12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 11: Nubian Queen Lola’s
Hours: Breakfast 8 to 10 a.m. Monday-Friday. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and 5 to 8:45 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
If this were Yelp instead of the real world, you’d see one throbbing star and an indignant “WTF?” thrown in. What do you mean Nubian Queen Lola’s is knocking off at 3 o’clock on a day it's supposed to be open? What, to do God’s work? Well ... yes. It was a Wednesday, and that’s Lola Stephens’ day to spread the gospel through her talk show on AM 1060. Eating at Lola’s is never a sure thing. Those hours of operation are more like a suggestion, and even her website advises you to call her cell, because she might have forgotten to unlatch the front door.
A guy ahead of me was glad to have gotten the day’s last plate of food. He’s from New Orleans, he said, but he’s living at the Salvation Army downtown for now. Lola’s reminds him of NOLA, he said, and he likes Sundays here the best. That’s when Stephens feeds homeless people for free behind her purple-bricked building.
The purple comes inside to help Lola’s celebrate Mardi Gras all year long with icicle strings of beads. The one-room shop with the kitchen in back has toned down from a few years ago, when I saw a diaper and a Muslim prayer card hanging from these beads and an altar to President Obama in the back. You can still buy an African American Santa Claus, a Saints mug and a hand-tooled leather Longhorns purse from the shelves by the register. Stephens recognized me from the near-miss of the radio day, and she said thank you for coming back with a taste of gentle chicken-and-sausage gumbo the color of old gold made even better by leaving the chicken bones in.
What you’re eating: Crawfish etouffee with red beans and rice and stewed cabbage ($8.95). The beans and cornbread could secede from this plate and form their own sovereign lunch, both of them amplified, sturdier versions of themselves, with beans lost in thought to thick red gravy with tomato, onion and dark spice. The cabbage is so hot it curls the styrofoam plate, and it’s as spicy and toasted ochre-yellow as sweet-hot Chinese mustard. An iridescent swamp of cayenne, bell pepper, celery, butter and pepper flows through the etouffee, heavily fed by brackish tributaries that wash over the tiny, angry-red crawfish tails. It’s a plate that’s a queen in this place even if it would have trouble proving royal lineage in less-forgiving courts.
What you’re drinking: Lola’s Cajun tea ($2), a cold and sweet Kool-Aide style drink the color of grapefruit pulp that tastes like rose-water punch.
Other options: I had the best fried chicken-wing dinner of my career here, with heat curling off stewed greens and black-eyed peas beside a kneeling statue of black Jesus. Lola’s also serves breakfast all day, with Mother’s Cajun Breakfast Rice, egg tacos and a porkchop with grits and eggs ($2.59-$7.50). Along with etouffee and porkchops, the regular menu carries fried shrimp and catfish, po’ boys and burgers. Plates run $7.95-$10.95.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)