Juiced up Jaques-imos

     While in N-Aw-leans we asked around about the best places to eat.  Our B&B host kept telling me about
uptown kinds of places, great cuisine surely, but in each case he’d cast a quick glance at me and say something
about jacket and tie and “Well, you might get in dressed the way you are.”  That was not what we were looking for.
     After we toured the city on bikes, our tour-leader, Moussa, named a few restaurants and I knew right away
we had to eat at Jaques-imos.  (“Jock-i-mo-s”—I could hear Dr. John singing that jumping refrain in “Iko, Iko.”)
Moussa said, “Now, it’s just a little hole-in-the-wall place, in an out-of-the-way neighborhood.  And it’s kind of
crowded and loud. You’ll have to wait for a table, and you have to be comfortable with elbow to elbow people ...”
And so on in that vein.
     I said, “Do we have to dress for this place?”
     Moussa laughed.
     He told us that we’d recognize the place when we saw a bizarrely painted pickup out front.  He said one
night the place had been packed and some people wanted a table and there wasn’t one, so Jacques set up a table
and chairs in the back of his pickup out front, asked them if that would do, and served them out there.  It’s become
legendary, part of the ambience ever since.
     We drove a ways west on St. Charles Ave., past Tulane and Loyola to the end of St. Charles where it
bumps into the levee, and turned right on S. Carrollton.  Went six blocks north and turned left on Oak St., back
toward the river a few blocks, to a neighborhood that Marcia did not like at all.  A place that if gentrification ever
hits, about half the folks who live there will have to catch a bus or get their car off blocks to go find a new home.
But there was the wild pickup out front, looking like you could park it in a swamp and use it as a duck blind—if
the ducks were color-blind.
     Parking was not to be had in front of Jaques-imos—it’s that popular.  And we circled around the block
and parked on a side street.  If I’d been less insistent, you could not have pried Marcia out of the car.  I tried to
explain: down-at-the-heels does not in any way equal knife-wielding thugs lurking.  It looked to me like a
neighborhood where people go to work and come home, if they have work.
     Walking past a hardware store, we could hear Jaques-imos on the sidewalk before we reached it.  The
music inside was a jumping, happening sound that made me feel old—I didn’t recognize any of it.  We squeezed
ourselves into the crowd inside and took our bearings.  We faced the end of the bar to the right, and on the left
there was a bench and maybe a few chairs along the wall.  With a shoe-horn approach we sidled through the crowd
toward a girl at a podium at the far end who was taking names for tables.
     “HOW MANY?” she called to me.
     “TWO,” I yelled.
     “CB.” (I waited for the usual “Steve?” but she heard right and wrote “CB” on her sheet.)
     Rather than shout anymore, I smiled and gave her a thumbs-up.”  (If it’s only one thumb? . . . but “I gave
her a thumb up” has all the wrong ring to it.)
     Then we made our way through to the least crowded spot, near the end of the bar where wait-staff were
picking up drinks to take back to the restaurant.  Moussa had told us: the bar is in front, and you have to walk
through the kitchen to get to the restaurant tables in the back.  Just behind the girl at the podium were a few steps
leading up to the kitchen, and it was a wild scene.
     Both the young guys tending bar had their hands full, but they seemed to enjoy their work, and they kept a
running patter while handling bottles and glassware like baton twirlers.  I don’t know how they, or anyone they
were talking to, could hear over the racket, but then that’s me.
     I got us a couple of beers.
     After a little, several people in their twenties or thirties, four women and two guys, wedged into seats at a
table next to us.  A guy at the table got Marcia’s attention, a big, solid, good-looking guy in a teeshirt, with tatooed
arm, Cajun accent.  He started talking to her.  I couldn’t hear but an occasional word.  So I drank my beer and
looked the place over.  Soon, a knot of people near the far end of the bar and toward the front door went wild with
hooting and cheering and clapping.  I turned to Marcia but she was still leaning over listening to the guy at the
table and nodding every so often.
     Then I saw a bartender pouring Bushmills, my brand of Irish whiskey, a couple of fingers deep into one
after another of plastic cups and handing them out.  When he got to our end of the bar I asked what was up.
“CHEF CALLED FOR ‘BUSHMILLS FOR EVERYONE,’” he said.  I got my Bushmills.
     Then Marcia, confab finished, turned back toward me.   I asked, “WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?”
She said the guy had asked her, Have you eaten here before?  (No.) Well, you’ve come to the right place, he said.
It turns out he’s a chef (at one of those upscale places).  He pointed to the other guy at the table and said, “He’s a
chef too.  This is where we come to eat.”  He had recommended a whole string of dishes, although she said she
didn’t get them all because of his thick accent.  He said the duck and shrimp gumbo was “to die for.”  As was the
andouille alligator cheesecake, and a few others.
     She gestured toward a paperback lying on the table in front of this guy’s chef buddy.  The book, he had
explained, is by that guy over there, and pointed to a tall guy across the room whose picture was on the book cover.
Seeing him here, for a chef, he explained, was like seeing Elvis.  I picked up the book and looked at it: Kitchen
Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain.  Blurbs on the back compared
Bourdain to Hunter S. Thompson, and Iggy Pop, and referred to a behind-the-kitchen door scene where drugged
out, liquored up, wigged out malcontents, cuisine-artists, and social fringe types plied their trade; the book written
by one of their own.  Bourdain now had a TV show on the Food Network, and was here to shoot a segment.
     I’d seen a short, bearded guy emerge from the kitchen dressed in a waste-length white jacket, surfer
shorts, and those slip-on shoes that are open behind the heels.  He hadn’t waddled, but he walked like someone
who was little concerned with propriety.  He, Jaques, the chef of Jaques-imos, was talking to Bourdain.
     I told Marcia about Jacques’ Bushmills-on-the-house, and she said the big guy told her that he’s always
doing stuff like that, offering free this and samples of that.
     Marcia was warming to the place.  With two or three beers and some Bushmills in me I was warm too.
     I heard my name shouted extra loud and we followed someone carefully through the kitchen, which was
steaming hot.  It looked and sounded like a dance being held on a factory floor.
     From the kitchen we went down a few steps into an area that was less hectic than the kitchen and quieter
than the bar.  There was a lengthy list of choices on the menu.  The shrimp and duck gumbo was served in a bread
bowl, we learned, and it was an appetizer that would feed two.  Ordering was a painful exercise of passing up one
thing to go with another.
     I got the andouille alligator cheesecake, which was very good.  Beyond that, neither of us remember
exactly what fish entrees we ate, but it was excellent fare.  The salad mixed greens with fried oyster and crab.  And
there was a great chocolate dessert.  If I ate like that often I’d be three feet thick.
     We left thru the kitchen again.
     The crush up front at the bar had subsided a little, but it was still loud and close in there.  Out front the
night wasn’t quite quiet.  Seated on either side of the table in the back of the pickup were Bourdain and Jaques the
chef, drinks in hand and talking.  A camera operator squatted in the pickup filming them, and another was focused
on them from the sidewalk.  Other crew hung nearby.
     As we walked toward our car the pickup revved up and veered into the street, passing by us with the two
chefs carrying on in back and the camera trained on them.  The other camera man on foot followed them to the
corner, where the pickup turned and headed down the block.  As Marcia and I turned toward our car a somewhat
breathless woman with a notebook ran up behind us, a producer I guess.  She wondered out loud if she should
follow down the block or return to the storefront.
     We left the scene.

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