There’s a lot to be said for history in the restaurant business, but the reality is that it’s not always enough for a restaurant to survive. Des Moines found that out the hard way in 2008, when King Ying Low, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city at 100 years in business, shut its doors at its location on Fourth Street in the center of the city. Although beloved institutions can close for a number of reasons, such as when Obrycki’s shut its main location because the owners had grown weary of harvesting crabs and wanted to spend more time with family, that didn’t appear to be the case with King Ying Low. A 2005 piece in the Des Moines Register gave King Ying Low a C, noting that the history scored it points, but better Asian food could be found elsewhere. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, and it’s particularly devastating toward the quality of the food. To steal a line from Brent Musburger, when the local press turns its guns on you, you’re finished.
However, although King Ying Low was indeed finished, that’s not the end of its story. Into the space on Fourth Street stepped a new restaurant and new owners in 2009, and this is where the story gets interesting. According to their website, the new owners, Dennis Epps and Gwen Page, initially came up with the concept of selling pizza at a tiki bar, complete with drinks. Upon looking at the space they had inherited and the Asian decorations left over from King Ying Low, though the new owners decided that they wanted to maintain the Asian theme that their predecessors had left behind and take it in their own direction. Fong’s Pizza had arrived in Des Moines.
Yes, that direction meant a fusion of Asian and Italian in Iowa, of all places. Granted, I’ve seen Chinese and Mexican work with fantastic results before, but that was in Arizona, which is well-known for Mexican food. Japanese and Mexican has also worked well, but that’s Louisville, which prides itself on being weird. Iowa, while known as a producer of great food, isn’t exactly well-known for its Italian food and isn’t known for bucking tradition in a good way, with Ames’ pizza scene being a notable exception.
Somehow, the combination worked to perfection. Actually, it worked so well that when Fong’s had to close for two months after its basement flooded, normally a death sentence for a young restaurant, it came back stronger than ever, spurred on by loyal fans who loved the unique concept. Most of that loyalty comes from the fact that Epps and Page did their homework once they had their plan figured out. One of the basic parts of California Pizza Kitchen’s business model is that if it sounds like it will taste good on a pizza, you have a 99% chance of being right, and Fong’s Pizza seems to have followed the same idea, searching out Asian restaurants before it opened to determine what dishes could translate well to the pizza pan.
The answer seems to be that if Fong’s can imagine it, it’s fair game, as the restaurant serves up 32 specialty pizzas, at least eight of which have Asian influences. Ever wanted to know what kung pao chicken would taste like with cheese and pizza dough? You can easily find out. Beef, broccoli and mushroom stir-fry? That’s on a pizza. Moo Shu pork with hoisin sauce? As simple as placing your order. It’s your favorite Chinese takeout place on a pie, with the proper sauces taking the place of the traditional tomato sauce. Pretty cool.
What about those who aren’t in the mood for Asian pizza? Fong’s has them covered too, and again, it’s not in the traditional sense. Once it had the Asian flavors mastered, Fong’s opted to turn other great dishes into pizzas. How about a baked potato pizza, topped with beef, bacon and cheese and served with sour cream? Or perhaps you’d prefer a bacon cheeseburger on a pizza? What about a vegetarian black bean taco? Or a Mediterranean pizza with chicken, spinach and feta? They’re all specialty pizzas on the menu. There’s even a honey and garlic pizza, which is a little strange, but probably works pretty well itself. All of them come on either thin crust or hand-tossed, and there’s a create-your-own menu that features some more familiar toppings if their creativity is a little too far for you. Basically, you’re only limited by their imagination, which stretches quite a ways.
The imagination even stretches to the appetizers, which take what you’d expect to find in a traditional pizza place and gives them some Asian flair. Pizza rolls, for example, are seemingly pretty straightforward. Fong’s, of course, tosses them in an egg roll wrapper to serve them. Mozzarella sticks, normally breaded and fried? Not here. The breading’s replaced by, you guessed it, an egg roll wrapper, before it fries. Chicken strips are also available, tossed in one of three Asian sauces. Clearly, Fong’s takes its homage to its Asian predecessor very seriously.
With that being the case, Amy decided to really test the Asian influences right off the bat here. She loves both egg rolls and crab rangoons, and egg rolls with sweet chili sauce were perfect in her eyes. They were every bit as good as advertised, with the pork and chicken working beautifully with the sweet chili sauce and the vegetables add great texture. These egg rolls are good enough that you’d expect to find them in a traditional Chinese restaurant, and to find them in a fusion restaurant speaks to just how much Fong’s cares about honoring the Asian roots of its location.
With Fong’s having passed the Asian test, it was time to see just how good the fusion part of it was, and Amy knew exactly what she wanted to experience. Remember how I said she loves egg rolls and crab rangoons? Well, the reason she didn’t order the rangoons was because Fong’s specialty pizza is the Crab Rangoon pizza, which they initially weren’t even going to add to their menu because even Epps and Page thought it was too much of a stretch to sell. But like everything else in this crazy story, things went the exact opposite of what might be expected, and the Crab Rangoon pizza is not only their top-selling pizza, but it was also named Iowa’s best pizza by Food Network Magazine (as opposed to Zagat). That’s a pretty strong endorsement, and that meant we absolutely had to give this combination a try.
