Elevating collard greens to a new level
After one bite of my sandwich, I felt like everything I ever knew about food was a lie. I could not believe what I was eating. The first bite must not have been real. But bite two was the same. And bite three.
Now, I’m starting to believe. I’m sitting at the counter, dining alone, shortly after the restaurant’s 11am opening. I need to talk to somebody. I need somebody to acknowledge that I’m there, to help me verify that I’m actually eating a collard green sandwich, and that it’s one of the best things I’ve tasted all year.
As a food runner passes by, I get her attention, but I struggle to form words. I’m just staring blankly and pointing at my half-eaten sandwich. She nods understandingly.
The question in my mind is “HOWWWWWW?!?!” but I don’t ask it. I eventually stammer something. I want to know what magic was performed on these collard greens. No meat is involved, I’m told. And while it doesn’t simmer in any pork fat, the food runner assures me that she’s “not gonna lie” and “there’s a lot of butter in there.”
I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding this sandwich, but I’ve also now been distracted from it for a few minutes. It’s time to refocus and savor every bite of the Collard Green Melt at Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans.
New Orleans hosts a better party than any place in America. The city loves to eat, drink, dance, and entertain, and you can’t go more than a few weeks without some kind of festival or celebration. Mardi Gras beads hang from trees and fence posts year round. One of its many nicknames is the “city that care forgot.”
The famous Cajun and Creole cuisine draws heavily from old traditions and pairs perfectly with the Crescent City’s unique architecture, giant Oak trees, and incomparable charm.
It’s a city of longstanding food institutions. Café du Monde opened in 1862, Commander’s Palace started serving turtle soup in 1893, and Antoine’s is the oldest family-run restaurant in America — having opened in 1840.
But New Orleans is also a sandwich town. Shrimp, oyster, and roast beef po boys are essential elements of the food culture. And visitors and locals still line up for muffaletta sandwiches — a combination of cured meats, cheeses, and olive salad on a round, seeded bun. The original version, from Central Grocery in the French Quarter, dates back more than a century.
The Vietnamese community that settled in New Orleans East brought bahn mi sandwiches (Vietnamese po boys as they’re called in New Orleans and nowhere else) with them. And like all great New Orleanians, Vietnamese chefs, home cooks, and store owners drew inspiration from the energy around them. Vietnamese food in the region continues to evolve, increasingly overlapping with other New Orleans traditions.
And now, having opened in August 2016, Turkey and the Wolf has joined the likes of Central Grocery, Domilise’s, Parkway Bakery, and Dong Phuong at the highest levels of the New Orleans sandwich scene. Bon Appétit Magazine even named it the best new restaurant in America in 2017.
Collard greens are a classic accompaniment, eaten by millions of Americans. In the right hands, there’s no doubt they can be delicious, but they aren’t typically the star of the show. They’re a side dish, something you may have been forced to eat as a kid, or the one obligatory green item you add to your plate at the end of the buffet. The best ones you ate were likely simmering in a generous portion of pork fat.
If you don’t think you love collard greens, try Turkey and the Wolf’s sandwich anyway. Braised collard greens are piled on three slices of rye bread with melted Swiss cheese, an onion and cabbage slaw, and a brilliant concoction of Duke’s Mayonnaise blended with pickled cherry peppers.
Turkey and the Wolf successfully manages to tap into restaurant trends that are often in competition. The uptown location is casual and relatable, but with gourmet touches that impress everyone from national food critics to unsuspecting patrons. You could walk in with every living generation of your family and the 100-year old, the five-year old, and everybody in between would enjoy it.
Their work spans the entire spectrum of available ingredients. On one sandwich, they’re spreading Ocean Spray cranberry sauce on a roll, then carefully adding layers of ham smoked in-house for eight hours.
On another sandwich, they top homemade bologna with American cheese and potato chips. A popular side dish is deviled eggs, served with a piece of crispy, fried chicken skin. The restaurant’s instagram account invites you to #gethighandstoponby for their food, though you don’t have to be stoned to enjoy it.
Turkey and the Wolf is the sandwich shop of our time — an unpretentious setting that doesn’t sacrifice any flavor, and an improvement on the fast-casual formats often devoid of character and personality. It simultaneously serves comfort, laughter, and inspiration.
It’s owned and operated by 20-somethings and 30-somethings, and weird in a way that still makes you feel welcome. It’s clearly a place that cares deeply about its home city, the uncompromising quality of its food, and the inclusive atmosphere it creates.
I haven’t eaten anything else this year, or maybe ever, that even resembles the Collard Green Melt. But I’m already searching for my next plane ticket back to New Orleans for round two.