We all love New Orleans. Like, crazy, mad, wish-I-could-marry-a-city love, right? But sometimes a little trip out of town does a body good, and South Louisiana has so much to offer beyond the city limits.
(How can that even be possible? We don't know. It's the best place in the world and those of us who live here don't really understand how anyone can live anywhere else.)
So indulge me, friends, while I suggest to you a simple single day's trip over and back to a sweet little Cajun town on the banks of the Bayou Teche: Breaux Bridge. Here's an itinerary that should delight even the most staid urbanite, and it only takes a single Saturday to achieve:
8:00 am - Leave New Orleans and head West on I-10.
10:00 am - Pull off at Exit 109 and head into downtown Breaux Bridge. Get your dancing shoes on and head on over to the Cafe des Amis for zydeco breakfast: live music and a hot menu of South Louisiana breakfast delicacies. Try the oreilles de cochon (a beignet stuffed with boudin, a rice-and-pork sausage, and sprinkled with powdered sugar) or the Big Hat Omelette, which comes smothered with crawfish etouffee. Dance away any caloric concerns you might have.
11:30 am - Take a slow stroll down Bridge Street, checking out the numerous antique and gift shops. The Breaux Bridge Antique Mall tends to be an excellent source for all manner of quirky treasures, but it's chock-full, so take your time browsing.
1:00 pm - Hungry again yet? As if that ever stopped us anyway. Hop in the car and head over to Glenda's Creole Kitchen, a hole-in-the-wall Creole soul food restaurant that gained international attention when local artist and chef Toby Rodriguez brought Anthony Bourdain here in the Cajun country episode of No Reservations. Bourdain swooned. So will you. Get your Creole meatloaf or smothered pork chops to go.
1:30 pm - Head on out to the gorgeous and picturesque Lake Martin. Set yourself up at the boat launch with an informal lakefront tailgate and dig into your lunch while you watch for birds and gators.
2:00 pm - Now that you're stuffed (again), catch up with the nice fellas from Champagne's Swamp Tours and head out on their boat for a couple of hours. Alternatively, rent a canoe or kayak of your own and paddle through the lake all by your lonesome. Just, uh, mind the gators.
New Orleans is a pretty easy town to move around in. Between cheap and plentiful taxis, the famous streetcars, and the flat-as-a-pancake terrain, which makes walking and biking super-easy, there's no reason that a visitor should get stuck in the immediate neighborhood around their hotel.
Still, the home base you choose can change the flavor of your vacation. Where you go to sleep and start your day does set a tone for everything that happens in between, so it's worth doing a bit of research.
Many visitors prefer to be right at the center of the action, which is why the French Quarter tends to be the first choice for lots of tourists. Foodies and culture vultures, however, might prefer the Central Business District, an area that isn't as interesting in terms of nightlife but happens to be home to most of the city's fine dining restaurants and a good portion of its museums and galleries.
The style of accommodations that you prefer can also dictate which neighborhood is right for you. If you don't plan on spending much time in your room and just want it to be clean and efficient, you might be happy with one of the relatively cheap (but admittedly uninteresting) chain hotels in the CBD. If cocktails on the veranda and hobnobbing with fellow travelers is more your speed, one of the Garden District's luxe historic inns might be right for you.
For more help in deciding which New Orleans neighborhood is the right one to call home during your next visit, read on: Which New Orleans Neighborhood Should I Stay In?
Corn Stalk Fence Detail © Rian Castillo, Creative Commons via Flickr
It's become relatively familiar advice to New Orleans visitors in the past couple of decades: go see Bourbon Street, but don't spend your whole trip there. It's repeated frequently because, well, it's true.
Bourbon Street is like nothing else you've ever seen. It's a 24-hour party every day of the year, with open drinking, noisy music, plenty of flesh on display, and other hedonistic delights. Everyone should see it once and take at least a small part in the party. Great fun, really.
And in a way, it's a quintessential travel bucket list sort of experience. But it is not New Orleans at its most beautiful or its most authentic.
