The signature dishes of New Orleans are widely known, and those of us who eat our way around the city face an incalculable array of po boys, gumbos, étouffés, and jambalayas. But the city specialty known as calas are something else. Few people know what they are, and not counting the handful of chefs who put them on the menu as a tribute to Creole tradition, just one place we know regularly serves them: The Old Coffee Pot in the French Quarter.
Calas are deep-fried rice balls, served for breakfast. The Coffee Pot (which spells them callas, with two L's) plates them in fours, with or without pecans, smothered with powdered sugar. The heavy white dusting makes them look like a quartet of beignets, but the resemblance is only superficial. Calas are dense and creamy-centered like Italian arancini, and they sport a leathery exterior that makes chewing them as much fun as tasting them. The starchy rice of which they are made is counterpointed by a fusillade of sweet spices (nutmeg? cinnamon?) and that fluffy hail of powdered sugar. They are served along with a large spill of thick, creamy grits and a pitcher of syrup to pour on for extra sweetness.
I found the process of forking a small bite-size piece from the ball, rounding up just the right amount of powdered sugar and pushing this through the syrup, then finally gathering a small clump of grits made such excellent forkfuls that despite my intention of eating moderately, I wound up hunting every last grain of rice and spot of sugar on the plate by the time breakfast was done.
Rice balls are the lead item on a breakfast menu that also features such better-known Creole eye-openers as pain perdu (French bread French toast) and eggs sardou (poached, atop spinach and artichokes, topped with hollandaise sauce). Lunch specialties in this unassuming cafe, which opened for business in 1894, are a primer in south Louisiana classics: chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, seafood gumbo of crab and shrimp, jambalaya with blackened redfish, and a roster of po boy sandwiches. And, of course, bread pudding. The menu advises that the pudding served here is made from a recipe created by Mrs. Pearl, a 50+ year employee in the Old Coffee Pot kitchen. It is luxuriously eggy, more like custard than bread, and it is topped with an intoxicating flourish of whiskey sauce.
"Calas cakes are served in fours, accompanied by creamy grits. They come with powdered sugar on top and a pitcher of syrup to pour on as you like it."
"When this restaurant opened, calas cakes were a common French Quarter snack to go with morning coffee. They were sold by ladies who strolled the streets with trays full of hot ones, calling out 'Belle Calla, Tout Chaud!'"
"The Old Coffee Spot is an inconspicuous cafe in the French Quarter, on St. Peter St. between Bourbon and Royal."
"An interior courtyard offers semi-alfresco dining."
"8am: the streets have just been hosed down and the Old Coffee Pot is ready to open."