It certainly lives up to the hype. The crab rangoon seasoning is spot-on, and the surimi (imitation crab) meshes perfectly with the seasoning to re-create the taste. Fong’s adds on egg roll strips to stand in for the fried wonton wrapper, and the sweet chili sauce provides the flavor of dipping sauce that Amy loves so much. Throw in two cheeses to remind you that yes, this is still a pizza, and you have an excellent taste that’s well worthy of recognition.
Of course, we couldn’t make a trip to a place like this and make this the only pizza that we sampled. No. 2 was one of my choices, and I decided that I couldn’t come to a pizza place, even one as creative as this, and not get something with mushrooms. After all, mushrooms are often used in American Chinese cooking, so it’s not like they’d be out of place here on a specialty pizza. What caught my eye was the Happy Family, featuring two kinds of chicken, surimi and shrimp, along with mushrooms and green pepper. Really, there’s no part of that sentence that I didn’t like.
There’s a good reason for it. This is a great marriage of meat, flavor and texture, as the shrimp is really the star of this pizza. Fong’s covers this pizza in the delectable sea creatures, then adds a crunch from the green peppers and balances the taste with the mushrooms and chicken. Seafood on a pizza isn’t something that you find very often, but when it’s done right, it makes you wonder why it’s not done more often. There are probably a few too many peppers, which can make eating this pizza a bit unwieldy without a fork, but when that’s the worst thing about a dish, that’s a good thing.
Fong’s also has another nice feature for those who are inclined to partake in alcohol: the tiki bar concept from the beginning became one of Fong’s signatures, with 16 different mixed drinks available, most of which are served in signature mugs. There isn’t a lot of space available as a result, but that’s an acceptable sacrifice when that kind of feature exists.
That’s really a perfect example of what has made Fong’s what it is: something that started with a certain vision and adapted it as necessary to fit its surroundings. Des Moines might have lost its oldest Chinese restaurant, but in its place, Fong’s has more than made up for King Ying Low’s absence and become something truly unique. Asian on a pizza isn’t anyone’s first thought, but against all odds, it certainly works. I wish Davenport could figure out pizza like this.
Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Fong’s opens at 11 a.m. and takes orders until midnight. If you’re hungry afterward, Fong’s will still sell some pizzas by the slice until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. One thing to note: Fong’s does not take call-in orders, so don’t bother.
Wait during my visit: Extensive. Fong’s is not very big, and it’s very popular, which means waits can get incredibly long. We were waiting about 45 minutes for a table on our visit. One nice thing that Fong’s does is if you do have to wait, they’ll give you a card to get a discounted drink or a free soda at one of the bars in downtown Des Moines. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can use this card at Fong’s. It’s a discount for other businesses only, not their own. Weird, but oh well.
Location: Fong’s is at 223 Fourth Street in Des Moines, Iowa.
Cost: Not too bad, as most pizzas will cost about $11 for a 10-inch pie and $18 for a 16-inch. Either get two 10’s or a 16, and you’ll easily come in under $30, unless you want to add an appetizer or tiki beverage.
Parking: That won’t be easy, as Des Moines has a lot of restaurants and bars in this area and not a lot of spaces nearby. You’re likely going to have to go to a garage that’s a five to 10-minute walk and pay a couple dollars.
Seating arrangement: Booths, tables and chairs. One thing to note: the restroom is VERY small. I’m average build, and it felt like a sardine can for me. Be careful.
Website: Fong’s Pizza
Specialty items: Asian pizzas
When most people think of the Midwest, chances are that they think of wide open spaces, farmland and a lot of crops and cattle. And why wouldn’t they? After all, cattle drives are one of the main things that built the Midwest in the early days of this country, and even today, eight of the 10 biggest cattle-producing states as determined by the USDA can be classified as being in the Midwest, with California and Montana being the lone exceptions. Combined, those eight states are responsible for 47.5 percent of the cattle produced in the United States this year. Clearly, this part of the country knows what it’s doing with beef.
Nowhere is that more true than in Nebraska. Sure, Texas is the top producer of cattle in this country at 10.9 million this year (and has a very well-earned reputation as a home to some pretty awesome brisket), which is close to double the output of No. 2 Nebraska, but the Lone Star State is also the second-most populated state in the nation at 26.45 million, behind only California. Nebraska, on the other hand, has a population of 1.87 million, with a full third of the Cornhusker State’s residents clustered into Nebraska’s only two real cities of Omaha and Lincoln. Nebraska’s 2014 cattle output clocked in at 6.15 million, and those of you who can do math have realized that yes, that means there are more than three times as many cows in Nebraska as there are people.
With that being the case, that means two other things are true. First, Nebraskans know their beef. After all, Omaha steaks are famous across the country, and people can and do pay good money to have genuine Omaha steaks mailed to them so they can experience the high-quality beef in the comfort of their own home. Second, considering that in addition to being a hub of the beef industry, Omaha is also home to the College World Series, which means lots of tourists every year descend on Nebraska’s largest city in hopes of seeing their team capture a national title. Of course, that equation can only have one result: legendary steakhouse.
