Is there a question as simplistic but simultaneously daunting? It has led me to many panic orders, including chicken wraps and gin and tonics.
If ever there were a moment where I knew exactly what I wanted, it was at 2am at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. It helped that there wasn’t a menu to scour. The only choice we had was how many and whether or not we wanted coffee.
In Chicago, I get burritos as big as my head at La Bamba on Halsted. A place, I’ve sadly discovered is nowhere near as good when sober. But according to the NOLA locals you get yourself some beignets. The fried pillows come fresh out of the oil and under an avalanche of powdered sugar. Our waiter was dressed in a short-sleeved, white oxford shirt and black slacks. Atop his head sat a green and white paper hat that I’ve only seen at doughnut shops. He brought two child-size glasses of water and his eyes widened as he warned us that the doughnuts were extremely hot. You could see the powdered sugar begin to melt into the crispy dough.
I looked around to observe the 2am crowd at the 24-hour NOLA institution, open every day except Christmas. On a tour of Oak Alley plantation, I learned that Jacques Roman’s, the plantation owner, father in law, Gilbert Joseph Pilie, also designed Cafe du Monde. Inside there was a couple sitting in the corner and a few other small groups scattered among the tables. A man was loading up the dishwasher with trays filled with baking equipment. Unlike some sober-up establishments, the patrons here were rather subdued. There was no music playing so all you could hear was the faint traces of a conversation, glasses being set down on the table and the high-pressure water from the rapid dishwasher.
Reaching for the still hot-to-the-touch breakfast/dessert/last meal, I considered gently blowing on the doughnut but had flashbacks of the cocaine scene in Annie Hall. Gingerly I nibbled my teeth into the fried square. As backstory, I have a long history with an inability to correctly breath when eating anything covered in powdered sugar. Seemingly every Christmas when I go to eat snowball cookies I inhale at the wrong time and start coughing. Beignets were no different.
Mercifully, as I worked my way through the rest of the first and second beignets I was able to get a better rhythm for cough-free consumption. As I eyed the final delicious treat, I took a moment to look around again and take it all in, sipping the remaining water from my glass. A new couple had come in and was waiting for their order. All the trays had made it through the dishwasher. Another waiter was filling three coffee cups for one of his tables. He first dispensed about half a cup of milk before topping it to the brim with their chicory-laced coffee. Each time he stopped just in time to have a perfectly full cup. The scene was markedly different from the bustling glut of tourists making their way to 800 Decatur Street as if on a gastronomic pilgrimage.
I had about three bites left and the doughnut’s siblings started to expand in my liquor-filled stomach. My friend was using her finger like a spoon to pick up the remaining powdered sugar and transport it to her mouth. Believing that you never leave good food behind, I lifted the final morsel toward my mouth.
Next time I’m out with friends and we stumble someplace for food and I’m asked “What’ll ya have?” I know my bittersweet first choice would be beignets from Cafe du Monde.