Great Escapes

04.06.14

The Hunt for New Orleans’s Secret Dish

A century ago, calas were a breakfast staple in The Big Easy. But they had been relegated to history, until one couple stumbled across a laid-back café keeping the old tradition alive.

Most of New Orleans’ signature dishes are widely known. Foodies have a field day comparing and contrasting the city’s boundless varieties of po-boys, gumbos, étouffés, and pralines. But when it comes to the unique Crescent City dish known as calas, hardly anybody knows what it is; and as far as we can tell, there is just one place left that serves it: a laid-back vintage French Quarter cafe called The Old Coffee Pot.

Calas are deep-fried rice balls, eaten for breakfast. The Old Coffee Pot, which spells them callas, with two L’s, serves a foursome with or without pecans and smothered in powdered sugar. The heavy white dusting makes them vaguely resemble the beignets (French donuts) served at Café du Monde and Morning Call Coffee stands, always accompanied by café au lait. But the resemblance to beignets is only superficial. Calas are dense and creamy-centered, not unlike Italian arancini. A thick, leathery exterior makes chewing them as much fun as tasting them. They are one robust foodstuff, the yeasty starch of the long grain rice contrasting with a vivid lacing of sweet spices (nutmeg? cinnamon?) and that fluffy crown of powdered sugar. The quartet is presented with a pitcher of syrup, which the waiter advises we apply “temperately, but not timidly.” On the plate along with the four calas is a large spill of thick, creamy grits—a welcome, dairy-rich addition when you realize just how sweet calas are with all that sugar and syrup and spice.

The Old Coffee Pot opens at 8 a.m., and the first time we stopped in, calas were slated to be just one of our many meals on a daylong restaurant crawl around New Orleans. The plan was to reserve our appetites by sampling just one cala cake before we moved on to breakfast number two. But as we laid waste to the plateful, we loved them more and more. The process of separating a small bite-sized piece with equal amounts of rugged, chewy skin and creamy filling, then gathering just the right amount of powdered sugar and pushing this through the syrup, and finally adding a small clump of grits yielded such satisfying forkfuls that, by the end of breakfast, we were hunting every last grain of rice and spot of sugar on the ravaged plate.

Many native New Orleanians we spoke with had never heard of calas, and, in all the years we have eaten our way through this food-rich city, we had never previously encountered them, assuming they were a bygone specialty relegated to history books. It was in those books that we learned you couldn’t visit this part of town a century ago without hearing the early morning cries of the calas women selling their goods on the street to Vieux Carre denizens who ate them with their grits and grillades. As described by the 1928 Picayune Creole Cookbook, a calas woman would go around “in quaint bandana tignon, guinea blue dress and white apron, and carried on her head a covered bowl, in which were the dainty and hot calas. Her cry, ‘Belle Cala! Tout Chaud!’ would penetrate the morning air, and the Creole cooks would rush to the doors to get the first fresh, hot calas to go with the early morning cup of coffee.”

Today at the Old Coffee Pot, which used to be known as Maxy’s Coffee Pot and has been serving breakfast since the heyday of the calas women (it opened in 1894), the historic and delicious rice balls are the lead item on a breakfast menu that also features such better-known Creole eye-openers as pain perdu (French-bread French toast) and eggs sardou (poached, atop spinach and artichokes, topped with hollandaise sauce).

“You couldn’t visit this part of town a century ago without hearing the early morning cries of the calas women selling their goods on the street.”

We enjoyed breakfast at this offbeat old cafe so much that we returned for lunch, which was a primer in traditional New Orleans cookery: chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, seafood gumbo chockfull of crab and shrimp, smoky jambalaya with blackened redfish, and a whole roster of po-boy sandwiches. We loved the red beans and rice, served of course with a length of smoky sausage, and we were particularly smitten with the classic Creole dessert, bread pudding. The menu advises that the pudding is made from a recipe created by Mrs. Pearl, a 50-plus year employee in the Old Coffee Pot kitchen. It is luxuriously eggy, more like custard than bread, and it is topped with an intoxicating flourish of whiskey sauce.

Perhaps we were just lucky, but each of the three times we ate at The Old Coffee Pot, a member of the staff spontaneously broke out in a cappella song while cruising the dining room or straightening up tables on the al-fresco patio. At breakfast, it was Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)"; during our first lunch we were treated to a volley of unidentifiable, mesmerizing, scat jazz improv; and the last time we visited, the serenade was a drumming-on-the-tables, tapping-on-the-floor version of “Down at the Twist and Shout”—just the right accompaniment to a good-and-true Louisiana meal.

The Old Coffee Pot: 714 St. Peter St., New Orleans, LA. 504-524-3500.