This is one area where the Gateway to the West certainly delivers. Located in the western part of Omaha on 73rd Street, The Drover can be a bit difficult to actually find and enter, but doing so is worth the challenge, and most Omaha residents seem to agree, considering that it’s been open for four decades now. First, there’s actually finding The Drover, which can be a bit tricky because it’s not on a major road. Instead, it’s on a parallel street to 72nd Street, and in order to find it, you’ll have to turn onto Cedar Street and let that become 73rd Street. Once you’ve gotten to that point, it’s easy to follow the giant sign, but your task isn’t quite over once you’ve found the place.
That’s because unlike most places, there is no specific entry point at The Drover. When you walk in, don’t expect a greeter at the door waiting for you to assign you to a table, because you’re not going to find one. Instead, the host will be walking around the restaurant, interacting with customers and keeping track of the tables throughout each specific part of the restaurant with a pad and paper. It’s actually kind of cool that The Drover does it this way, because it means that the host is a part of the operation, rather than being totally separated from the rest of the staff.
The only separation you’ll find at The Drover is between dining rooms. Much like Bern’s, The Drover creates different segments inside its restaurant rather than throwing all of its customers in one main area. Unlike Bern’s, however, the noise isn’t there. The dining segments are actually smaller at The Drover than they are at Bern’s, but the noise doesn’t bounce around at all. I don’t know if it’s because the building is designed to suffocate the noise or because The Drover does a better job of segmentation, but whatever it is, the atmosphere is perfect here. Low lights and a lack of bouncing noise means you can enjoy your meal without disturbing the people next to you, regardless of party size.
Once your party’s seated, that’s when The Drover’s experience begins. It starts from the moment the server introduces the menu, because The Drover’s servers go out of their way to make customers feel like they’re in on a secret when they’re highlighting their specials. Specifically, they’re talking about The Drover’s secret-but-not-secret bacon-wrapped shrimp. The bacon-wrapped shrimp are The Drover’s most popular appetizer, but as the servers are quick to point out, it’s not on the menu, even though it’s offered every night.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just to be faux-secretive. The shrimp aren’t on the menu because The Drover only makes so many of them every day, and once they’re gone for the day, there won’t be any more until the next day. That’s because the shrimp used at The Drover don’t have a long shelf life, so the restaurant only wants to make as many as they can actually sell in a given day. That’s a very high commitment to quality, and even without knowing at the time just how high that commitment is, Amy and I decided that these were definitely worth experiencing for ourselves.
It’s a good thing that The Drover isn’t keeping these a secret, because these things are too good to keep hidden. The shrimp are served with a citrus-horseradish sauce and a side of sauteed mushrooms, and they’re outstanding together or individually. The bacon is crisp and works very well with the shrimp, being wrapped so perfectly that there’s no part where the shrimp isn’t covered before you bite into it. The sauce adds a new element of creamy flavor and the mushrooms are simply amazing. They’re the small caps of mushrooms that you’d expect to find in a quality steakhouse, and the taste is fantastic. I’m not the kind of person who pays extra for mushrooms on my steak (even though I love mushrooms), but I have to say that these mushrooms would be worth the extra cost. They seem like they’d taste fantastic paired with beef, and they were definitely fantastic paired with shrimp and bacon.
Up next is The Drover’s salad, and this is about as strong a salad as you’re going to find in a steakhouse, because you are in control of the salad here. All Drover entrees come with one trip to the salad bar, where you’re given a chilled plate and the ability to create your own salad, with some very fresh vegetables at your disposal. Lettuce, cherry tomatoes, black olives, mushrooms, egg, cucumber, green pepper, Parmesan cheese, croutons and ranch dressing were my selections, and the result was one fresh and delicious salad. The Drover offers just the salad bar for those who don’t want a full meal, and at $8, it actually isn’t that bad of a price with how fresh everything is.
As we were enjoying our night, Amy opted for a glass of white wine to go with our shrimp, salad and bread, which brought in…another Drover employee, making our third one that we’d had come to our table after the host and our main server. This is where I’ll pause to discuss The Drover’s unique, efficient serving system. Along with your main server, The Drover has one employee dedicated only to drinks, going around to all the tables in case anyone wants something other than water. I’d never seen this before, but it makes a lot of sense, because by taking the drinks away from the main server, it allows him to focus completely on the food. But The Drover’s system doesn’t stop there. Another employee is dedicated to clearing the tables, and yet another handles your bill when it’s time to call it a night. Yes, you’ll interact with a staff of five by the time you’re done, but the result is faster and focused service, because each member of the team plays their part and handles their responsibility. This is true teamwork at its finest, and the result is that after you place your order, you might not even notice your server again for the rest of the night because he or she will be catering to your needs without you even having to ask. Pretty awesome.
But the main reason to visit The Drover isn’t the service, the shrimp or the salad. It’s the thing that Omaha has made famous, the steak. Specifically, it’s the whiskey-soaked steak. Prior to going on the grill, each steak can be soaked for 15 minutes in a special whiskey marinade. I’ve had a drunken steak before, but this goes to a new level by dousing the steak before it hits the grill, allowing it to really soak into the steak and really get the flavors acquainted with the meat. Though I’ve never tasted alcohol of any kind, I knew that a drunk steak in Omaha was something I had to experience and opted for the whiskey-soaked top sirloin.
