Editor's note: this story was originally published Feb. 14, 2018.
Over the years, Linda Green has served her ya-ka-mein at second-line parades and at Jazz Fest, outside barrooms and inside museums. These days she’s also serving the restorative, sometimes lifesaving soup in coffee cups at Bywater Bakery (3624 Dauphine St., 504-336-3336).
Order her traditional beef ya-ka-mein here and the soup arrives in a tall paper cup fitted with a cardboard sleeve, guarding fingers against the piping hot broth within. Not just takeout friendly, it’s a soup built for your car’s cup holder.
Ya-ka-mein is spelled any number of ways (ya-cat-mein, yakameat, etc.), and its precise recipe is even more variable. Its nickname “old sober,” however, is more universal, one earned for the recuperative promise of this salty beef noodle soup after a night of drinking.
As New Orleans emerges from a fully-packed Carnival season, it might be just the thing.
“People make plans for it,” said Green, a veteran local food vendor who goes by Ms. Linda the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady. “I get calls from people when they know they’re going to go out for a big time, they want to know where I’m going to be at with the ya-ka-mein for them afterwards.”
Bywater Bakery is just the latest in the string of places for Green’s signature dish. She recently started a new partnership with the year-old bakery and café, which now doubles as the production kitchen for her catering business and as an anytime-outlet for her signature dish.
Green has been making the soup all her life, just like her mother and her grandmother before her. Soups that fit this profile are not exclusive to New Orleans. Dishes with similar names turn up in Baltimore and Philadelphia, for instance. But ya-ka-mein is intrinsically at home in New Orleans, with a place in the rhythm of both the city’s home life and night life.
A remedy by the quart
Hangover symptoms are as old as fermentation and overindulgence. The roster of possible remedies has been growing evermore varied, from the kombucha tea and coconut water now lining grocery cases to intravenous fluid replenishment therapy at specialty clinics. Ramen has a growing following, and many swear by pho to fight a hangover.
Ya-ka-mein is old school New Orleans. If gumbo is therapy, ya-ka-mein is first aid. It is straightforward and inexpensive, with a full quart running anywhere from $6 to $10. It’s a soup so casual, it’s usually served without a spoon — just a fork and the assumption that you’ll slurp straight from the cup.
The basics call for ingredients readily available at even a humble food store: beef and stock, spaghetti, hard-boiled eggs, green onions. Soy sauce and ketchup are common extras.
The anecdotal faith in old sober’s abilities was backed up by the findings of a scientific study, presented a few years ago when the American Chemical Society met in New Orleans.
The study explained that salty broth helps replace sodium and potassium depleted by alcohol’s diuretic effect (read: all those bathroom trips), and added that eggs, a key ingredient, are loaded with cysteine, an amino acid that helps remove harmful acetaldehyde from the body. Alyson Mitchell, a food chemist with the University of California, Davis, called ya-ka-mein “a good example of intuitive science — an effective remedy, and with the scientific basis revealed only years later.”
Old school and new influences
Some high-end restaurants have adopted ya-ka-mein, including Meauxbar. Though tasty, these examples simply occupy a different realm from the takeout order slurped in the shade of a sidewalk awning or behind the wheel of your car.
But even in the bare-bones settings of stores and takeout joints, ya-ka-mein often gets special attention from the kitchen. In many cases, these kitchens are run by Vietnamese families, who have lately been infusing another layer of cross-cultural influence to the soup.
At Riteway Soul Food (3044 Gentilly Blvd., 504-949-6000), for instance, Minh Tran starts his ya-ka-mein the same way he begins the pho he makes at home, by slowly cooking down the beef to make his own stock.
“We are Vietnamese and this is a little more like the way we cook our own food,” explained his wife, Yasmeen Tran, who runs the counter at this longtime neighborhood eatery.
This Riteway broth is especially rich and mouth-coating, and it’s tangled with thin vermicelli and big hunks of beef, with Sriracha hot sauce offered for over-the-counter customization.
At John & Mary Food Store (3228 Orleans Ave., 504-484-3003), just off Bayou St. John, the soup goes by “yatkamein” and the kitchen takes the hybrid potential a step further. As this plate lunch takeout joint has added more traditional Vietnamese dishes to its menu, some of their ingredients have migrated over to the yatkamein. A combination soup of shrimp, pork and ham had torn cilantro mixed with the green onion, while the pork had an edge of char.
Eat Well Food Store (2700 Canal St., 504-821-7730) is another corner store with a menu mixing New Orleans and Vietnamese flavors. Order the shrimp ya-ka-mein and the boiled egg and flotilla of green onions are about the only direct connections to the customary recipe. Flat stir-fry noodles (comparable to linguine) are the base. The shrimp version was loaded with impressively large shrimp with a taut pop to their texture and a subtle chili spice throughout. Without the name ya-ka-mein on the menu, you might just assume it was a lesser-known Vietnamese soup.
There’s an especially verdant ya-ka-mein at Rampart Food Store (1700 N. Rampart St., 504-944-7777), alternately called the “orange store.” This one uses springy, soft ramen noodles in place of spaghetti, and packs the broth with florets of broccoli and cauliflower. In the combination soup, all this green is flecked with tiny, alarmingly red shrimp.
When the ya-ka-mein is made at African American-run eateries, however, the soup tends to steer closer to the old school template. Pry the travel lid off a cup from the Real Pie Man (1701 Franklin St., Gretna, 504-362-4545) a takeout shop in Gretna for Creole soul flavors, and you find meat that’s more like the debris for a roast beef po-boy.
Chef D’z Café (1535 Basin St., 504-827-1785) serves a sit-down ya-ka-mein that has a somewhat more polished presentation, but the same principles of egg, green onion and beef, in this case big cuts of top round.
The Ya-Ka-Mein Lady’s marquee soup at Bywater Bakery keeps a similar profile, though Green has also developed many different variations, using oysters, duck, alligator or no meat at all for a vegetarian version.
“You can make it lots of different ways,” said Green."It was always a poor man’s dish, so you made it with whatever you had. But the thing is the broth. That’s why people come calling for it. That’s why it’s old sober.”
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