A Hurricane cocktail carries a lot of cultural baggage. There's that unfortunate name, of course, when associated with the recent history of its birthplace, New Orleans. There's the popular conception of the Hurricane as a Bourbon Street party drink, festooned with crazy straws and neon garnishes in a flimsy plastic cup. And then there's the powdered mix that serves as the "official" recipe. But at NOLA Voodoo Tavern just a few blocks north of City Park, the bar does 'em right — cheap, juicy and strong. For $5 at happy hour, you'll get a pour made with dark spiced and light rum, plus a blend of tangy juice, in that iconic lantern-shaped glass. That's how they roll up here in NOLA, a dive bar that isn't divey, but rather a local watering hole with home cooking good enough draw you away from your usual hangouts.
The Tavern was opened a year ago by Henry Batiste, a N'awlins native who chose this spot on Bruce Randolph for his first foray into the service business in years. The tavern opens at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday for lunch, espresso and chicory coffee, then mutates into the neighborhood bar after dusk. Much of the evening is taken up by happy hour, from 4 to 7 and 9 to 10 p.m. Those hours pass in a narrow, brick-lined space covered in the expected French Quarter trappings — beads, Mardi Gras masks, New Orleans Jazz Festival posters — but under Batiste's hand they seem more legit than kitsch.
Here at happy hour, you can get $4 drafts of Abita and Dixie beers (as well as local brews), $3 wells, $2 PBRs and those $5 Hurricanes — these are the bar prices I dream about. After 7 p.m. is a fine time to try the Voodoo Tavern's other New Orleans specialty, the Sazerac ($9.75), the grandfather of cocktails. NOLA does the drink with an anisette wash in place of absinthe, making it more licorice-y than normal but bringing it to earth with good portions of rye and bitters. Drinks are large and pours are generous here, a symbol of good faith.
Cheap eats await at happy hour as well, but these are the sort of things you'd expect from a dive: fries ($1.50), wings ($5 for 6 in house-style, BBQ or hot), $5 cheese bread. The crinkle-cut French fries have that box-to-basket blandness that's familiar to undiscerning barflies the world over. But the NOLA krewe has the recipes of Henry's mother Vivian at hand, earning legitimate props for authentic Creole cuisine. My pal has a serious shellfish allergy, blocking off much of the menu — but if you love crustaceans, time to go nuts.
Vivian's gumbo ($4.95 per cup, $6.95 bowl) commands respect, with a sneaky blend of herbs and spices in a stock made with a dusky roux. Bits of shredded chicken and addictive nuggets of andouille sausage complete the effect, and a portion of shrimp is available for $1 (or $2 for the larger portion). The classic red beans and rice ($4.95 per cup, $6.95 bowl) is similarly satisfying and even heartier, with big beans and fat grains of rice pregnant with flavor. And between this and Bayou Bob's, it seems Cajun fries smothered in crawfish etoufee ($5.95) are indeed a Louisiana tradition, not a new-fangled mashup.
In a neighborhood that rarely comes up in the culinary conversation, the Voodoo Tavern can easily make itself heard. On this early weekday night, the joint was mostly full and the good vibes were pumping, overseen by Batiste himself. Even if this part of town sees the kind of changes that have transformed the areas to the north and south, I hope NOLA will remain standing and serving up that good gumbo.
Perfect For: Sometime in the distant future, the New Orleans Saints may live up to their early-season promise. When that day comes, NOLA Voodoo Tavern would be a fine place to witness it, with its plethora of TVs and receptive crowd.
Don't Miss: Just a few minutes drive from downtown, the Voodoo Tavern packages its gumbo to go, by the cup, bowl or quart ($14.95). You and I both know those Costco tamales will still be good in a week, so put them back in the freezer and treat yourself.