This thing is incredible. Not only do the flavors of the whiskey work their way into the steak, but the added liquid makes the steak extra tender and extra juicy, to the point where your plate might end up covered in liquid. The only place I’ve ever had a steak as good as this one is Bern’s, and that’s really saying something. The flavor is spread perfectly throughout the steak, creating an outstanding taste from first bite to last. The steak is actually so juicy and flavorful that there is no sauce whatsoever needed. Its own juices are flavor enough.
Even Amy was willing to try this one…and didn’t hate it, which is a huge step for her given her hatred of all things beef. Throw in a large baked potato with butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon and chives, and you’ve got one heck of an experience. It’s been a while since I’ve had anything even close to this good with an atmosphere this incredible. Every bit was simply outstanding.
Amy might not have hated the drunken sirloin, but that didn’t mean she was going to actually order one as her meal. Instead, she opted for The Drover’s broiled salmon, which comes complete with the baked potato and tartar sauce. Omaha isn’t known for fish, and Amy had never seen an order of salmon come out with tartar sauce before, but this one worked perfectly. The salmon is so tender and seems to just melt in your mouth, always a good sign of something that’s perfectly cooked. I tried a bit of this and absolutely loved it, and Amy said it worked very well with her wine, enjoying every bite of her meal.
When we first sat down at The Drover, I thought for a minute that Amy and I were about to experience the Nebraska version of Bern’s. But after getting the full experience, I can say that’s not the case. Everything about both places are first class, but where Bern’s is glamour and elegance, The Drover is a relaxed ambience while keeping it classy at the same time. To call The Drover a version of anything else would be improper and unfair. After 40 years serving some of the best steaks in the nation from a well-oiled machine that is its wait staff, it’s clear that The Drover is an absolute gem and a real legend in its own right. A visit to Omaha just isn’t complete without stepping inside the ivy-covered walls of The Drover.
Time to go: Dinner, which begins after 5 p.m. The Drover does serve lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. before taking the next three hours off, but you’re really here for a dinner you’ll really enjoy.
Wait during my visit: Minimal. We had a reservation, but they’re not necessarily required here. It’s probably better to go ahead and call ahead, though, just to be safe.
Location: The Drover is located at 2121 South 73rd Street in Omaha, Neb.
Cost: Good steakhouses are not cheap places, and The Drover is no exception. The cheapest steak on the menu checks in at $22, and the chicken and fish entrees are not much cheaper. Plus, the bacon-wrapped shrimp come in at $13, no small price for an appetizer. Given the high-quality of service here, if you don’t go for alcohol, you’re probably looking at about $75 for two people after tip. But as with most places like this, it’s very much worth the money.
Parking: When you get to The Drover, you might see a bunch of cars lined up outside the restaurant parked on 73rd Street. Don’t fall for it. The situation seems hairy because The Drover is right by a hospital and most of the parking spaces belong to the hospital, but the small lot next to The Drover is not connected to the hospital and is perfect for customers. Despite several cars on the street, we had our pick of several parking spaces. One word of warning, though: as the lots are not connected, do not turn into the second lot thinking you can park there during your meal. You can’t. That’s hospital property, and you do run the risk of being ticketed or towed in that lot. Just be sure that your car’s lot connects to The Drover.
Seating arrangement: The restaurant features tables of four and breaks itself into segments to give diners privacy and atmosphere throughout the evening.
Website: The Drover
Specialty items: Whiskey-soaked steak, bacon-wrapped shrimp
When one thinks of great food on the Gulf Coast of America, they usually have one of two places in mind: Tampa and New Orleans. And why wouldn’t they? With the Spanish influences in Tampa and the French influences in New Orleans, plus both cities’ access to fresh seafood, the Cigar City and the Crescent City are as good as it gets for foodies.
But there’s more to the Gulf Coast than just the two major cities. Mobile, a major city in its own right in Alabama, features seafood the way it should be and some of the best oysters you can find anywhere. Then there’s Mississippi, which is sometimes forgotten among the four Gulf Coast states, despite its location on Interstate 10. The truth is, the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi are the second and fifth-largest cities in the Magnolia State, combining to form a metro area of between 250,000 and 350,000 residents, but the cities were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, resulting in a population decline over the past decade. Biloxi in particular was crushed by the storm, falling from Mississippi’s third-largest state to fifth since that disaster.
In recent years, Biloxi has positioned itself as a resort town, billing itself as “The Playground of the South”. Driving along Beach Boulevard, the main highway of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, drivers see plenty of souvenir stores, casinos and open shoreline. Of course, the shoreline isn’t exactly open, considering it’s $30 to rent a spot on the beach for the day and the Gulf is only about three to four feet deep on the Mississippi coastline, but it does at least look pretty from Beach Boulevard and provides a nice contrast with the glut of casinos that greet a driver upon entering Biloxi proper. But if you’re looking for a good place to dine in Biloxi, the shoreline isn’t the place to be. Actually, to find Biloxi’s specialties, you head into the city and head to a marina.