Nope, it's mostly tourists out for a good time. The only locals you're likely to meet on Bourbon are your bartenders or other service staff. The music in the clubs is largely cheesy made-for-tourists schlock (there are exceptions, no question, but the bulk ain't great). The cocktails are overpriced and the food is decidedly unimpressive. And let's be honest here: it kind of smells bad.
Indeed, "Get Off Bourbon Street" is some of the best advice any New Orleans visitor can get, but like so many bits of sage travel wisdom, it's easier said than done. Get off Bourbon Street and go... where?
There are easy enough answers to this question of you're not really into the bar scene at all. New Orleans is home to dozens of wonderful (and quirky) museums, several gorgeous parks, the best live jazz and Cajun/zydeco in the world, and so much more.
If you do dig the bar scene, but you'd prefer higher-quality cocktails, better live music, or just an environment that contains fewer bachelor partying frat bros and the cougars who love them, there are other options for you. Good food, good music, and good drinks, all with a local flair. Find those things here: Three Great Alternatives to Bourbon Street
Image © Sal Taylor Kidd / Creative Commons via Flickr
Let's not kid ourselves. The French Quarter, like its soul sisters Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip, is designed to dazzle tourists into leaving all of their money behind. Gorgeous hotels, fancy restaurants, and cocktails that cost more than most of us make in an hour are everywhere you look, and really, it's often worth the expense.
Still, it's not always necessary to drop a month's paycheck on a day's food in New Orleans. Whether you're traveling on a budget or just want something a little bit less fancy for a change, the French Quarter has lots of good options.
Po-boys are pretty easy to come by, and cheap, though some po-boy shops give you a better bang for your buck than others. I'm partial to the Verti Marte, which sits just across from the famous haunted Lalaurie mansion, and I adore Johnny's Po-Boys, not just for sammiches, but also for breakfast.
When I'm in the Quarter with a few friends, one of my favorite cheap lunches is a New Orleans classic: a muffuletta from the famous Central Grocery. They're enormous fat round sandwiches, so they're really easy to share. I'm a big eater, and a half is more than enough for me. If bags of chips are involved (local favorites Zapp's, of course -- my favorite are the Dill Gator-Tator flavor), I only need a quarter of the sandwich.
Also, don't forget one of New Orleans' best food-and-bev combo deals: crispy beignets and a creamy café au lait from the 150-year-old Café du Monde coffee shop. It'll run you less than $5 total, though it's cash-only, so don't forget to bring some. They're also open 24 hours. And for my money, there's nothing better to absorb a stomach full of Hurricanes and Purple Drank than a sugary plate o' beignets, so if you're up late and need a little help in that department, head there.
And if all else fails, there's always Lucky Dogs. They're greasy, sure, but they're strangely delicious, especially when you're two or three or six Big-Ass Beers into the evening. Plus, they're easy to find. Just look for the giant hot dog.
For even more French Quarter cheap eats, read on: 10 Great Cheap Restaurants in the French Quarter
Lucky Dogs Image © Megan Romer, 2013 / Licensed to About.com
A cold front rolled into Louisiana last week, dropping the temperature and turning summer's smoldering humidity into winter's damp, clammy chill. My Facebook and Twitter feeds erupted with gleeful proclamations from around the state. "It's gumbo weather, y'all!" "Finally cool enough to make gumbo!" "How 'bout this weather? Feels like gumbo to me!"
You see, there's an unwritten law that gumbo, a dish which requires many hours of slow simmering, may not be served unless it's chilly outside. And when the chill does set in, it's mandatory to make and eat gumbo as quickly and as copiously as possible.
Please note that I am not complaining and I am more than happy to take part in this ritual of seasonal change.
At my house, we make a traditional Cajun-style chicken and sausage gumbo. I cook the roux in a cast iron skillet until it's somewhere between the color of peanut butter and the color of molasses (depends on my level of patience that day -- the former takes about 45 minutes, the latter takes an hour; podcasts and good company are required).
I use smoked sausage links that I buy in bulk from LeJeune's in Eunice, Louisiana or Johnson's Boucaniere in Lafayette, Louisiana (they look and taste like what New Orleanians would call "andouille," but "andouille" indicates a different kind of sausage in Cajun country, a thicker, coarser one that is less ideal for gumbo).
