- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Shanel Finister delivers shrimp and fried catfish dishes at Sisters In Da East.
Christopher Sylvain beams a toothy smile as he fills prescription bottles for blood pressure medication and calls out an order for steamed salmon.
"I've done a lot of Googling," Sylvain says, "and I don't think there's anywhere quite like us in the whole country, and definitely not in New Orleans."
A 30-year pharmacy veteran and nutrition educator at Xavier University, Sylvain is the owner of Best Life Pharmacy & Restaurant, which has served as a one-stop shop for the Broad Street corridor's medicinal and edible needs for more than a year. The blue-topped building — shaped like a Happy Meal — holds down a busy corner between the flashing neon of bail bondsmen and the weathered gray of the jail.
The interior has all the ambience of a hospital waiting room, with two side-by-side counter windows: one for prescriptions, one to order food. The steady flow of fresh fruits and vegetables being delivered brightens up the space, as regulars at a nearby table debate the merits of turkey sausage.
"An approach to health needs to be holistic," Sylvain says with a wink. "Everything in here is healthy, but it's soul food so folks want to eat it. You have to trick them into being healthy, sometimes — even our grits are whole grain."
New Orleans is home to a lot of strange bedfellows.
For centuries, the city has thrived on the kind of puzzling dichotomy that both attracts and repels visitors, who can't understand how pillars of industry can also be the biggest masked rabble-rousers during Carnival, or how simultaneous sunshine and thunderstorms could ever be accepted as a daily summertime occurrence. Sometimes the city's odd-couple businesses are delightfully curious: a coffee shop that doubles as a makeshift yoga studio, a beauty salon in the back of a wig shop, a pottery studio and teahouse in one. Others — like a quickly shuttered fine art gallery and penny candy shop — struggle to find the right audience.
In a city built on a foundation of weird couplings, it comes as no surprise that there are expanding options for delicious dining in places where, well, it really shouldn't belong.
A culinary scavenger hunt through the city reveals that while we may have our fair share of white tablecloth standouts, the underbelly of the New Orleans' dining scene — from pharmacies to launderettes — is every bit as enchanting.
Of course, the coupling of pharmacies and food isn't new: Soda fountains were a mainstay in New Orleans for decades. K&B drugstores employed carbonated beverage mixologists and griddle-top chefs throughout the early 20th century, even creating a signature drink, the nectar soda. The almond-vanilla flavored beverage proved to be wildly popular, due in part to its striking pink color.
While the 1970s saw a shuttering of the city's soda fountain regime, Sylvain believes that Best Life's novel approach to an old model could prove revolutionary. "If we can give people everything they need in one place, why not do it?," he says. "I think we could even franchise."
For those less nutritionally inclined, the recent explosion of high-quality bar food along the St. Claude corridor has quietly signaled an underground dining revolution happening between shots of Jagermeister and PBR tallboys.
Smoky, unassuming bars may be the perfect culinary laboratories for budding chefs who have untested concepts: They're low stakes, highly forgiving and leave plenty of room for tweaking dishes on the fly. Bars also provide clientele which, after a certain hour, will try anything once to sop up the alcohol after a night of drinking.
(Full disclosure: I once ladled out lamb moussaka as part of a pop-up called "Snack Time" in the back of Iggy's on North Rampart Street. It wasn't incredibly popular with the bar's clientele of elderly gentlemen.)
While Kajun Pub's born-and-bred restaurant Borracho gets a lot of attention for its next-level sausages and sandwiches, the true standout is its death metal neighbor across the street, Kukhyna.
Located inside Siberia — a music venue known for its leather-clad patrons and hosting musical acts with names like "Donkey Puncher" and "The Death Posture" — Kukhyna (Russian for "kitchen") delivers the kind of soul-warming Slavic food more expected from a Ukrainian grandmother's kitchen than a bar full of chain-smoking punks.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Fred's BBQ serves barbecued brisket, ribs, chicken and sides, often to people using the laundromat next door.
While it may be a test of endurance to part the crowds and muscle your way to the kitchen in the back, every ounce of sweat will be worth it when you taste the borscht. A ruby-colored, chilled soup, Kukhyna's version places a large dollop of sour cream in the middle of the well-spiced and hearty broth, adding a creamy element and playing against the texture of the shoestring-sliced beets. It's refreshing, unexpected, and should be a go-to dish as the sticky nights of summer approach. The menu also offers a fine sampling of other Slavic specialties — plump pierogis, stuffed cabbage glumpkis — and Eastern European, mustard-heavy plays on hamburgers and po-boys (or "polboys" as they're known at Kukyna).
Living in a city that caters to second (and third) acts allows for spaces to be born and reborn ad nauseum, with businesses sometimes opening and closing faster than owners can change the signage. Nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than in the shells of former fast-food restaurants, which have become prime real estate for upstart restaurateurs across New Orleans.
