An impromptu, whirlwind trip down south recently was a much-appreciated reminder of what temperatures above freezing feel like. It was also my first opportunity to get a taste of New Orleans–its history, its music, and especially (and obviously) its food.
Many, many more pictures–and lots of food–ahead!
Napolean House, French Quarter – Pimm’s Ginger Julep, Red Beans and Rice
200 years of history are easy to see here. It was a great place to get a feel for the city in all its friendly, comfortable, slightly shabby, lazy-day glory. The waiter bragged the ginger version of the Pimm’s Cup was his concoction–true or not, it was dangerously easy to drink, just sweet enough, with a good kick from the ginger beer. The red beans and rice were a great first meal, though I’m pretty sure there are better versions around the city; mine needed a little salt and some hot sauce to suit my tastes.
Cafe Beignet, Musical Legends Park – Beignets
Sacrilege to skip the iconic Cafe Du Monde? Well, maybe…but you just try walking past your first beignet sighting in a tucked-away little park lined with palm trees and statues of iconic New Orleans musicians. Freshly fried dough buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar is about as good as things get, food-wise–and dark blue jeans and a black shirt are a bad idea. I didn’t order a chicory coffee, but based on the taste I had later in the trip, I should have–it’s bitterness would have been a good balance to the sugar rush.
Pat O’Briens, French Quarter – Hurricane
The best part of this place was the show–two women on pianos who have clearly been entertaining these crowds for years, and the crowd was totally into it. Pat O’Briens has a reputation for their Hurricanes and it was everything you’d expect something that’s equal parts sugar, alcohol, and Red Dye #40 to be–that is, an experience to try (and a good way to get drunk fast and wake up with a raging hangover) but not something I needed more than a few sips of to check off my list. I was saving space for better things, like…
Casamento’s, Magazine Street – Fresh Oysters, Oyster Loaf, Shrimp Loaf
A friend and I walked into this no-frills food joint about five minutes after they opened; half the tables were already full. Within 20 minutes, there was a line out the door. The fresh oysters were great (though so fresh the shells were still kind of mucky). We also tried the oyster loaf (breaded and fried oysters on thick white bread with mayo, lettuce, and tomatoes) and shrimp loaf.
Dropping awesome fresh seafood in a deep fryer seems counter-intuitive, but it was oh-so-good. Deep fried oysters in particular sound like a bad idea but they manage to fry them so they still taste fresh and keep their salty brine–I’d never try this if I couldn’t see them shucking the oysters in front of me. Walking back through the kitchen was a treat–it was the homiest, most lived-in and well-loved kitchen you can imagine, right down to the ancient, banged-up pots and pans.
It was pretty far from the French Quarter in an area full of comfortable homes, a pick-up game of basketball across the street, a corner dive bar with good beer for $1.50; it’s a neighborhood of hipsters and families and good food and cool shops. Exploring Magazine Street tops my list for my next visit.
Faubourg Marigny – Music, So Much Music!!
The music scene in New Orleans is so different from anything I’ve ever experienced–tons of little clubs, bars, restaurants, and, hell, every other streetcorner showcase local and visiting musicians all day and night. The only expectation is that you tip the acts you like (and buy a drink or two if you’re staying for a bit). No cover charge makes it easy to hear tons of music, stopping in for just a song or staying for a whole set.
I heard the neighborhood right next to the French Quarter–particularly the area near Frenchman and Chartes–was the locals’ answer to Bourbon Street for good music, food, and drinks, and my choice for my one night in town.
I can’t choose a favorite between the guys on the corner wailing on their trumpets and trombones, drumming on the stop sign and light pole; the album release party we wandered into for the Russell Welch Hot Quartet (I could have stayed all night listening to their guitarist and violinist) at the Spotted Cat Music Club; or the old-school-New-Orleans-bluesy Shotgun Jazz Band fronted by an absolutely stand-out trumpeter and singer at the Three Muses.
Didn’t hurt that the food at the Three Muses was excellent and drinks were fantastic–notably the Earl Grey Gardens, a mix of honeysuckle vodka, Earl Grey syrup, lemon, soda, and thyme–but the bartenders were disappointingly inattentive, the only bum service of the trip.
Jazz doesn’t usually top my list of music choices, but I could have listened for hours to any and every one of those performers and the many, many others I passed on the street over the course of my visit. It’s so easy to see why this is a city built on and by its music scene.