For chicken, I buy old laying hens from an egg farmer at the farmers' market (traditional markets will sometimes sell "stewing birds;" same thing). Their tough meat holds up in flavor and texture over many hours of cooking, whereas a young roaster or frier would just disintegrate into strings.
Those ingredients, plus some Cajun trinity, a handful of salt and pepper and cayenne and thyme, a couple of bay leaves, and a gallon or two of chicken stock and water all go into a big ol' pot and cook for a few hours. It's not scientific, nor should it be, but it makes the house smell warm and smoky and savory, and warms you up before it even hits your mouth.
I serve the gumbo over Louisiana-grown popcorn rice, an aromatic regional variety that smells like popcorn while it's cooking and tastes like buttery Basmati. I serve it with a scoop of mayonnaisey, mustardy potato salad on the side, a preparation I learned at my first Evangeline Parish house party and one that felt pretty comfortable for this New York-born girl. If I'm feeling fancy, I sprinkle some green onions on top.
You might notice the lack of okra and filé in my gumbo. I keep a jar of filé powder in the cupboard if visitors want to sprinkle it in, but I've never managed to cook okra into gumbo (or in any way, really) to my own satisfaction, so I leave it out entirely, as do plenty of Cajun cooks, both at home and in restaurants.
Indeed, gumbo is deeply personal and a source of tremendous pride and loyalty (even fealty) for Louisianans, even the transplants among us. And just because I cook it one way doesn't mean I don't like to eat it other ways. In fact, I have yet to meet a gumbo that I haven't liked, and I'm always on the lookout for new ones. Want to try some of my favorites? Check these out: The 10 Best Gumbos in New Orleans
Gumbo from Prejean's in Lafayette, LA image © pointnshoot / Creative Commons via Flickr
This past week, Bravo's Top Chef, the current season of which is taking place in New Orleans, explored a lesser-known facet of the regional culinary scene: Vietnamese food. If my Twitter feed was any indication, the "cheftestants" weren't the only people surprised to discover the depth and scope of this cuisine's influence on the city's cultural landscape.
Many people don't realize exactly how large the Vietnamese community in South Louisiana is. Made up largely of Catholic South Vietnamese refugees who came to Louisiana after the Fall of Saigon, there are an estimated 25,000 and 30,000 people who self-identify as Vietnamese in the state. The majority live in the greater New Orleans area, particularly New Orleans East (home to the spectacular Vietnamese Farmers' Market) and the West Bank (Gretna in particular).
Smaller communities live in other South Louisiana cities (Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and Morgan City, in particular), and there are small, relatively isolated Vietnamese fishing communities to be found throughout the outer reaches of the bayous and swamps, as well.
New Orleans has always been good at incorporating new cultures into the rich textural framework of the city, especially when it comes to food. First came Native American cuisine, then French, Spanish, African, and Afro-Caribbean in the 1700s and early 1800s, then Yankee-American and Irish in the later 1800s, then Italian at the turn of the century, and now Vietnamese. It's a city with a complicated history in terms of race relations, but it's also a city that knows and appreciates a good sandwich when it sees one, and a banh mi is a damn good sandwich.
Nowadays, it's easy to find Vietnamese food throughout the city, but most foodies will agree that if you're really in the market for an authentic experience, you should get out to the 'burbs and try one of the fabulous hole-in-the-wall joints where you'll have the best (yes, the best) Vietnamese food you'll get anywhere in the US. Trust me on this one. Learn more: Vietnamese Food in New Orleans - An Introduction
Banh Mi from Dong Phuong / Photo Provided by Restaurant
October is one of my favorite times of year in South Louisiana. The weather's cooling off (finally), the sweet olives are blooming and their apricot-vanilla-almond scent is filling the air, oysters and gumbo are back in full force on menus around town, and just about every Sunday, there's a Second Line happening somewhere in town.
When most people hear "New Orleans" and "parade" in the same sentence, their mind jumps to the lavish and sometimes sordid spectacles of the Mardi Gras season. I'd argue, though, that the parade that most represents New Orleans culture is the down-home, neighborhood-driven, non-commercial Second Line.
