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Where Y’Eat: To Sustain Black-Owned Community Space Backatown, Food Steps Forward

Ian McNulty
Backatown Coffee Parlour in New Orleans, with tables spaced for social distancing.

You’ve had BBQ shrimp six ways to Sunday. How about BBQ crawfish? Served over grits, buttery, boldly spicy, just a bit sweet, it's a signature flavor at Backatown Coffee Parlour. It’s also part of an effort to sustain a singular black-owned community space through the coronavirus crisis so that it can return to its original purpose, one badly in need now.

Backatown Coffee Parlour was never just about the coffee. Jessica and Alonzo Knox developed their Basin Street café at a crossroads between the Treme neighborhood where they live and the French Quarter and CBD, where so many people work and visit.

It was a place for people to meet, talk, brainstorm together. That’s something the Knoxes know people are searching for more with issues of justice, equality and change coursing through the community.
Backatown opened in 2017 and was hitting a stride. But after the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site last fall business slowed. When the pandemic hit, business practically ceased. No one was commuting downtown, no one was meeting in person.
The answer was to focus on takeout food and delivery in the interim, and it's making a difference.
The menu is short but full of stories. When Jessica was growing up in Mississippi, sweet potatoes cut fresh from the field were a staple of family gatherings. So palm-sized sweet potato pies with crimped, flaky crusts have a place of honor in the Backatown pastry case.
Alonzo is fixated with all things crawfish. Which brings us back to that BBQ crawfish, a unique cross between BBQ shrimp and grillades and grits. The peppery spice hits just a beat after the first bite, the sauce coats the mouth, a sweet tang ends the progression of flavor.

Jessica initially chided her husband that the dish was too spicy, that it might turn off the tourists wandering over from the nearby hotels. But for now, with Backatown serving locals almost exclusively, bold seems like the right play.

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