Black restaurants, Black tours, Black bookstores, Black art, & more in the Big Easy.
This past September, I had the privilege of spending 5 days in NOLA, a city that boasts a resilient people, mouthwatering cuisine, and the best live jazz music anywhere around. Also home to Xavier University, a prominent Historically Black College and University (HBCU). I’m a Brooklynite, but I first had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans as a 13-year-old, in spring 2006.
I was there on a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward to witness firsthand the damage that was caused by two failures — the failure of the levies during Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of our government’s response (or lack thereof) to it’s Black residents. During Katrina, people of the Lower Ninth Ward, predominantly of African descent, were stranded for days — left on rooftops as people watched their neighbors’ bodies float through rivers that were once streets. Around the country, we watched Black bodies desperate for food and water be labeled as “looters,” while White bodies were applauded for their noble efforts in “finding” food. We saw tens of thousands of Black bodies packed into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in subhuman conditions as part of “relief” efforts. And even now, 14 years post-Katrina, the inequities in the recovery needs of the Lower Ninth Ward, versus more affluent areas of the city, are striking. Nevertheless, American Africans (yes, American Africans) in New Orleans have, like their ancestors before them, persevered and continued to shift and shape the culture of society against all odds. There is no shortage of activities in Black-owned NOLA — a vast hub for the culture.
Upon arriving to Louis Armstrong International Airport around noon, I was, understandably, hungry af. I dropped my bags at the Hilton Troubadour, a boutique hotel a few minutes’ walk from the French Quarter (though next time I’ll likely stay at one of NOLA’s many Black-owned hotels, including The Moor, Hotel Indigo, Maison Dupuy, Hubbard Mansion, or the Hilton Garden Inn Convention Center). Once my bags were secured, I took a taxi to Ma Momma´s House of Cornbread, Chicken & Waffles, about 15 minutes away. When you walk into Momma’s House, you immediately smell the aroma of cajun seasoning and fried chicken. I was promptly greeted by a kind Black woman who seated me and helped me to go over the menu. I had the shrimp and grits, which were absolutely delicious, red beans and rice (also extremely delicious), and of course, cornbread, which you can guess…was also delicious. Ma Momma’s House is very welcoming, diner-esque, and I even had a chance to meet Momma herself!
After finishing my meal and finally checking into my room, I started thinking about what I would eat for dinner. Neyow’s Creole Cafe came highly recommended. I was told I had to try their charbroiled oysters (I can now confirm that you indeed must try the charbroiled oysters, which come smothered in butter, parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and parsely). For my main course I had a fried shrimp po-boy and OH MY GOD — my mouth is watering just sitting here re-visiting the thought. To wash it all down I had the Bow Wow, a mixed drink that is not for the weak hearted. My first day in NOLA was just as I expected, filled with amazing food, made with love, that left me smiling in my sleep.
Friday I booked the Black Heritage & Jazz Tour with All Bout Dat Tours. The tour guide and owner of the company was Mikhala Iverson, a daughter of jazz musicians, and a recording artist, herself. We began in front of Louis Armstrong Park, located in the nation’s first Black neighborhood – Tremé. Through a combination of walking and driving, we visited several areas that are hallowed ground for Black American history. My favorite visit was to Congo Square, where Blacks would gather in antebellum New Orleans to trade goods, listen to music, and be communal every Sunday. You can literally feel the warm, calming embrace of the ancestors as you enter the Square. Mikhala even brought the group to Black-owned businesses in Tremé, including a bookstore! I highly recommend this tour, and checking out the others offered by All Bout Dat.
Saturday was a great food day. Actually. EVERY day in New Orleans is a great food day. Though I haven’t been everywhere, I have done my fair share of traveling across several states and continents, and can confidently say that NOLA has the best food. PERIOD. I started the day off at Morrow’s, a restaurant in Maligny, owned by a mother-son duo, Chef Lanora Chong and event curator Larry Morrow. To begin, I ordered the lobster claws appetizer. I can remember the sight of them coming out, glazed in butter in a white dish, complemented with fresh lemons. The juices of the claws and tenderness of the meat combined to create heaven on my tastebuds. Add in a little Crystal’s Louisiana hot sauce and WOW. For my entree, I had the cajun crawfish pasta. It came in a creamy cajun sauce with linguini noodles, lightly flaked with parsley, and topped with two pieces of catfish fried to a perfect golden brown crunchiness. Again. I swear, please please PLEASE find time to visit Morrow’s during your stay. You will have absolutely missed out if you didn’t.
“The juices of the claws and tenderness of the meat combined to create heaven on my tastebuds.”
After Morrow’s, I took a short walk over to Studio BE, the art studio of New Orleans native Brandan “B-mike” Owens. B-mike describes himself as a visual artist whose work meets at the intersection of art and resistance. In B-mike’s studio, the personal is political. I witnessed powerful imagery of the Black American experience, including subtexts to modern conditions we deal with today — racism in policing, education, and government responses to natural disasters. In particular, there was a room that depicted how Hurricane Katrina hit Black communities. The way B-mike was able to translate the weight of that darkness into art was incredible. The purple room, for instance, shows the water level in Black homes that were affected the hardest. Scaled rooftops are placed on top of silver pools to signify the submersion of houses. And water is all over the cement floor as you walk. For a truly powerful experience, please visit B-mike’s studio. You can even see some of his commissioned work around the city!
Sunday, I embarked on a tour of the Whitney Plantation, self-described as the only plantation museum in the region that offers an exclusive perspective on slavery. The plantation is located an hour outside of New Orleans, so for transportation, I booked N’awlins Luxury Tours (also black-owned). It was my first time on a plantation, and I have nothing to compare it to, but I will say there was absolutely no sugar-coating. Our guide spoke about the intersection of capitalism and slavery, and the real conditions our ancestors had to endure. Even just being out there, feeling the heat of the sun on my back and neck, and knowing that’s what our people had to deal with from “can’t to can’t” (can’t see to can’t see, aka dawn ‘til dusk), was an extremely powerful and necessary experience.
Sunday night, I enjoyed dinner at Café Sbisa, the third-oldest fine dining establishment in the French Quarter. The charm of this speak-easy style restaurant captured me as soon as I walked through the doors. Soft lighting, coupled with rouge tones creates a romantic ambiance. Even the bar and seating style transport you back into 20’s. Great service and food are complements.
Monday was my final day in NOLA, but since I had a late flight, and I absolutely could not leave without getting some pralines, I made my way to Bernard’s Pralines. I don’t know what some people talk about when they say the service at Black-owned establishments is bad, because all the workers I encountered during my visit were exceptional — and Bernard’s was no different. I was greeted by a lovely Black woman, who informed me of the various flavors — strawberry, chocolate, rum, several others, and of course, original. I bought a tinful right out of the oven and made my way to the airport. But not before visiting Frenchmen Street to enjoy some of that good ole New Orleans jazz.
All in all, my time in Black-owned New Orleans was wonderful. The tradition, the history, the food. I can’t wait to return to these establishments that kept my belly full and my heart inspired.