If you're not familiar, here's a quick primer: traditionally, the "Second Line" was a parade of spectators that formed and followed behind a jazz funeral, Mardi Gras Indians, a brass band procession of any kind, or even an advertising wagon (back in the days before TV commercials). These spectators would follow along to enjoy the music, dance, and socialize. Nowadays, the parades are planned, usually by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (African-American community organizations), and the routes are announced in advance so people can plan to follow along.
And if you're in town on a Sunday (or any of the days where special Second Lines are planned), you should. Check out the Takin' it to the Streets calendar on the WWOZ website for information about upcoming Second Lines. This week's is being led by the Original Four Social Aid and Pleasure Club and starts in Armstrong Park at 12:45 pm, so it's actually a really convenient one for tourists staying in the French Quarter.
If you're in town for Halloween, consider walking off that hangover the following day with what's sure to be one of the best Second Lines of the year: the All Saints Day Second Line, departing from the wonderful Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood. More information should be announced soon. Check back with the aforementioned WWOZ page closer to the date.
Anyone planning on attending a Second Line should prepare themselves for a great time, but in order to be a good guest, you should know what's going on and what's expected of you. Here's a bit more info to help you have the best possible time: New Orleans Second Lines - Five Things You Need to Know
Second Lining Woman in Blue Image © Derek Bridges, Creative Commons via Flickr
Last night's episode of Top Chef, the second of the current New Orleans-based season, started off with a Quickfire challenge that saw the "cheftestants" cooking gumbo for Miss Leah Chase, the legendary nonagenarian New Orleans Creole chef. Though the dishes the competitors churned out were not, for the most part, anything even vaguely gumbo-ish (said Times-Picayune dining writer Todd A. Price on Twitter, "Gumbo not just a soup with whatever crap in it you want."), Miss Leah was the epitome of grace and offered many generous compliments and the gentlest of criticisms. The winner had, inadvertently, created something very similar to a traditional "gumbo z'herbes," or green gumbo, a regional favorite that's made with leafy greens.
Later in the show, Chef Susan Spicer, the loose inspiration for the Treme character Janette Desautel, judged a food truck challenge. The cheftestants cooked tasty, easy-to-eat tidbits for Habitat for Humanity volunteers. The challenge itself did not focus on local flavors, but it brought some good attention to the fact that New Orleans is still rebuilding, eight years after Katrina, and volunteer opportunities are available for anyone who wants to grab a hammer and help out.
Wanna visit the restaurants of these two local culinary pioneers? (Yes, yes you do.) You can find Miss Leah Chase still running the kitchen at Dooky Chase, a Treme institution where Creole cooking and down-home Southern Soul Food rule the menu. In the '60s, this was a popular meeting place for local and visiting Civil Rights leaders (including Dr. King), and President Obama's been in for a bite, as well. It's primarily a lunch place (dinner is only offered on Fridays), with a buffet of hot, freshly-prepared dishes, each more delicious than the next.
Susan Spicer is the proprietor of two excellent local restaurants. Her flagship restaurant, Bayona, is one of the French Quarter's best gourmet options. Combining local ingredients with international inspiration, Spicer's innovative menu at Bayona has earned her a number of major culinary awards and made the restaurant a favorite destination for locals and visitors alike.
Chef Spicer's other restaurant, Mondo, is also exceptionally wonderful, but it's a very different sort of place. It's a neighborhood joint, the type of place you can bring your kid or your grandparents, but with a refined international flair on the menu. It's tucked away in the largely untouristed neighborhood of Lakeview, where Chef Spicer lives, and it's become kind of a hub for the community up there. If you want an affordable gourmet dinner in a room where you're the only tourist, it's a good one to seek out.
And don't forget that you can eat at two of the cheftestants' restaurants, too! Chef Justin Devillier holds the reigns at the wonderful Magazine Street bistro La Petite Grocery, which has an innovative and often-changing menu that sometimes requires some bravery (Turtle Bolognese, anyone?), but is always worth exploring.