Yes, I’ve had some strange locations before in this journey, but I’ve never once had a marina before. But that’s exactly the setting at the Hook Up Restaurant and Bar, located next to the Biloxi Boardwalk Marina on the Back Bay of Biloxi. From the moment you walk in, it feels like the typical ocean clubhouse bar, complete with open windows blowing in the breeze and a gorgeous view of the water. With fish on the walls and the bars, plus a constant cool temperature whether you’re inside or out, the atmosphere is that of relaxing after a day on the boat, perfect for its location. Even the restaurant’s logo itself includes a marlin.
The atmosphere, however, is only the beginning. As you might expect from a marina restaurant, the Hook Up prides itself on its seafood, offering several ocean favorites such as shrimp, oysters and the catch of the day. As you also might expect from a place that is so close to New Orleans, some of the stuff that the Crescent City has made famous has also made its way east down Interstate 10 to Biloxi. Po boys, Gulf Coast seafood specialties and Cajun spices are common here, such as in the Zydeco Shrimp Pasta, which includes gulf shrimp, peppers and onions and a Cajun cream sauce with penne. The appetizers are especially inspired, including shrimp bread (French bread with shrimp, scallions and cheese baked into it), CF Fries (a southern version of poutine, including roast beef along with the gravy and cheese) and the Dillapeno Basket, a 50/50 of fried pickles and fried jalapenos.
But as good as that sounds, that’s the kind of stuff that you can easily get in New Orleans itself (outside of the appetizers), and that’s not what I do. Sometimes copycats are of very high quality (usually, they’re not), but it’s very rare for a copy to measure up to the original enough that it’s worthy of recognition. As I’ve been told before and agree with, when you’re on the road, you don’t want the same stuff that you can get elsewhere, you want something special.
Ironically enough, that ended up being a burger. Yes, a burger at a marina. Anticlimactic? Well, the Southern Miss Burger is no ordinary burger. Actually, it’s kind of the Magnolia State on a bun. The standard beef patty and cheddar cheese get crowned with some applewood-smoked bacon and two of the great treats of the Gulf Coast, fried shrimp and fried green tomatoes. I’m not sure specifically where fried green tomatoes originated, but they’re definitely a southern tradition, so much so that there’s a book and movie with that name (set in Alabama, not Mississippi) and there’s actually a restaurant in Biloxi named The Fried Green Tomato. (Seriously, there is.)
The description suggests Mississippi on a bun. The taste says heaven on a bun. This might seriously be one of the best burgers I’ve ever had in my life, and the beef is a large part of that. An important component of any meal is how well your ingredients work with each other, and the beef is simply perfect with the other ingredients on the Southern Miss. The burger has a great grill flavor and is juicy throughout, working beautifully with the bacon, cheese, unfried and ripened tomato, fried green tomato and shrimp. The shrimp gives a new meaning to surf and turf, as it’s not often that you get to combine those tastes for your entire meal. There isn’t anything about this burger that I would alter. With the perfectly battered shrimp and green tomato offering that extra something, this is about as close to burger perfection as you can get.
I added some baked macaroni and cheese as my side, and although I enjoyed it very much, as the cheese worked perfectly with the penne pasta, this is actually not an item I recommend here. That’s because at the time of our visit in late May 2014, the Hook Up has a massive flaw with its menu. If you remember, one of the great things about Willie Mae’s is that it doesn’t charge extra for side dishes, no matter what the price of the side is. The Hook Up goes the opposite direction in that it does charge extra for certain sides. The problem is that the restaurant does nothing to tell you this on its menu, leaving you with a nasty surprise on your check if you’ve ordered one of the sides with an upcharge. What’s worse is that the staff members actually know about this flaw, but as of this writing, to my knowledge, the restaurant has yet to either stop charging extra for sides or note which ones cost extra. The baked mac and cheese adds $2 to the price of your meal, which would be fine if that was made clear on the menu, although I wouldn’t pay an extra two bucks to order it. To their credit, the staff members will reverse the upcharge if you say something about it, but you really shouldn’t even have to ask. It’s a bad policy and a black mark that doesn’t need to exist, especially not at a place like this.
Amy, a noted beef hater, was totally in her element in a place that caters to the ocean. With that in mind, she opted for the fish tacos, which come with citrus slaw, chipotle aioli and avocado. The fish can be either fried or grilled, and Amy opted for fried, which proved a great decision. These tacos are excellent, with a good amount of heat from the chipotle aioli. If you’re not much for spicy stuff, two of these might be a little much, but if you can handle some heat, these are perfect. In Amy’s words, these might be the best fish tacos she’s ever had, and considering that she’s actually from the Gulf Coast in Tampa (and we’ve hit some pretty good taco places), that’s pretty high praise. She added fries as her side, which are high quality and do not carry an upcharge.
But we’re not done yet, because as good as the Hook Up’s main fare is, dessert is pretty much a requirement here. You’ve got two main options to choose from, with the first one actually winning Food Network’s honor as the top ice cream treat in Mississippi: the RC Cola Moon Pie Sandwich. It’s basically a couple Moon Pies with cola-flavored ice cream sandwiched between them, with the whole thing dipped in a chocolate ganache and topped with whipped cream. However, unlike Mississippi Foodie Shawn Rossi, who has enjoyed this treat, I can’t speak to how good it is, because unfortunately, on our visit, they happened to be out of Moon Pies.
