You wouldn't know it from looking at the outside, but Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans is said to serve some of the best fried chicken in America.
The little lunch spot was originally started as a bar in the 1940s — but when proprietor Willie Mae Seaton started serving fried chicken 30 years ago, the food simply took over.
Willie Mae's, open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week, stands on a distressed corner in the city's Treme neighborhood. Fifteen minutes before opening time, out-of-state vehicles and taxis start bumping down St. Anne, a battered road warped from bearing waist-deep water for weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
Tourists, food critics, reporters and local chicken connoisseurs pick past abandoned buildings to reach the culinary landmark.
Seaton, now 92, blends the flavors of her native Mississippi with the Creole influences of New Orleans, and her fried chicken recipe comes from a mysterious someone she's never identified — even to her family.
Her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton, says the secret is a wet batter seasoned only with salt and pepper, which keeps the skin crispy and the meat creamy. In 2005, Seaton won an "America's Classic" award from the James Beard Foundation, which recognizes local restaurants that carry on the traditions of great regional cuisine.
Just months after she received the Beard award, Seaton's restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Seaton packed up her bronze medal and evacuated, first to Shreveport, La., then to Houston.
Then, anxious about her business, she boarded a plane without telling her family and made her way back to New Orleans — where police from the city's homeless division found her huddled in front of her restaurant.
"She told them about the James Beard award, and they called the James Beard Foundation and the James Beard Foundation called me," says Lolis Eric Elie, a friend of Willie Mae's and a founding director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The group recruited foodies from all over the country to volunteer to rebuild Willie Mae's.
"It was a hell of a deal we offered them," Elie says. "We said, 'You pay your own transportation, you pay your own hotel, we give you one meal a day, and you work 10 hours a day.' And folks did it."
It took three years and more than $200,000 in private donations to get Willie Mae's Scotch House back in business. On opening night in April 2007, Seaton was helped out in the kitchen by two James Beard award-winning chefs, Ann Cashion and John Fleer. A James Beard nominee, James Currence, waited tables.
"Based on that kind of firepower," says Elie, "this was the best restaurant in America that day."
You'll find raging debates over New Orleans' fried chicken on a number of online food boards, and Willie Mae's has its share of detractors. Some visitors complain about the recent hype, the long wait and the irregular hours.
So when I paid a visit to Willie Mae's Scotch House with NPR producer Emily Ochsenschlager, we tried to keep our expectations in check. But we found ourselves transported into a state of fried-chicken bliss.
"This can't be just salt and pepper," Ochsenschlager said. "Maybe it's salt, pepper and crack."
Whatever it is, the fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House lives up to the business ambitions of the 92-year-old's great-granddaughter. Kerry Seaton now acts as cook, business manager and spokesperson for Willie Mae.
The younger Seaton has been mentored by renowned New Orleans chefs such as John Besh. She'd like to open another restaurant, perhaps in the French Quarter — and maybe, someday, make Willie Mae's Scotch House a national franchise.