The verdict is in! I finally tried the two most famous fried chicken dishes in NOLA to determine which is better: Willie Mae or Dooky Chase. Which will it be?!
The last time I was in NOLA was summer 2016. I went to Dooky Chase's with my then-boyfriend from New Zealand. We gobbled down a buffet of Dooky's best, including her famous fried chicken. We loved it. But then we went to the airport later on and a fellow traveler told us Willie Mae's was better. Talk about #regrets!
So, upon arriving in New Orleans for a second time, Willie Mae's had to be on my agenda. I checked into my accommodation and I hopped in an Uber and sped over to the neighborhood of Treme. Now I can tell you which I think is the better dining experience.
Who are Willie Mae Seaton and Leah Chase?
First, allow me to provide a little background on both of these amazing African-American women.
Both Willie Mae Seaton and Leah Chase are famous chefs with restaurants located 1 block away from each other in New Orleans. In 2015, Willie Mae Seaton died at 99 years old. Meanwhile, Leah Chase is still kickin' at 95 years old.
Willie Mae was born in Mississippi but lived in New Orleans since World War II. In 1957, she turned her beauty shop into a bar serving a house drink of scotch and milk. This is why her restaurant's full name is Willie Mae's Scotch House.
At the smell of her cooking, customers encouraged her to open a restaurant. She started serving a wet batter fried chicken that made her famous.
Willie Mae liked to keep to herself throughout her life. She did not have her establishment's address printed in the local paper or her photo taken. It wasn't until 2005 that she decided to be more public when she accepted an "America's Classic" award in New York from the James Beard Foundation.
Leah Chase was born in New Orleans and raised in Madisonville, Louisiana. She returned to New Orleans for high school and then married a musician named Edgar "Dooky" Chase. Together, they converted his parents' po-boy selling street corner stand into the sit-down restaurant it is today. The menu reflected the Creole recipes she grew up with, including her fried chicken.
Willie Mae is famous for her restaurant and cooking. Meanwhile, Leah is also famous for her activism in the Civil Rights Movement.
People of color gathered at Dooky Chase's to organize. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders met at Dooky Chase's to learn about and plan the bus boycotts.
The Chicken Itself
I arrived at Willie Mae's on a Thursday afternoon after the lunch rush. I sat down at the bar and looked over the menu. There was only one option for fried chicken which included 3-pieces of chicken and one choice of side.
The server told me I couldn't order fewer pieces of chicken—3 was the standard. By the time I finished eating, I was glad they forced that amount on me. The chicken was far too good not to have all 3 pieces! The woman serving me laughed and said, "Everybody always ends up eating all three anyway!"
I ate the fried chicken at Dooky Chase's over a year ago. But I remember it was less spicy and slightly less flavourful than the chicken at Willie Mae's. Nevertheless, both were the perfect amount of moist on the inside.
The only other difference I could recall was that Dooky Chase's chicken wasn't greasy at all. I had to wipe my hands a bit more with Willie Mae's chicken. But it was a very minimal, finger-licking kind of greasy! And somehow the crust was still light and flaky the way I remember it being at Dooky's.
The Verdict: Both win it for me. They were delicious in their own way. But if you like your chicken a tad spicier and wetter, go with Willie Mae's.
The Other Food
I tried the mac and cheese side at Willie Mae's as well as her corn bread. The mac was awesome—I could have eaten an entire plate of it. And the corn bread was the perfect, sweet balance to offset the saltiness of everything else. The entree came with a spoonful of peas which were surprisingly fresh despite their school-lunch appearance.
I went for the lunch buffet at Dooky Chase's on a weekday after opening. The buffet gave me the opportunity to sample lots of different sides. I had gumbo soup, green beans with potatoes, collard greens, sausage, red beans and rice, and more.
Everything I had was delicious.
What stood out was Leah's peach cobbler dessert. Oh wow, yum! I wish I could have that recipe!
The Verdict: Dooky Chase's wins it for me. That lunch buffet is brilliance. Not only could I have as much or as little fried chicken as I wanted, I could also sample all her other delicious Creole cuisine.
The Overall Experience
The atmosphere at Dooky Chase's felt like sitting down in grandma's dining room. Meanwhile, Willie's Mae's was more like a standard sit-down restaurant.
Willie Mae's restaurant had African American music-themed art on the walls. This art was not as eye-catching or carefully selected as the art hanging on the walls at Dooky Chase's. That's probably because Leah Chase is a true art collector. She features all African American artists. Their paintings and sculptures stand out beautifully against vibrant red walls.
Willie Mae's presence is not felt in all aspects of her establishment like Leah's is. This is likely because Willie Mae was a much more private person throughout her life than Leah. But it comes at a detriment to the overall experience for me.
Perhaps it's a slightly unfair comparison I'm making because Leah is still alive. But it's now 2 years after Will Mae has died and, yet, you can sit down in her restaurant and never know who she was. There is nothing obvious about her history or how the place came to be what it is today. To be quite frank, I wasn't even sure if Willie Mae was a woman until I started my research for this blog post!
On the other hand, Leah and all that she is and who she has been her whole life was on display throughout her restaurant. I loved seeing photos of her with former presidents and letters written to her from the pope and the Obamas
She is a true icon, proud of who she is and where she has gotten. But she isn't too proud to stop cooking for her patrons nearly every day. She conducts herself unlike someone of her fame, as she is almost always at the restaurant in the kitchen.
I actually got to see Leah while I indulging in her buffet. She emerged from the kitchen to take part in an interview for a TV special.
I loved this balance of pride and humility. She has a passion and love for what she does and who she is and you can feel that while you sit and eat in her establishment. That's what makes dining at Dooky Chase's a special experience.
The Verdict: Dooky Chase wins hands down. The experience was unlike any other dining experience I ever had—and the food was good, too!
Everyone's taste buds are different, so try Willie Mae's and Dooky Chase's. Decide for yourself which is better! But if you want to have a true dining experience, I recommend Dooky Chase's. For all its historical importance and Leah's awesome presence, it's a stop you should prioritize on your next trip to New Orleans.