But that’s okay, because in the Magnolia State, the dessert of choice is the one with the state’s name in it: Mississippi Mud Pie. The name comes from the dark brown look of the banks of the Mississippi River, and it always involves lots of chocolate. Here, the chocolate comes in the form of a dense and delicious brownie, covered with pecans, an Oreo topping and whipped cream. Trust me, you want to save room for this one. The warm brownie and cold cookies and cream topping are perfect together, and the chocolate sauce and whipped cream are amazing. This is so good that it almost made me wish we each had our own so we didn’t have to share it.
Mississippi might not be anywhere near the top of the list for most foodies, but sometimes, even the most unlikely places can get quality eating establishments, and the Hook Up definitely qualifies. There’s no excuse for the issue with the pricing of the sides, but otherwise, this is as good as it gets no matter what your taste is. Once they’ve got that issue fixed, this will definitely be a place Biloxi can be proud to call its own.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. If there’s an event at the marina, it might be wise to schedule around it, as this is the only restaurant by the marina.
Wait during my visit: None. There were plenty of places available.
Location: The Hook Up is located at 200 Eighth Street in Biloxi, Miss., near the ocean but not on it.
Cost: Most items run $10 to $15 here, so it isn’t too terribly priced, as long as you don’t hit the hidden charge with the side dishes. The desserts are a bit pricy at $5 to 7 each, but they’re worth it.
Parking: Plenty. This is one of the good things about being at a marina. One thing to note, though, some parking is reserved for marina members only.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs, both inside and outside.
Website: The Hook Up
Specialty Items: Southern Miss Burger, seafood, Mississippi Mud Pie, RC Cola Moon Pie Sandwich
Ask 10 people what the signature food of New Orleans is, and you might very well get 10 different answers. It’s a testament to just how much of a food paradise the Crescent City is that it can do so many different things so well that they can legitimately be considered a signature item. But while things like oysters, crawfish, seafood and fried chicken can be found across the country, the po’ boy always has been and always will be pure Louisiana.
What is a po’ boy? Well, the definition has actually changed quite a bit from when the sandwich was invented in 1928. Back then, the po’ boy consisted of gravy and roast beef on French bread, and it picked up its name because it was served at the back doors of restaurants to “poor boys”, who were mostly striking workers. As time went on, po’ boys eventually diversified, adding other meats and seafood to the options and coming “fully dressed”, which includes lettuce or cabbage, pickles and condiments, depending on where you’re getting it from. Usually, those condiments include things like mayonnaise, Creole mustard and regular mustard, while tomatoes might also get thrown in at different places.
The one constant since 1928 no matter where the po’ boy has come from is the bread. Only French bread is used for a true po’ boy, and you’re not going to see white bread, wheat bread or Italian available as options. French bread, along with being a nod to the city’s roots, provide a crisp exterior and a soft middle, making for a perfect vehicle for the meat, vegetables and condiments.
One of the most famous po’ boy places in the Big Easy is also one of the oldest: Mother’s Restaurant, located in the Central Business District, a neighborhood away from the French Quarter. Mother’s has been serving po’ boys since its doors opened in 1938, and since that time, it’s made two significant contributions to New Orleans’ famous sandwich. The first is its baked ham, which it proudly calls the world’s best. Maybe that’s a New Orleans thing to boast about your product, but again, it’s not bragging if you can back it up. The Landry family’s recipe results in a caramelized glaze on its ham, giving the meat a sweet and tender taste. Glazed ham is always a good thing, and Mother’s produces a crisp glaze that almost looks like the ham is burnt. That’s always a good sign.
The second contribution came later, when a customer named Ferdi entered the store one day and decided he didn’t want to have just one meat on his po’ boy. Not even Mother’s is sure whether Ferdi asked for ham to be added to a roast beef po’ boy or for roast beef to be added to a ham po’ boy, but either way, Ferdi got ham and roast beef on his po’ boy, dressed and complete with debris, which is a fancy name for the roast beef that falls into the gravy during baking, resulting in a roast beef and gravy mix. He loved his sandwich, and word quickly got out to other customers, who requested the combination for themselves.
The Ferdi Special was born, and years later, it’s Mother’s most famous sandwich. Later, Ferdi’s nephew Ralph continued his family legacy by asking for his uncle’s sandwich with cheese, creating the Ralph. Given my love of cheese, the Ralph would seem to be right up my alley, but there’s no way that I could make my first visit to Mother’s without trying the original Ferdi, the way it was meant to be tried. That meant a fully dressed Ferdi, and at Mother’s, that means cabbage, pickle, mayonnaise and both kinds of mustard, along with the meat and debris.
This sandwich is heaven on bread. First, there’s the ham, which comes out baked to perfection. The meat is juicy and is simply wonderful on its own. I can see what they’re talking about by calling it the world’s best. because this ham is as good as you’d expect to find at a Christmas feast. The roast beef is also wonderful, but where this sandwich really shines is the debris. Really, the debris is reminiscent of Chicago’s signature sandwich, the Italian beef sandwich. Just like in the Windy City, the debris-covered po’ boy soaks up the juice from the roast beef, which magnifies the flavor in every bite.
