How much would you endure to eat a real muffuletta? My date and I stood on a sweltering August evening, viewing the outdoor seating area at Dive Bar with disdain. A few tables were jammed with drinkers, who slouched in their chairs, their brows and armpits visibly damp with sweat.
The inside was barely cooler. A maze of bars, booths, and raised communal tables confronted us, thronged with patrons in their thirties, as unrecognizable music pounded overhead like incoming fighter planes. After frantically looking for our niche in the crowded room, we spotted a tight two-top near the kitchen. Noting the fire-red walls and Boschian landscape of twisted bodies in various stages of drunkenness, my date quipped: “This looks like Hell.”
We’d braved the Dive Bar on a holy quest for muffuletta, the sainted sandwich of New Orleans. Invented at Central Grocery in the French Quarter in 1906, this Sicilian-American gastrointestinal triumph consists of a round roll piled high with cold cuts, usually including mortadella, capicola, salami, Emmentaler cheese, and provolone. It would seem a pedestrian combination, were it not for the chunky green-olive relish that spreads like a Mississippi oil slick over the inside of the sandwich and the hubcap-size roll on which the sandwich is made, which is cut into four giant wedges at Central Grocery.
Hands trembling in expectation, I went down on the Dive Bar muff. The cold cuts represented a slight reordering of the usual roster, featuring mortadella, Genoa salami, and something dark that tasted like pastrami. Dive Bar’s rendition ($10) was truly magnifíque, and a righteously oily olive salad provided ample lube.
My vegetarian date could only look on skeptically, though she quickly realized that the fries were great, too. But her blasé attitude evaporated the minute her own sandwich arrived. “This is the best vegetarian food I’ve ever had in a bar,” she observed, biting down on her hot meatless Reuben ($9.95), made with sautéed mushrooms instead of pastrami, with sauerkraut-embedded provolone oozing out the sides.
After our initial visit, I returned with a table of hearty eaters, bent on proving that the rest of Dive Bar’s food was similarly excellent. Boy, was I wrong! The Buffalo wings were big and greasy, which is cool, except that their large size was the result of excess breading that had become sodden with hot sauce—which, I hasten to add, wasn’t the traditional Frank’s, but something way more vinegary. Blech! While the signature John Burke burger wasn’t bad, the barbecued brisket might as well have been cardboard, and the poutine was only so-so.
Clearly, my quest wasn’t over. Was there a place that served an equally good muff in a less repulsive setting? On Ninth Avenue’s unbroken row of mediocre restaurants, Delta Grill studies to be a real New Orleans dive, with a gritty décor and restrained selection of Cajun geegaws. As I sat at the bar perusing the menu, I sipped a perfect Sazerac—a 19th-century Creole cocktail of rye whiskey, Peychaud bitters, and absinthe (or, in this case, anise liqueur). My heart leapt when the bartender carried in the sandwich: The bun was perfect, big enough that the sandwich could be ordered by whole or by half. Then I peeked under the bun. Though the cold cuts were right, the olive salad had been reduced to a sour minced slaw with almost no olive flavor.
My next stop was Bourbon Street—not the famous Vieux Carré thoroughfare, but a restaurant of the same name in the theater district. While Delta Grill aimed for a certain loucheness, this place possessed a grandiose décor that recalled the Creole hotel dining rooms of yesteryear. Once again, the muffuletta ($12) deployed the correct constellation of cold cuts, but, alas, the sandwich was torpedoed by its poppy-seeded Kaiser roll, which had all the gustatory appeal of a freshly picked cotton ball. But while the sandwich was disappointing, the other dishes that a friend and I sampled were promising, which included an excellent seafood gumbo thickened with filé powder and flinging off a bit of heat.
The verdict: If you want a real muffuletta, gird your loins and dive into Dive Bar.