down last summer and help Zimet run the truck.
Initially, they set up shop outside Pal's Lounge, Zimet's neighborhood bar in Faubourg St. John, but they were chased off by an annoyed neighbor. He drove the big truck directly from Pal's to Tipitina's, where he quickly won management's blessing to operate outside the club. Early in the night, the Que Crawl looks like a cafeteria for Tipitina's employees as they mill around eating Zimet's barbecue, po-boys or tacos before the crowd shows up.
When not outside Tipitina's, Zimet and Jenkins have been busy catering movie production sets and private parties. But for most people, Que Crawl is a quick stop for slow-cooked food on the Uptown party circuit.
"Don't go home and burn yourself on the stove, come get it right here! Collard greens, boudin balls, cheesy grit fries you can eat with your hands!" Jenkins shouts down Tchoupitoulas Street late one recent night. "I see you looking!"
- Ian McNulty
- Nathanial Zimet (left) and Will Jenkins serve food to the crowd outside of Tipitina's.