“We Had Some Fun On The Holiday”: Mardi Gras on the Backstreets of New Orleans

“Mardi Gras” to most Americans conjures up images of crowds on Bourbon Street and girls pulling up their dresses in the hopes that someone will throw them beads. But the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes place far away from the French Quarter, where actually no parades take place on Lundi Gras or Mardi Gras. Most of the bigger parades occur uptown along St. Charles Avenue, but even that is not to be compared with the holiday that occurs in the city’s Black neighborhoods along the backstreets. There the day begins with groups of youths in macabre costume known as the Skeleton Men, and groups of women called the Baby Dolls, who are followed by the Black Indian tribes, whose elaborate suits are true works of art. Accompanied by drummers, these tribes march through the neighborhoods, challenging other tribes to a competition ritual involving dance and bravado.

Although the tribes are usually accompanied only by drums and tambourines, this year the Black Mohawks had hired the To Be Continued Brass Band to accompany them on the holiday, and they met at Verret’s Lounge on Washington Avenue to begin the day. As is usually true on Mardi Gras day, the weather was warm and pleasant, with a blue sky and plenty of sun, and quite a few of the different tribes and their drummers were out in the Third Ward where much Black Indian activity takes place.

Later the TBC Band made their way to a private house party uptown, where they had been hired to play in the backyard, which featured an outdoor bar and deck. When that was over, my friend Darren Towns and his family and I headed to the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Terrytown, one of the few restaurants to actually be open on Mardi Gras Day. The fried seafood turned out to be really good, and I ended the holiday as I usually do each year, pleasantly tired from a day of parading and fun.

Great Seafood at Morrow’s in New Orleans

Having been away from New Orleans for nearly two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, when I finally got the chance to return for my birthday, I was eager for some seafood. I don’t recall how I became aware of a restaurant on St. Claude Avenue called Morrow’s, but by the time I arrived in the city, I decided to go there for dinner. Unfortunately, so did everybody else, and the wait was longer than an hour. But, with it being my birthday weekend, I decided to wait anyway; it was Friday night, and everything else was likely to be crowded too. The weather wasn’t unpleasant, and I was able to walk around the neighborhood and take pictures; I especially enjoyed walking around the St. Roch Market, although sadly the Coast Roast Coffee location inside it was closed. Morrow’s called me when my table was ready, and I walked back to sit down and order my food.

Morrow’s has a very classy and upscale vibe; lighting is fairly dark, but the restaurant still seems cheerful, and when crowded, somewhat noisy. In the later hours, there was a DJ playing R & B music. I ordered a fried shrimp dinner with fries. The prices are not cheap, but the food came out quickly, and it was very good indeed. In addition to seafood platters and fried, grilled and raw oysters, Morrow’s also has po-boys, some soul-food type meals and sides, and also desserts. I was thoroughly pleased and will be back.

Morrow’s

2438 St. Claude Avenue

New Orleans, LA 70117

(504) 827-1519

A Bit of the Crescent City Comes to Hernando

After a coffee at Coffee Central in Hernando one Friday night, I drove past a shopping center on Commerce Street where I noticed a new sign that read The Parish Oyster Bar and Restaurant. Within a week, I had gotten a call from my friend Ronald Grayson asking me if I had heard of the place; he actually was with the owner at the time, and told me the owner was a friend of his. Within another week, the restaurant had opened.

Just to avoid confusion, it needs to be said that there is no connection between The Parish Oyster Bar in Hernando, Mississippi and Memphis’ Parish Grocery, which I reviewed last summer, although both are New Orleans-themed restaurants in our metropolitan region. Po-boys are the primary focus of the Parish Grocery, while more upscale seafood dishes characterize The Parish in Hernando. My friend and I arrived at 3 PM and still faced a significant wait for a table, given that it was the restaurant’s first week open.

Inside, the owners have done a great job of recreating the atmosphere of New Orleans. A white-aproned man shucks oysters behind the bar, while great Louisiana music plays from the speakers. The walls feature decorative flour-de-lis patterns, and the air is full of the smell of frying seafood.