The Praline Connection, Faubourg Marigny – Bloody Mary, Crawfish Etouffe, Collard Greens, Cornbread, Sweet Potato Pie, Pralines
After a long night of music and other assorted revelry, I was starving. Two cab rides failed to get me to the place I really wanted to try (Elizabeth’s in Bywater for their duck hash, cornbread waffles, and famous bacon, I’ll be back for you!) so I ended up at The Praline Connection, which was a wonderfully lucky accident.
I’m not usually a Bloody Mary fan, but the one they served was fantastic with just a few simple garnishes–pickled green beans, green olives, and some black pepper (no cheeseburgers or sausages or entire meals topping the glass, which seems to be the weird trend lately). The crawfish etouffe was great (the jambalaya I stole off a friend’s plate was even better), but my favorite part of the meal was the collard greens and cornbread. I’m a sucker for good greens and these came, quite rightly, highly recommended by the waitress (the best server of the entire trip, by the way).
It didn’t take much convincing on her part to talk us into trying a piece of sweet potato pie, either. I’ve been hearing about sweet potato pie from a friend with southern roots for years and now I understand why. The spices, similar to those in pumpkin pie, suit sweet potatoes better and the texture is different, somehow more fitting for a pie than mashed squash. And since the place is called the Praline Connection, it seemed a crime not to bring a box of the house-made sweet treats home to share. Another treat that really needs the bitterness of coffee to balance the sweetness, but still, so good.
J’s Seafood Dock, French Market – Fresh Oysters, Crawfish Boil
This strip of food stands in the historic French Market was by far the best discovery of the trip. I was way too stuffed from brunch to try much (though it all looked phenomenal), but I had to stop at this one stand. Between Paris and New Orleans, I’ve apparently become something of an oyster fiend and these looked too good to turn down. It didn’t hurt that the guy shucking them at the counter was a consummate salesman and entertainer; even if the oysters were mediocre (they were, in fact, the best I had), he was worth sticking around for.
And then he opened the lid of a giant metal tub, releasing a huge waft of steam and delicious smells, and guess what was taking a swim? The first crawfish of the year, along with lemons, whole garlic heads, celery, bay, and all kinds of spices. How could I possibly turn down my first crawfish boil? 20 minutes later, they were dumped in a cascade onto the table with great hoots and hollers from the oyster guy (who also kindly gave the crowd a lesson in how to eat them–twist off the head, suck out the juice, give the tail a squeeze to get the meat). Crawfish are a messy, delicious, slightly disturbing business.
Killer Poboys at Erin Rose’s, French Quarter – Sweet Potato and Greens Po’ Boy
Hidden in the back of a little hole-in-the-wall bar on Bourbon Street is Killer Poboys. It’s one of those places you have to know is there or you’d walk right past it, but it’s worth seeking out for a different take on the New Orleans sandwich–less fried, more chef-y (think pork belly, aioli, daikon, lime slaw). The menu changes pretty often, but I had one with roasted sweet potatoes, a spread of pecans and black-eyed peas, pickled shallots, and greens that was a great mix of sweet, salty, sour. This was the meal that pushed me over the edge into complete and utter food coma.
Central Grocery, French Quarter – Muffaletta
I didn’t actually eat this until I got back to Chicago, but I had to mention it as it was the last stop of the trip. The grocery store itself is a great old-school shop that reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of my great-grandfathers grocery in Cleveland. It smelled like salt and cold cuts and garlic and olives and fresh bread, and the stacks and shelves of groceries of all kinds deserved far more time to explore than I was able to give them.
Of course they’re famous for their muffaletta, which was, to be quite honest, underwhelming given all the talk. Maybe my expectations were too high for a sandwich of cold cuts, cheese, and olive spread. It was really good, don’t get me wrong (the olive spread in particular), but…well, it’s an Italian sandwich. I’d go back to check out the groceries in a heartbeat though.
…Whew. If you made it through all of that, congratulations! Have a praline. And just a tip if you eat your way through the city? Walk. Everywhere. You’ll thank me when you get home (just watch out for potholes.)
And despite this list, I swear I did things other than eat! I saw the first cemetery in New Orleans, walked along the Mississippi River, watched a street magician, wandered through a night art market, shopped at a flea market, learned about Mardi Gras krewes…even though every one of those things was encountered between food stops. But really, can you blame me?