The one-of-a-kind architectural design of a Taco Bell or McDonald's is seared into our collective brain, so even when the cuisine is entirely different there's a degree of cognitive dissonance about dining in an Indian restaurant that still has a fountain drink machine. The popular Internet meme, "This Used to be a Pizza Hut," and the accompanying blog (usedtobeapizzahut.blogspot.com) pays homage to the trend of upcycled fast food joints nationwide.
At Sisters 'N Da East on Chef Menteur Highway, the New Orleans East restaurant really was — once upon a time — a Pizza Hut. While the outside has been repainted and personalized to the taste of its new owners, the telltale shape of the building, red-and-white checked tablecloths and claw machine all harken to the glory days of stuffed crusts and dipping sauce. Sisters, however, serves a diverse menu of meat-and-three classics with a few curveballs, including smothered rabbit and oxtail stew.
On South Claiborne Avenue, a former Taco Bell has been given new life as Little Korea, one of few Asian alternatives to the increasingly pho-saturated Uptown market. While the interior has been revamped with punchy floral wall art and mood-setting paper lanterns, it's still easy to get trapped in the drive-thru upon exiting and hard not to notice that the exterior paint job is largely the same as its tortilla-slinging predecessor. Still, the large assortment of soju (a rice-brewed Korean liquor) flavors, the slow-burning heat of the kimchi, and colorful bibim-bap are enough to transcend the physical space—if only until you walk out the door.
A stone's throw away from Little Korea is Fred's BBQ, which shares a compact strip mall space — and an interior door — with the Smart Wash coin-operated launderette.
The former home of Mexican food stalwart Los Paisanos (which closed last year), Fred's feels like a visit to someone else's family reunion — a family who can simultaneously crack jokes and slow roast fall-off-the-bone tender brisket. Elementary school report cards make for curious wall art, while diners are offered a rainbow of Winn-Dixie brand soda options with their meal. Patrons shuffle back and forth alternating between washing clothes and snacking on hot wings.
"It's pretty convenient actually," manager Mike Smith says. "You get some sauce on your shirt, just walk through the door and wash it, come back and eat some more."
The highbrow sandwich shop Jims — located next to the train tracks on Royal Street in the Bywater — has created a less utilitarian, more artistically inclined restaurant roommate situation. Studio Inferno, home to some of the most elegant glass pieces in the city, shares a roof with this often-overlooked lunch spot, where delicate sculpture and corned beef coexist in harmony.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Best Life Pharmacy & Restaurant anchors the corner of Tulane and Broad streets.
If you're looking for unusual dining spots that offer more round-the-clock consistency, the overflow of diner-focused gas stations and convenience stores scattered throughout Orleans Parish has something for every taste.
While po-boy stalwart Danny and Clyde's might have blazed the trail for gas stations to play host to grander culinary options, many aspiring chefs have found this petroleum- and snack food-based business niche meets their needs perfectly: cooktop space is (relatively) cheap, foot traffic is consistent and visibility is high. (To be fair: there's nothing wrong with traditional gas station food in moderation — we've all eyed those glistening hot dogs on rollers or endured brain freeze from a Slurpee or two.)
Lakeview's charmingly alliterative Dolly's Deli might have an ambience only a couple of notches above an AutoZone (Fox News always seems to be blaring in the background), but the grits are creamy enough to help drown out any political squawking. A stable of white-haired waitresses with a propensity for calling people "honey" also helps create a time warp sensation, as if Mickey Rourke and Steve Guttenberg might be eating a ham-and-cheese biscuit right behind you, a la 1982's Diner.
In the hook of the Riverbend, Singleton's Mini-Mart has turned an out-of-the-way convenience store into a dining destination, anchoring the neighborhood with liver cheese po-boys and fried gizzards for the past 14 years. "Go long!" owner Bau Nguyen yells, tossing a Chinese barbecued pork po-boy to a customer who catches it with finesse and begins to dive in.
Located just past the cases of MD 20/20 and aisles stacked with Coors Light, Singleton's has an extensive menu of old-line New Orleans favorites with Asian-inspired twists. The minimal dining space is also home to a fish tank, hermit crab habitat and a wall full of Miami Dolphins memorabilia from the 1970s.
"On Saturdays, we have one of our busiest days since we serve a special Vietnamese menu," Nguyen says. "The college kids, they really like the spring rolls.'"
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Jims sandwich shop in the Bywater offers lunch fare and an artistic setting in a building it shares with Studio Inferno, which specializes in hot-cast glass.
If you're skeptical about eating a full meal surrounded by cases of malt liquor, getting your medicine and lunch side by side or fighting through a crowd of metal fans for borscht, following the boudin trail across Acadiana might be the first toe-dip you need into the world of quirky food haunts. Drive west along US-90 — or make the trek to Billie's Mini Mart in Krotz Springs — and stop at all gas stations along the way for boudin to create your own progressive sausage dinner that's perfectly artery-clogging.
While simultaneously squee-zing warm boudin into your mouth and steering with grease-covered hands, it will become abundantly clear that the strangest spots for food in Louisiana — those out-of-the-way, unpolished gems that are a little rough around the edges — can be far more satisfying for the stomach and soul than anywhere that requires a reservation.
Eight places to eat food in odd places