I opted for the fried shrimp with french fries, and I was quite impressed with the seasonings used in the shrimp. Furthermore, the french fries were crispy and flavorful, and there was a mountain of them. My friend was pleased with her catfish filets as well. Afterwards, neither of us had room for dessert, but the desserts sounded delicious, including creme brule and bread pudding. By far, The Parish offers the most authentic New Orleans food experience in the Memphis area, and is worth the drive to Hernando.

The Parish Oyster Bar and Restaurant

427 E Commerce Street

Hernando, MS 38632

(662) 469-4200

A Taste of the Crescent City at Ben Yay’s in Memphis

New Orleans-themed restaurants have come and gone over the years in Memphis; few of them offered beignets, those delightful doughnuts we learned to love at the Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square. Fortunately, there is now a place called Ben Yay’s on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis that offers the best in New Orleans cuisine and the delicious beignets as well.

Located in a space that has housed several New Orleans-themed restaurants over the years including most notably Chef Gary’s Deja Vu, which closed when he passed away, Ben yay’s proclaims itself a “Gumbo Shop,” but they have an absolutely delicious shrimp po-boy, and one that is fairly authentic. Nothing fancy, of course; po-boys are not fancy food. But it is, as all good po-boys are, a thing of beauty. There are too many shrimp for the french loaf; they fall off the sandwich onto your plate, which is the mark of a good po-boy. The french fries that came with it were delicious as well.

But it is what came afterwards that sets Ben Yay’s apart. Authentic New Orleans-style beignets, covered with powdered sugar. There have been beignet places in Memphis before, including several locations of Crescent City Beignet that have since closed, and a suburban place called Voodoo Cafe in Bartlett which sells sweet and savory beignets shaped like voodoo dolls. But the beignets at Ben Yay’s give the place its name, and are the most like what you would find in New Orleans I have seen in Memphis. They are delicious, but messy, and your clothes WILL be covered in powdered sugar when you are through enjoying them. All the same, it’s worth it.

Ben Yay’s Gumbo Shop

51 S Main St.

Memphis, TN 38103

(901) 779-4125

For A Taste of the Crescent City, Go to the Parish (Grocery)

With travel curtailed by the pandemic, many of us who love New Orleans have been unable to travel to our favorite city this summer, but Memphians who love the Big Easy got a little bit of consolation in June with the opening of the Parish Grocery in the former Atomic Tiki Bar location. (A transition from the South Pacific to South Rampart Street is quite a transition indeed!). Despite the name, Parish Grocery is not a grocery store, but a New Orleans-style deli, with po-boys and muffulettas. The sandwiches are made with Liedenheimer bread, which is considered the gold standard when it comes to po-boys. (Gambino’s is a beloved competitor in that regard as well). On a broiling day in June, I ventured in to try a shrimp po-boy after seeing a Facebook friend check in a few days before. The building on Overton Park Avenue in the Crosstown section of Memphis is old and historic, and has the sort of look I associate with New Orleans, including the door facing the corner rather than either street. As for the shrimp po-boy, it was the authentic article and quite good. Soft drinks come in cans, but were cold and refreshing, and for a treat after the meal, they advertise New Orleans-style snowballs, but I didn’t try one, so I cannot say how authentic they are. (For the uninitiated, a New Orleans snowball and a snow cone are vastly different.) The surroundings were pleasant, and included memorabilia from the TV show Treme, as well as various musician photos and concert posters.

Indeed, I had only one complaint, in that they do not offer french fries. They are of course not alone in that regard, and there are a number of New Orleans sandwich shops that do not have fries, including the venerable Domilise’s. But I am just not a fan of cajun slaw, or German potato salad, or any of the other various salads or vegetables that are offered. A shrimp po-boy, fries and a Barq’s was staple summer fare for me in my youth at Gulfport, Mississippi. All the same, Parish Grocery offers the most authentic New Orleans experience in a Memphis restaurant. They even have bread pudding, and Zapps potato chips. Pay them a visit.

Parish Grocery

1545 Overton Park Av

Memphis, TN 38112

(901) 207-4347

A Delta Journey: West Monroe’s Antique Alley, Bayou Brew House, Moon Lake and Trapp’s on the River

West Monroe’s Trenton Street is one of the best places in the country to shop for antiques and ephemera. There’s not a whole lot with regards to music, as a certain man from Bastrop is a record collector and seller, and he routinely buys anything valuable he sees in the shops, but for old Louisiana books or Grambling State University ephemera, it is basically unbeatable. I spent about an hour browsing through the shops, while the city was setting up tables and chairs for some sort of evening event, and then I decided to head to the Bayou Brew House in Monroe for a cappuccino.

