I thought I had New Orleans pinned. In my mind it was always just the Southern metropolis party city that serves chicory coffee twenty-four hours a day. I love to travel and I have always wanted to visit New Orleans but I had never expected the city to challenged me the way others cities did. I thought I had it figured out, until I actually went there.
How could that boarded up, single-family home share the same lot as the renovated mansion next door? How could people use the historic streetcar as an actual means of commuting? How has that restaurant been in business since 1938? How could the barbecue be as good as the Cajun cuisine? How could this junk store be selling pristine, vintage cookbooks on Acadian cooking for less than a dollar?
These were just a few pressing questions I asked aloud to my group, almost immediately upon arrival. The next few days were equal parts educational and delicious.
Arriving late in the evening was a blessing in disguise as far as eating was concerned, discovering that no meal more accurately represents the flavor and character of the Crescent City than an after-hours dinner at a dive bar. First stop: Coop’s Place (1109 Decatur St.). The service is friendly in it's own way and the word "frills" has never been uttered within these walls, but as brash as Coop's may be, there are fewer feelings more satisfying than settling in to a cracked vinyl booth with a group of friends for some seriously delicious and seriously cheap homestyle cooking. Our server took the reigns and ordered our food for us, much to our delight. Soon we devoured a sampling of the classics: seafood gumbo, rabbit and sausage jambalaya and red beans and rice; followed by a few more substantial dishes: delicate crab claws with lemon, full flavored lamb ribs and the powerhouse dish of the night, a smoked duck quesadilla with jalapenos, sour cream and house salsa. The whole meal was less and $20 per person and we couldn't have eaten another bite.
Shortly thereafter, meandering the French Quarter, we finally found enough room in our stomachs for coffee and beignets at the city's most illustrious all-night coffeeshop, Cafe Du Monde (800 Decatur St.). The much celebrated and highly anticipated cafe did not disappoint. The service is down right wholesome and it doesn't seem like prices have changed since the 1970's (one's cafe au lait can be served in a logo mug to take home for the price of an iced coffee in Brooklyn.)
It could be my penchant for brunch in general, or the idyllic, Garden District setting, but my next full meal would prove to be the most memorable of the entire stay. Surrey's Cafe & Juice Bar (1418 Magazine St.) is the well-priced, unpretentious breakfast joint of my dreams. The fresh juice might be easy to come by in a lot of other towns, but the flawless shrimp and grits, confusingly delicious crab omelette and genuine service may be exclusive to Surrey's. Stand-out dish Bannans Fosters French Toast, served New Orleans style, with thick cut pieces of French bread, banana cream cheese and classic rum sauce is not to be missed.
Surrey's is a good starting point for a long walk up and down Magazine Street. Picturesque shopping and eating districts pop up along the way, separated by beautiful homes and overgrown landscape. It's a few miles long, but you could walk the whole length without even noticing. Eventually you will come across, what I found to be, a true New Orleans experience: Tee Eva's (5201 Magazine St.), the petit praline and pie bakeshop, managed and directed by Aunt Eva herself, who, in her 70's, was there closing up shop on our first visit. The pralines have the most addictive and toasty flavor, rivaled only by the palm sized, sweet potato and pecan pies made fresh, a few times a day (I know because we accidentally marched through the point of sale and into the kitchen to place our orders.)
Later that evening, we leisurely made our way to the other side of town to the Bywater for some buzzworthy barbecue at The Joint (701 Mazant St.). The menu is efficient and classic. Combination plates seem to be the best way to go, choosing from one or more meats: pulled pork, beef brisket, ribs, chicken, and sausage and adding one or more side dishes: slaw, green salad, potato salad, baked beans and mac & cheese. Between four combination plates, I tried just about one of everything, without disappointment.
This side of town, although a little disorienting at night (Is that a warehouse? A loft apartment? No, it's a cargo ship.) makes a little more sense in the daylight and offers as many, if not more, eating, entertaining and shopping options as it's westside cousin. Of considerable note is the neighborhood staple brunch experience that is Elizabeth's (601 Gallier St.). Unabashedly serving the neighborhoods hungover and hungry, Elizabeth's dishes verge on experimental. Although the menu boasts more takes on eggs benedict than I've ever seen, the restaurant is known for it's modern use of the city's favorite confection in the form of Praline crusted Bacon. The sweet and salty has become sort of a no-brainer but this version is truly delicious and very New Orleans. Soft boiled eggs served over either artichoke hearts, fried green tomatoes or house grits were all welcome additions to the table. Pushing even more culinary boundaries was the cornmeal waffle with sweet potato and pepper jelly, which we tried and enjoyed. The French Toast Burrito, however, just seemed to daunting.
Classic brew with chicory is a staple and isn't going anywhere. For a few modern options, though, check out
- St. Coffee on St. Claude (2709 St Claude Ave.)
- Booty's Street Food (800 Louisa St)
- Brigade Coffee (Usually outside Stein's Market at 2207 Magazine St.)
Without even trying, New Orleans unlocked the gate to my fascination. My stay, chock-full of Big Easy exclusives , showed me how little I knew about the city. I found myself in the middle of the dance floor at a raucous, post-gender Bounce party, I heard first hand, the devastating experiences of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, I gawked at a disoriented partygoer, stopping traffic so she could have a seat in the middle of a busy French Quarter avenue, I heard the pained monologue of a Creole woman and the story of how her family came to Louisiana and I ate until my head almost fell off. I barely had time to do a majority of things I had planned to and the list still keeps growing.
For more travel stories by Mac Malikowski: