The Best Beignets in New Orleans Are in Baton Rouge
What you need to know about Coffee Call is that it is everything you want from your first visit to New Orleans, everything that you want from your first experience with the iconic local breakfast (or anytime snack) of café au lait and beignets. The coffee is coffee-chicory, as has been the style for the longest time—rich and strong, and freshly roasted in-house; with the addition of sticky, hot milk, you could almost stand your spoon up in the diner mug that you will drink it from. Beignets, or beignet fingers, and you will try both and decide which one is right for you, nearly always come out fried to order; very hot, cooked through precisely, not a hint of frying oil clinging to them, and with a nice bit of chew that speaks to fermentation, and to somebody giving a damn about the dough.
For a coffee, which comes with a free refill if you are staying, and you ought to, just to get everything that’s coming to you, along with a small portion of fried dough, which is not so small at all, you will pay something just over five dollars, and there will be no tourists around you, and at certain times of the day only a few other patrons sneaking in for a treat, and you will wonder, why is everyone not here, why is this not the most famous place for coffee and donuts in New Orleans, except that if you are here, you already know the answer to that. Coffee Call isn’t located in New Orleans at all; you will find it an hour away, traffic permitting, in Louisiana’s capital city, Baton Rouge, in an otherwise very average strip mall on the southwestern edge of the town.
I found myself at Coffee Call, once again, on a recent Monday, and this happened because my day had begun, much further down I-10, in the French Quarter, in classic New Orleans style—with beignets, and a twinge of disappointment. Because it was very early, too early, and also because it was raining, and because their hotel was just around the corner, I asked a first-time visitor to meet me for breakfast at Cafe Beignet, on Royal Street.
The French Quarter is many things, but it is not much of an early riser; first thing, Cafe Beignet can be a pleasurable experience, a port in a storm, and it certainly held a lot of promise that morning. Warm, cozy, doors opened wide to welcome sodden passersby, the first busker of the day was already strumming his guitar under the eaves, the smell of strong coffee wafted outward, and anybody uninitiated would think themselves terribly lucky to have landed a part in this simple but simply beautiful tableau. Surely, here was something to tell the folks at home about, and there were open tables, not many, but some, and everyone was sitting down, us included, waiting for coffee and donuts to be delivered, and then they came out, and in an instant, the peace had been shattered. There’s no kind way to say this—both were awful.
This did not surprise me; very early into a long relationship with New Orleans-style café au lait and beignets, I learned that the best in New Orleans will rarely to be found where most visitors go looking. Most will content themselves with the original Cafe du Monde, established in 1862 in the city’s French Market, just across Jackson Square from the St. Louis Cathedral, and all things considered, you could not ask for a more potent hit of historic New Orleans to start your day with, down here at the very bottom of the Quarter.
This goes a long way toward explaining why so many people choose to overlook the outrageously erratic quality standards that Cafe du Monde seems to have settled for, rather easily, too easily, over time. Sometimes the beignets come out flaccid, obviously raw in the middle. Other times they are bewilderingly dry, with sawdust notes, and could it be that they’ve gotten smaller and smaller, as the years go by? (Honestly, they’re doing you a favor.)
The old-style service in the cooler confines of the indoor cafe can be a treat on a sweltering morning, even heartening sometimes; the coffee can be downright delicious, when it wants to be. (On many days, will typically leave no lasting impact beyond the slight burning sensation on your tongue.) The beignets, well, oh dear—possibly the least essential in the city, and that’s saying something.
At least there’s some puff to them, typically; Cafe Beignet’s are sometimes presented as nearly-flattened rectangles, laden with oil, and accompanied by too-often acrid coffee that tastes of heat, and nothing much else.
Fortunately, since 1870, locals had an alternative, for many of them the vastly preferred one, in the form of Morning Call, originally located a stone’s throw from Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street. Much later in life, Morning Call made its home in suburban Metairie, out of sight and out of mind for most visitors.
At Morning Call, the coffee was poured to order, the way our forebears intended, one stream of strong, smoky coffee chicory colliding with another of good-quality steamed milk, and the beignets, made from a sourdough mix, were full of life and puff and flavor and chew, and you’d never be so happy to walk away covered in confectioners sugar.
For a time, Morning Call even became a city dweller, once again, forsaking Metairie for a new, 24/7 spot inside a handsome historic concession building, opposite the New Orleans Museum of Art, up in City Park. This put them back on the tourist trail, and apparently, this was not something Cafe du Monde was about to take lying down, because when the lease on the building came up for renewal, after a particularly grueling bidding war and ensuing court battle, Cafe du Monde ended up with the keys to the building, and suddenly Morning Call was out in the street with its things, and apart from a couple of bright and bright-ish spots (Vintage on Magazine Street, the New Orleans Coffee & Beignet Company in the Warehouse District on a good day), New Orleans overnight sort of became Cafe du Monde’s world, and we’ve just been living in it, hanging on to every shred of news about Morning Call’s new home, and where it might be located (Mid-City, sounds like), and when it might be open for business (who can say).
Personally, particularly when showing first-time visitors around, I don’t find waiting around patiently to be an option—I’m happy to make the quick trip up to Baton Rouge, where the experience at Coffee Call is typically as good, often better than previous experiences at Morning Call. Open until midnight all week long, and the full 24 hours on weekends, you can show up pretty much any time you like; the room is big and bright, with bright blue walls and lots of warm lighting, and everything smells like fresh coffee and fried dough. They do food, too, if you can’t be bothered to leave—po’ boys, there’s a salad bar even, though if you’ve come all this way, you might as well dive right into the restaurant scene.
This is no New Orleans, but there’s still a great deal to like, from the quirky and approachable Bellue’s, to the legendary Chicken Shack, or even the Cajun-style BBQ across the river at Cou-Yon’s, not to mention the up-and-coming scene along Government Street, including the White Star Market food hall. Not that you need to justify your drive—until Morning Call returns, you’ll find me at Coffee Call any time I’m in New Orleans and the craving strikes. For some things, you don’t ask how long the drive is going to be—you just get in the car and you go.