The Bayou Brew House had taken over the place on Desiard Street downtown where RoeLa Coffee Roasters had been, and I was hopeful that they still sold the RoeLa products, even though they had moved out by the Monroe airport. I was disappointed in that, but the coffee house proved to have a beautiful setting, in an old house under a number of trees, and the coffee options were awesome. Even better was learning that they sell breakfast, which is for some reason always a major challenge in Monroe.

With the sun going down, I decided to head out to Moon Lake, a resort and marina on an eponymous lake, north of Monroe and west of Highway 165. An article online said that the place featured amazing hamburgers and beautiful waterfront views, and it was a place I had never been. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the resort, I could find no trace of the restaurant. There were some people around, and some residents seemed to be barbecuing beside their RV’s and motor homes, but no crowds, or anything else to suggest a restaurant. Finally, I asked a man, who explained to me that the restaurant was closed due to the chilly weather, as all of its seating was on the open deck of a floating barge.

Disappointed, I made my way back into Monroe, and decided to head to Trapp’s, a place on the Ouachita River in West Monroe, where I had enjoyed a fried shrimp dinner a few years ago. The weather had been warm for the last several hours, and I made the mistake of choosing to sit out on the back deck overlooking the river and downtown Monroe. As the sun went down, it did not take long for the deck to become chilly indeed. But the food was as good as I had remembered it, and the place was crowded, inside and out.

After dinner, I headed to Grambling to spend some time with a friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, the journalism professor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, who had formerly taught at Grambling. He was expecting a large number of relatives in town for the homecoming, and was getting things prepared. Down in the Village, Main Street was devoid of the people I would have expected to see during a homecoming in previous years. Perhaps the cold weather was keeping them away, but there was a bit more activity on the campus near the Quadrangle, where some young men seemed to be rapping on an outdoor stage. But there was no place to park, police were everywhere, and it was quite cold. So I headed back to my rental unit in West Monroe.

Great Seafood at Lusco’s in Greenwood

On my last visit to Greenwood, back in April, I had decided to try the Crystal Grill for dinner, and I was thrilled with my meal, one of the very best I had ever had. As a result, this visit, I resisted the temptation to go back to Crystal Grill, in order to try Lusco’s instead. The people at the Mississippi Mo Joe Coffee House had warned that I might not be able to get into either restaurant due to the bike race and the resulting extra crowds of people in town, but I called Lusco’s and was able to get a reservation at 8:30.

Lusco’s is a fairly nondescript, older building on Carrollton Avenue in a fairly rough neighborhood of Greenwood. It looks nothing like the elegant restaurant it is inside, but, like its competitor down the street, keeps a guard at the door, who escorts customers to their cars after dinner.

Inside, Lusco’s consists primarily of private booths with curtains that close, so each group of diners is generally dining in their own private space. As such it would be a great place to take a wife or girlfriend. It’s a very romantic concept indeed.

Compared to Crystal Grill, Lusco’s is somewhat more expensive, and has a somewhat more limited menu, but they have marked similarities, especially the prominence of seafood on both menus, which is fairly odd, considering that the Gulf of Mexico is at least five hours away. I opted for the broiled shrimp, with the famous Lusco’s shrimp sauce, and lump crab meat added on the top. It proved to be absolutely amazing. The shrimp sauce seems to involve at the very least butter and worcestershire sauce, and was savory and delicious. The shrimp and crab came with toast points to sop up the delectable sauce, and my waitress actually brought another whole basket of bread for me to enjoy the rest of the sauce. Unfortunately, the restaurant had run out of baked potatoes, but since the french fries were homemade and cut in house, I didn’t even mind. They too were delicious. Finally, I decided to end it all with a slice of chocolate amaretto cheesecake, which the waitress said was made in-house as well, and it was absolutely delicious.

So, how did they stack up? I would have to say that Lusco’s and Crystal Grill are just about tit for tat. Both are among the best and most memorable meals I have had anywhere, and both offer seafood far superior to anything I can currently get at home in Memphis. Greenwood is worth a visit for fine dining.

Lusco’s

722 Carrollton Avenue

Greenwood, MS 38930

(662) 453-5365

Open Wed-Sat 5-10 PM

Celebrating Dexter Burnside’s Birthday With Blues

Dexter Burnside is a son of the late R. L. Burnside, and was a drummer until health problems forced him to put down his sticks. But every July, along Mayes Road near Independence, Mississippi, his birthday party is celebrated with live blues from his brothers Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside. It’s not necessarily open to the public, but people who know about it from the surrounding area come, and there were nearly a hundred people there this year, even a candidate for sheriff of Tate County, who made a brief speech to the crowd. Of course there was plenty of barbecue and catfish and plenty to drink. Picnics of this sort used to be the rule in the Hill Country during the summer months, but have sadly become rarer.

An After-Festival Dinner at Kelly Ray’s in Pocahontas

After Eric Deaton left the stage at Bentonia, I wanted something good to eat. Not just fast food. So I had seen a new restaurant on my phone’s Yelp app in the nearby town of Pocahontas, Mississippi called Kelly Ray’s Crawfish, Seafood & Steaks. Not only did it sound like my kind of food, but their Facebook profile showed a picture of what looked like an authentic blues band playing on their stage. I knew that some of the Hill Country blues musicians had played at a place in Pocahontas some years ago called T-Beaux’s, and I wasn’t sure if this was the same place under new ownership or what, but I decided that it would be a good choice. Fortunately R. L. Boyce and Sherena agreed, so we soon headed down Highway 49 in the darkness, past Flora and into Pocahontas.

We had a little trouble locating Kelly Ray’s, as the building still had a T-Beaux’s sign on the front, but we went inside and quickly learned that we were at the right place. Our waitress was in fact a blues fan, and had been at the Blue Front Cafe the night before. They had a small indoor stage, with just a folk singer/guitarist outside on the deck, and our waitress explained that they don’t book live music during the summer, but would start back booking blues in the fall. Soon, some other people that had been at the Bentonia festival also came into the establishment.

As for the food, it was great. Cajun seafood is the specialty, and although I considered getting a steak, I eventually opted for the fried shrimp instead, and it proved to be a great choice. My friends were happy with their meals as well, and we especially enjoyed the friendly, welcoming service at the end of a long, hot day.

Afterwards, with us being only 20 miles from Jackson, I decided it made more sense to go on down there and catch Interstate 220 back to 55, which proved to be far easier than the dark, 2-land road from Yazoo City to Pickens. We got back to North Mississippi with little difficulty.

Kelly Ray’s Crawfish, Seafood & Steaks

1052 Pocahontas Rd

Pocahontas, MS 39213

(601) 879-5582

The Maine Thing Is Lobster at Cousin’s

I must say that lobster is my favorite of all shellfish, despite my abiding love of shrimp. It’s merely the high cost of lobster that typically keeps me away. Of course, on the other hand, a true New England lobster roll is hard to come by hereabouts, and, given my hatred of mayonnaise, I was never particularly eager to try one anyway. However, when Cousin’s Maine Lobster food truck debuted in Memphis, I became aware that there is more than one kind of New England-style lobster roll, and once I read a description of the “Connecticut Roll,” lobster meat with drawn butter and lemon, served warmed on a roll, I knew I had to try one.

So, when I saw that Cousin’s was going to be posted up outside of the Mississippi Ale House in Olive Branch, I decided that this was my opportunity, as it was directly on my way to Holly Springs, where I was headed for the second evening of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival.

What I hadn’t counted on was the line, nor the fact that it wasn’t moving much at all. Apparently the process of preparing lobster rolls is a slow one indeed. Nearly 30 minutes after I joined the line, I finally got to place my order, which I have to say was quite expensive. Of course it is lobster, but I was still shocked at the cost.

Was it worth it? Yes. I have had lobster tails, and loved them, but this was my first time having a Connecticut Roll, and it was absolutely delicious. There was plenty of good, succulent lobster meat on my sandwich, and the tater tots that I got as a side dish were equally delicious. Lobster roll, tots and drink came to $20, and I won’t be doing that very often, but it is very, very good indeed.

As Cousin’s (at least in Memphis) is a food truck, it has no fixed location. Visit their website, or follow them on Facebook to find where they will be each day. For a special treat, it is worth finding.