The result is a dripping mess that is simply fantastic. The liquid gravy makes the roast beef even more juicy, and the fact that French bread is used allows the sandwich to actually hold together despite the large amount of liquid. The vegetables and condiments are a perfect addition, and I can see why so many New Orleans residents requested this combination so many years ago. Sandwiches simply don’t get much better than this.
Of course, Amy isn’t a beef eater, so she decided to go a different direction, choosing one of the Pelican State’s many seafood delicacies, the catfish. Neither one of us has ever really met a seafood meal we didn’t enjoy, and the chance to get fresh catfish in a place like this was irresistible to her. The seafood po’ boys come with much of the same condiments as the meat po’ boys, with the differences being no debris and no mustards.
Neither of those mattered at all to Amy, who enjoyed every bit of her po’ boy. The fish is crispy on the outside and cooked to perfection on the inside, and cabbage and mayo, plus the possibility of tartar sauce, are natural additions to seafood. Just like with the Ferdi, the dressed po’ boy is the only way to go with this one. I had a small taste of it and found it to be incredible, hot, fresh and falling apart in your mouth the way a quality piece of fish should. If not for my own sandwich, I would really recommend this sandwich as the one to get. Throw in a mountain of fries, and you have a fantastic experience that’s unique to New Orleans. She loved every bit of it and was thrilled that we had found such an amazing establishment.
But really, unless you aren’t a fan of eating beef or pork, there can only be one choice, and that’s the Ferdi. There’s just something about both the ham and the debris that make it a thing of perfection here. Just like the beignets and the fried chicken, no trip to New Orleans is complete without experiencing the greatness that is a po’ boy, and it doesn’t get much better than this. I don’t know what inspired Ferdi to combine two meats into one sandwich all those years ago, but there’s no doubt that the Crescent City is a better place and a more delicious place because of his foresight.
Time to go: Early in the evening is best to avoid the wait. Mother’s line can get quite long at the traditional dinner times, and if you’re planning to come then, your introduction to Mother’s will be waiting in line with a menu outside the establishment. It’s open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Wait during my visit: Substantial. We were outside for a while, because the restaurant only lets in a few customers at a time. As an older building, it just doesn’t have the space to accommodate large amounts of traffic inside. The line will congregate outside the steps by Mother’s, and the restaurant has one in and one out. Do not try to go out the same way you came in, you will only screw up the system.
Location: Mother’s is located at 401 Poydras Street in the Central Business District of New Orleans, where Poydras meets Tchoupitoulas. It’s within walking distance of most of the French Quarter.
Cost: Not too bad, as most po’ boys will be about $12 for a large sandwich. One thing to keep in mind here is that Mother’s employees are not allowed to accept tips. You won’t have an option to tip anything at the register, and don’t bother leaving anything on the table, because they will not be taken. Even though you will get a server to bring water and condiments once you select your table, they can’t take your tip no matter how you give it.
Parking: There is a lot next door where Mother’s validates parking, but really, I wouldn’t try it. New Orleans is not a car-friendly city, and Poydras Street is one of the busiest streets in the Big Easy. When you can get from the Quarter to somewhere on foot in 10 minutes and you’re in a good area, that’s the best plan unless you have a good reason not to walk. You can also ride the streetcar to Poydras and walk north, but take it from me: you do not ever want to rely on the inconsistent New Orleans Riverfront Streetcar.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs are standard, but the restaurant itself is small, and in the interest of moving customers through the establishment faster, they will ask strangers to share a table if they deem it necessary. Be warned.
Specialty items: Po’ boys, Ferdi Special
I know what some of you are thinking. How can the noted non-alcoholic possibly be writing about a place with “scotch house” as its title? Well, Willie Mae’s might have started as a bar many years ago in New Orleans, but those days are long gone for this place. Actually, it was originally a bar, a beauty salon and a barber shop, which would seem to have been a perfect combination for New Orleans couples who needed a haircut and wanted to relax while doing it in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
But in 1972, Willie Mae Seaton got out of the hair business and into the restaurant business, opting to focus specifically on fried chicken while keeping the name, which had become her brand in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans by this point. In doing so, she was betting on herself and her chicken being special in a location where good is the minimum level of expectation for fried chicken and sides. After all, the Pelican State is the headquarters of both Popeyes, which does some pretty good things with on-the-bone chicken, and Raising Cane’s, which has made its name on chicken fingers and nothing else. Point is, they do chicken right in Louisiana, even at the fast food level, so to focus on fried chicken down there is to declare your chicken some of the best around.
Turns out, boasting about itself has never been a problem for Willie Mae’s, which puts its pride in its fried chicken right on its menu. When someone orders a fried chicken meal here, they’re placing an order for “America’s Best Fried Chicken”, according to the restaurant’s own menu. Considering some of the places that Amy and I have visited, as well as just how large of a country this is, that’s a pretty hefty statement right there. On the other hand, Willie Mae’s is so beloved in New Orleans that residents and non-residents alike banded together to raise $200,000 and rebuild the restaurant over a two-year period, rather than letting it close after Hurricane Katrina destroyed it in 2005.