Chef Michael Sichel is the Executive Chef at both the old-line Creole standby Galatoire's and its sister steakhouse, Galatoire's 33. If upscale and classic is what you seek, you won't do much better than this.
I've been live-tweeting Top Chef each week and having a great time interacting with my fellow Louisiana foodies. If you'd like to join in the Twitter party during next week's episode (Wednesday on Bravo at 10/9 Central), follow me @meganromer or follow hashtag #topchefnola -- it's a fun (if irreverent) time.
Chef Leah Chase image provided by Dooky Chase Restaurant
New Orleans is chock-full of public art and sculpture. From the various bronze historical figures who stand guard over traffic circles and neutral grounds throughout the city to the carefully-curated objets d'art at the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, from the Banksy graffiti that's been carefully preserved in several locations to the sprawling acres of funerary monuments that make up the Cities of the Dead, outdoor art is taken seriously 'round here.
An extraordinary sculpture that's often overlooked, though, is the Holocaust Memorial in Woldenberg Park. It's easy to find: it's right next to the Moon Walk (the riverfront path that runs between the Audubon Aquarium and the French Market) but most people pass right by without stopping to look.
Don't make that mistake! The sculpture is a really astounding piece of modern art, designed by kinetic and op-art pioneer Yaacov Agam. It's made up of nine vertical panels, each of which is entirely abstract on its own. Together, though, they make images that can only be seen from specific angles. Ten different images, to be exact, from the clear symbolism of the Star of David to more conceptual views, symbolizing ideas like the chaos of the Jewish diaspora or the horrific darkness of the Holocaust. The ten views are explained at the Holocaust Memorial website.
The sculpture should be viewed in motion, so take a few minutes and walk around it, watching the way the colors move and take on different shapes. It's really quite beautiful, and the kinetic abstraction is surprisingly effective at portraying the tragedies and triumphs of the Jewish people. Darkness, light, color, and constant motion. It's a meaningful piece of work, and one that deserves attention, so make a point of stopping by. Learn more: The New Orleans Holocaust Memorial in Woldenberg Park
New Orleans Holocaust Memorial (Menorah View) Photo © Megan Romer, 2013 / Licensed to About.com
Though New Orleans is a city that's historically known for coffee, the booming newer wave of espresso culture that burst out of the Pacific Northwest a couple of decades ago took some time to settle in here, and it's just been in the past few years that high-end coffee has made its way into the city.
And when the hand-cupped single-origin small-batch-roasted craze did make its way to the city, it naturally permeated the hippest neighborhoods first: Uptown, near Loyola and Tulane, the hipster-heavy Bywater and Marigny, and, via a couple of coffee trucks, anywhere that food trucks (and the groovy kids who congregate around them) happen to be.
The French Quarter? Well, not so much. This neighborhood tends to be tourist-focused, and tourists all want to sample the city's specialty, the steaming, creamy, mild cafe au lait, laced with chicory. And that's fine, of course -- cafe au lait is delicious and traditional and it should be sampled, if not guzzled. But it's not the same thing. It's like comparing red wine to Scotch.
So the growing number of self-proclaimed coffee snobs (like me) who find themselves in New Orleans have been finding themselves increasingly disappointed at the French Quarter's offerings. The local favorite chain, PJ's, is acceptable for a medium roast to get you through the morning, but hard-core coffee snobs won't be blown away by their roasts. There's always Starbucks, but the French Quarter might be the last neighborhood in America that they haven't really infiltrated (there's one on Canal Street, but that's it), and most true coffee snobs don't really want Starbucks anyway.
So what to do? Well, for a long time, the answer was "make do." Or really, "drink your cafe au lait and kwitcher complainin'." But earlier this year, the problem was actually solved when Spitfire Coffee opened on St. Peter Street. A coffee lover's paradise, we're talking serious stuff here. Slow-drip pour-over coffee and expertly crafted espresso are made from freshly ground beans. Iced coffee is made using the cold brew method. Tea is loose-leaf and fabulous. Need a caffeine fix? Go there. You heard me. Read more: Spitfire Coffee - Gourmet Coffee in the French Quarter