by Todd Coleman
I made my first trip to New Orleans in the late ’80s and remember one thing vividly: the muffuletta sandwich. Salty, sweet and tangy between two pieces of bread, it was delicious, perfect. Little did I know how important it was to become to me.
I grew up as an Air Force brat, moving all around, all the time, and had just moved from Germany to Florida with my family in 1986. It was a shock, to everyone. Quickly, instinctively, my dad took us on a trip to New Orleans. The relief set in immediately. I reveled in the old buildings, the Stephen King novel I was reading, the endless cultural thingamajigs and the food. I read about the muffuletta in my dad’s guidebook and begged to go the Central Grocery — the sandwich’s creator.
I ate more than my share of the round loaf layered with a variety of Italian lunchmeats (mortadella, soppressata) and the kicker: a lovely, taste-entangling olive salad. It was, and is, the sandwich to beat all others. As I grew older, it became just the thing to ward off the breakup blues or celebrate special occasions, and it would become the object of an obsessive re-creation project in Food Network Kitchen. I never experienced those flavors or those memory-producing details again.
Then Commander’s Palace (a place that was beyond the scope of my childhood wants) happened to me in 2006. Specifically, the Shrimp & Tasso Henican. Shrimp are bathed in a butter sauce spiked with Crystal hot sauce — at this true palace of perfection — and laid out over a smooth, pepper–flecked jelly, then garnished with radial spikes of pickled okra. It’s an entree that that can be eaten in one minute — in a fit of delicious passion. Melvin Rodrigue, the chief operating officer of Galatoire’s (the NOLA restaurant to beat all NOLA traditions) once told me he was present at the first test run of the dish, and he said he ate shrimp after shrimp in kitchen off the back line. Glorious. I wish I could’ve been there. The dish is a legend; I can still taste it. In my dreams.
And then I met the barbecued shrimp at Mr. B’s Bistro earlier this year — a restaurant that I had walked by a hundred times before. It was salty, sweet and tangy — all over again. Huge shrimp swim in the most-addictively tasty sauce. I had to go into the kitchen to see what was going on. There, I met Philip “Skip” Lomax Jr. He wasn’t surprised to see me; he’s been making the dish since 1984. “If you haven’t had our barbecue shrimp, you haven’t eaten them,” he said with a smile. “Every Monday after the Jazz Fest there was this one lady who came in and had ‘em for 18 years. She couldn’t believe that it was the same person who’s made them the whole time. She wanted to take a picture with me.” I took his picture too. I can’t wait to go back, to find out where my new barbecue shrimp relationship — my new NOLA bond — takes me.
Work up your Mardi Gras appetite this Fat Tuesday by clicking through the full gallery of must-eat and surprising dishes in New Orleans.
Tasting Table’s creative director Todd Coleman has seen every side of the food world — from behind the lens to behind the pen, the line and beyond. Previously, Todd cultivated his culinary savvy for more than seven years as the executive food editor of Saveur. There he propped, photographed and styled the majority of Saveur’s covers, and he provided additional video and photography for features both in the studio and worldwide.