NEW ORLEANS – During trips to cover the BCS championship game and the Final Four in 2012, even Tom Robbins would admire the way I ate my way through NOLA to keep the leg-humping hunger beast at bay. I consumed Po’ Boys, gumbo, boudin, rabbit, lamb, alligator and the porcine delicacy the French call cochon de lait. But those who have followed this little endeavor for any length of time know that no matter how delicious a city’s local cuisine, I always want to know how that town treats my first and only true love.
So, about 13 hours after all the confetti had been swept away following Kentucky’s national title game win against Kansas last April, I walked east from Canal Street on Chartres, and I kept walking. Under a cloudless sky, the wrought iron of the French Quarter gave way to the Technicolor paintjobs of the Marigny. After another few minutes, houses gave way to the warehouses and scrapyards of the Bywater. The tourists faded away, and then most of the locals faded away, too. In the Bywater, the only sounds came from the birds. Even the tanker moored on the river seemed frozen, another element in a still life tribute to the innards of the city.
After two and a half miles, I turned left on Mazant Street and saw the plume of smoke. The surrounding streets may have been deserted, but The Joint throbbed with the sound of a four-plays-for-a-dollar jukebox late in the lunch hour. Diners packed the bar, the dining room and the patio. The brisket and the sausage were already sold out, but no one seemed to mind. Probably because they were eating the ribs.
The Joint is the second barbecue restaurant I’ve come across that answers The Eternal Question on its menu. (The other is Elmer’s in Tulsa, Okla.) What is The Eternal Question? It was originally posed by Chris Rock in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
How much for one rib?
At The Joint, the answer as of April 2012 was $2.75. I attempted to add two individual ribs to my two-meat (ribs and pork) combo, but the cashier was kind enough to quickly do the math for me and determine that a three-meat combo (pork and double ribs) would save me a couple bucks. My savings joined what I had originally intended to tip, because that kind of customer service – and mathematic competency – should be commended at all times. Besides, I should have hugged the cashier for working at a place that makes thick, juicy ribs rubbed so expertly as to render sauce an unnecessary distraction.
The pulled pork, baked beans and mac and cheese held up well, too. The NOLA residents I dined with on my trip had warned me that the city didn’t take barbecue as seriously as towns in the Deep South and Texas, but that simply wasn’t true. The Joint would have a line out the door in those places.
That makes sense. If I learned anything while clogging my arteries here, it’s that almost everyone who dares hang a shingle and serve food in this Crock Pot of a city cooks with a fierce civic pride. The cooks tending the pit at The Joint care just as deeply about serving a good meal as the staffs at Commander’s Palace or Jacques-Imo’s.
This is one of the more impressive attributes of a city that has been through hell and continues to rebuild itself. So many people care so much. In the culinary community, they act as if serving a bad meal would dishonor New Orleans. So they pour their souls into every dish.
They should be proud. The city may have lost her innocence a long time ago, but her gustatory virtue remains intact.