That’s another hefty statement, and the standards of this place back up the reputation. The now 100-year-old Willie Mae Seaton retired following Hurricane Katrina, but her creation hasn’t missed a beat in terms of awards under her great-grandaughter Kerry. The restaurant has continued to win award after award for soul food in New Orleans, and that takes some doing in a place that really knows how to do food. So basically, this was definitely a place that Amy and I had to try for ourselves on our trip to Louisiana.
Oh. My. God. I’m not exaggerating here when I say that this chicken is the best that I’ve ever eaten. It starts with the breading, which I am very picky about. A good breading, especially when the dish is fried, has to walk a fine line of adding to the meal without overwhelming it. Too much breading and you end up overwhelming your dish, and if the breading adds no flavor, then there’s no point to it and it’s just empty calories.
But this breading is fantastic, and you can hear the difference right away. Yes, that’s right, you can actually hear the breading here because of the loud crunch that comes when you take your first bite. This breading is fried to golden brown perfection and is crisp the entire way through. Not only that, but it’s seasoned well throughout. The spice in this chicken will never come close to that of Prince’s or Hattie B’s (after all, this is New Orleans, not Nashville), but it does provide a nice bit of kick to it that keeps your taste buds entertained throughout. Even better, the skin isn’t greasy, and the meat is juicy and flavorful. You really can’t ask for much more.
That includes the sides, as I found the one side dish that is good enough to make me pass up my standard macaroni and cheese in a fried chicken place: butter beans with rice. Butter beans are a New Orleans specialty, basically lima beans with rice in gravy. At Willie Mae’s, they are heavenly. The beans literally melt in your mouth, the gravy is flavorful without being too thin or too thick and the rice works well with both. Really, though, the beans are the biggest star here. As soon as she saw my side, Amy knew she had to try some, and she was immediately amazed at just how good these things were. Throw in a corn muffin to finish it off, and you have one incredible fried chicken meal, New Orleans style.
One thing to note, however: the fried chicken meal is designed for fans of dark meat, not white meat. Willie Mae’s standard includes a thigh, a wing and a leg, meaning two pieces of dark meat and one of white. For a small upcharge, you can get an all-white meat meal, which will consist of a breast and two wings. Of course, as a noted dark meat lover, that plays perfectly into my wheelhouse, but if you’re like Amy and prefer white meat, you’ll want to follow her lead and get Willie Mae’s outstanding chicken nuggets.
Basically, the nuggets are Willie Mae’s fried chicken in boneless form. Same great taste of the breading with all of its seasoning, same great properly cooked chicken, no bone to get in the way of your eating enjoyment. These were pretty outstanding and just as filling as a fried chicken meal. Ten of them were plenty to satisfy Amy’s appetite, although these were so good that she wished she had more room to continue enjoying them. They’re served with dipping sauces, and both their ranch and barbecue sauces are excellent with this chicken. Amy added fries as her side, and they’re pretty darn good. Of course, I preferred the butter beans, but those are in a class by themselves.
When a community bands together to keep a place open, that’s a sign that it’s doing something right. When not even one of the biggest tragedies in recent years is enough to put a place out of business, well, the results clearly speak for themselves. Simply put, this is some of the best fried chicken you will ever have anywhere, and as far as the claim of America’s Best Fried Chicken, it’s not bragging if you can back it up. New Orleans just wouldn’t be New Orleans without fried chicken, and it certainly wouldn’t be itself without Willie Mae’s fried chicken. Clearly, the Seaton family knows what it’s doing when it comes to fried chicken and soul food. May the Big Easy be fortunate enough to experience this greatness for decades to come.
Time to go: Early. Willie Mae’s opens at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and the lines can get very long as it gets later in the day. This place is very well known and very popular, and when lunch starts, that means you might be waiting a while. It closes at 5 p.m. each day, and it’s not open on Sundays.
Wait during my visit: None, because we came early. The early person gets the bird here.
Location: Willie Mae’s is located at 2401 St. Ann Street in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
Cost: Not bad at all, as a meal will only cost you $10. One awesome thing to note about Willie Mae’s is that sides are differently priced a la carte, but if you order a meal, there is no upcharge at all for the side, regardless of which one you get. Given that the butter beans come in at $6 a la carte and the fries are four dollars cheaper, this was a really nice surprise, especially given what we found with price issues at the Hook Up. One thing to remember, though, although Willie Mae’s is no longer cash only, separate checks aren’t allowed here. Willie Mae’s has a strict policy of one card per table, so if you do want to divide the check, you’ll need some dead presidents.
Parking: Good luck. There isn’t much to speak of here, and this being a neighborhood restaurant, there isn’t a lot at all. Your only options are street parking, a taxi or walking. I do not recommend the third option, as Treme is not one of New Orleans’ better neighborhoods and you’ll have to cross under Interstate 10 if you’re coming from either the French Quarter or the Central Business District. If you’re coming early, you can drive and find one of the three or four parking spots by the building. If not, your best bet is to take a taxi and not have to worry about parking or neighborhood issues. We actually did find parking, but again, we came 15 minutes after it opened for the day.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs. The restaurant has some small tables and some big ones, and you might have to share one of the bigger ones if crowds get large.
Website: None. The restaurant does have a Facebook page, but no website at this time.
Specialty items: Fried chicken, butter beans