“The Big Easy” makes me uneasy. This is hard to admit for a number of reasons, not least of which because so many people I admire and respect not only love New Orleans but call it home. It’s also home of Cajun cuisine, my anything-is-last-meal-worthy favorite. The history, the food, the intersection of cultures, the music, the resilience…I’m fascinated. We almost honeymooned there, my husband and I, before ultimately deciding to save it until we could really appreciate the city without the need to rush back to work. Still, I devoured Sara Roahen’s Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table and was charmed when, after posting a compliment on the author’s Facebook page, Ms. Roahen herself urged me to visit. It remains one of my favorite books not only because its a personal account of a life lived through the love of food, but also because it’s also a modern love letter to a city and a testament to the power of place.
So it was with great anticipation that my husband and I took our first real vacation last November to stay with our friends in New Orleans for a week. We ate the best meal of our lives at Cochon, where I not only tasted strawberry moonshine (my tongue still tingles at the thought) but enjoyed a cornucopia of cast iron comfort food while seated across from Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell. I was so enamored with the food and taken by Cochon’s generous service that I remember the experience of eating more than sitting a mere four feet away from two of my favorite actors.
A little part of me came alive as I danced for God knows how long to the music of the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as elated as when we went, beer in hand, from bar to bar along Frenchman to soak up as much music as possible.
We also had a number of bad eating experiences ranging to awful or rude service at quite a few restaurants. There was also the time I walked into a bathroom to hear the only other female patrons and a few staff members commenting on the color of my husband’s skin in a way that remains painful to this day.
That said, I think everyone should visit New Orleans at least once. If you’re a skeptic, as I was on my recent second visit, I have just the places to ease you in. They aren’t the most traditional spots, but they are some of the most delicious and unique. Perhaps if I stumbled on these places to begin with my first time might have been as charmed as my second.
First things first…eat a beignet. If you’re up to it or just close by Cafe Du Monde somehow elevates itself above tourist trap. I prefer Morning Call, not just because the pace is a little more leisurely (no fanny-packed hoards queuing for your seat) but there’s something magical about walking through a door at the end of a strip mall and being transported to the French Quarter circa 1870. They also make their café au laits by lifting two gigantic kettles (one of coffee and the other of milk) in a Herculean effort that results in smooth, frothy, out of this world creamy coffee.
Re-calibrate…chicory coffee is good but great espresso is better. New Orleans doesn’t have a whole lot of options for coffee snobs like me but that’s okay, Velvet Espresso Bar is all that and then some, girl.
Okay, give in to your guidebook or mom or whoever, but then make your way to Freret Street. You’ll probably want to hang out around the French Quarter for awhile and maybe even Frenchman or Magazine Street, and by all means do but please make your way, somehow some way, to Freret Street. Visiting any new city can be overwhelming, but this place has a lot of awesome packed into just a few blocks. Given the city’s cheap beer and glorious open container laws believe me, you’ll want a reliable street to stroll.
Eat anything or everything at The Company Burger and do what Adam says. “Burgers. Beer. Sides.” it’s as simple and wonderful as that. Well, I should also probably mention that they serve everything on trays in the form of baking sheets- the best food delivery mechanism there ever was or ever will be. I’m pretty classy sometimes so I got some wine in a cane and a side of pimento cheese and melba toast. As for the burger, you’ll realize old Ronald McDonald has been blue balling you for decades because The Company Burger is carnal simplicity: a freshly ground pattie with pickle, American cheese, and red onions between a locally made, buttered and toasted bun. Adam Biderman, chef-owner, honed his craft at Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch before returning to his hometown. I would call him nostalgic but since his food more than delivers on idealized standards “authentic” is a better fit. The photo covering one of the large walls says it all: The Company Burger is a respectful reminder of the hardships of the past while highlighting the hope inherent in good food enjoyed through the company of good people.
If that’s not enough of a reason to visit Adam and his staff are awesome. He doles out advice on where to eat with a sympathetic ear to us outsiders: “That place is bullshit, never go there…” or “Yeah, the service is curmudgeonly but just get a muffaletta and a Pimm’s Cup." The Company Burger should be your NOLA first stop for these pearls of wisdom alone.
Is alligator seafood? Slap some crawfish etouffee on that alligator sausage at Dat Dog and you’ll be too busy having a foodgasm to care. Their new space and huge patio features a wiener shaped table and plenty of beer and wine to float your chili fries. As their slogan goes, “The world is a better place with Dat Dog.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Now that you’ve conquered both burger and hot dog keep the ball rolling with a deep dish pizza at Midway. Perhaps The Kingpin calls your name (house made meatballs, caramelized onion, shaved Parmesan, green onion) or maybe you’re more the Natty “E" type (roasted chicken, bacon, tomatoes, and onions topped with green goddess sauce). A beer works too.
Snoballs! At Hansen’s Sno-Bliz ice becomes fluffy and syrups become creamy and the result is pure joy. The air buzzes with anticipation and no one minds the line because a) there is a system and b) photos of happy faces across the decades line the wall (a baby in a snoball cone, adorable!) reinforce what you already know: "This is going to be sooo worth it…" Order one cream of nectar and another satsuma by the dollar amount (i.e. “A $3 cream of nectar please…"), not the size.
Get high on the hog at Butcher. Call it “swine bar" or “butcher shop" or “sandwich counter"…whatever, they cure everything in house and make a mean muffaletta.
Don’t let a day (or more) of overindulgence hold your saunter down. Maurepas Foods in Bywater will satisfy most cravings most times (they’re open 11 AM-12 AM). Their all-day menu is inventive and original- get the goat tacos (a customer favorite), any veggie side, and at least two cocktails. Rest, digest, and make your way to Vaughns or Frenchman or where ever good music is playing- in New Orleans you won’t have to go far.
In closing…New Orleans is a complicated, unique place. Without darkness you can’t have light, and there’s more grey than black and white in this city of contrasts. There’s also something to be said for a place that stretches your sense of self just a little, just to the point of discomfort. In the end you might find flexibility, or at least appreciation.