Willie Mae’s Scotch House, New Orleans
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