Heading out to the edge of town for killer soul food with my old friend Charlie Halloran. It’s a reminder that good things don’t go away, they just change location…
You can find him: Playing trombone at Preservation Hall, playing trombone on Frenchman Street, playing trombone in Europe, collecting hats.
Four years. Has it really been four years since Charlie and I did this? It used to be a regular thing. We’d hop on our bikes and head to Two Sisters over on Derbigny Street, just in back of St. Louis Cemetery #2, order up enough food to feed a small army, and talk about lives. More specifically, we’d talk about women, which were often the focus of our lives.
But for a variety of reasons, we hadn’t done one of our lunch excursions in a while. A long while. I’d spent a couple summers out of town, and Charlie, God bless him, got married to a lovely woman named Mia. But when I started writing this series, I made it a top priority to grab Charlie and get out to visit Two Sisters restaurant like we used to.
There was one problem: Two Sisters is closed.
Or so I thought.
Local institutions have a way of hanging on in this town. If success in evolution is determined by adaptability, few cities have evolved more impressively than New Orleans. The list of obstacles reads like a category of biblical punishments. Fires. Floods. Plagues of yellow fever, cholera and malaria. Mob violence. Corruption. The slow decay of a sub-tropical climate. Institutions in New Orleans are under constant bombardment from entropy, corrupt officials, outright hostility and simple neglect. That the city still stands is a testament to its backbone, and I believe that this backbone is built around meeting places where news is exchanged, food is shared, and friends become family.
The old location of Two Sisters had that kind of vibe. Walking through the doors was like walking into a family picnic where someone offered you a plate. It was the kind of place that made you feel comfortable, and I was afraid I wasn’t going to see it again.
Then, on a trip out to New Orleans East, I saw the sign at the top of this post and jumped out of my seat. I don’t get out to the East a lot, and many people in New Orleans will tell you the same thing. A suburban style community developed in the 1960’s, it sits on the eastern side of the Industrial Canal and to the north of Bayou Bienvenue and the Lower Ninth Ward. Despite being one of the largest sections of the city, it’s always felt remote to me, almost another town. Part of that is probably that I didn’t own a car for so long, which makes getting out here difficult. Still, I have to confess that of all the neighborhoods that make up the city, The East is the one I know the least about. Other than some trips out to Versailles, the Vietnamese community on the far end of Chef Menteur Highway, I’m almost never out here.
Charlie, who has lived here for almost a decade, but who has never owned a car in that time, said the same. “I don’t think I’ve ever been over here before.”
Smothered chicken. This is why you get over here.
We pulled up to the restaurant late in the day, well past the lunch rush, but there were still a few customers making their way in. We took a seat by the window and ordered.
“Is this the same place?” asked Charlie.
It is, sort of. This is the second location, opened three years ago. At the moment, it’s the only location, though I’m assured by the owners that the original location on Derbigny will reopen sometime in the next year.
In the meantime, there’s the food. Oh, the food. The location might have switched, but the portions haven’t. I went with smothered chicken with cabbage and rice. You know you’re in a serious restaurant when the portions are so massive that they have the bring the main and the sides on two separate, completely full plates.
Because portion control is for crazy people.
One thing you might not notice in that photo is the empty salad plate off to the left. Yeah, before they bring out that mountain of food, they serve you two kinds of salad: iceberg lettuce and your choice of dressing, and a scoop of potato salad right next to it. The potato salad is a highlight, with a nice punch of black pepper coming through. And the cabbage, flavored with a hamhock, is enough to put you under the table. There’s also a thick slice of homemade cornbread, and then there’s your entree. Charlie went with the fried chicken and got a full plate of red beans and rice as his side.
I have a hard time describing food, and frankly think that a lot of flavor descriptions border on the pornographic. So let’s just say that this food makes you feel cared for.
And, if you eat the whole thing in one sitting, kinda sleepy.
Charlie and his entree. He always looks that confused.
I wrote a post last week about visiting a long-time haunt in my hometown of Sarasota, how that continuity grounded me. Coming out to Two Sisters again gave me the same feeling. I discovered the original location through an NPR story shortly before I moved down to New Orleans, and it became one of my go-to places for the next few years. Clearly that story had an impact, because I can still remember the owner saying that the name of the restaurant was already in place when she bought it, but that she decided to keep the name after being assured it was good luck. Maybe it was the name that was good luck. Maybe it was just the continuity, the sense that things could change completely in this town and still remain the same.
If you’re going to live in this place, you can’t afford to think any other way.
Two Sister ‘N Da East is located at 9901 Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East. They are open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. They have a Facebook page here.
Also, Irma Thomas is a regular. That fact alone should make this place a culinary destination.
Charlie Halloran plays in a number of bands, including Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns. Go listen to them.