There are many reasons the city of New Orleans owns a piece of me. It’s got soul. The music is unmatched. There’s Bourbon Street and beignets and beads. But for me, the city brings a spark of nostalgia of my childhood summers. My mom and I would take a three-day-plus train ride each year to spend a few weeks with my uncle in the Big Easy, who’d chauffeur us around to sightsee, to get sno-balls, to visit the homes of distant relatives.
I didn’t appreciate it back then, eating nothing but fast food and only wanting to spend time at places similar to what I might find at home – the movie theater and the mall. Still, my wistfulness for the occasions when I was forced (thanks, mom!) to try gumbo and take the streetcar and explore the Quarter makes my love of the place only sweeter. And especially eager to try new restaurants – anything besides fast food or a novelty tourist spot with every Louisiana specialty on its menu.
My latest work trip put me in New Orleans for two and a half days, a space of time in which I’d be lucky to squeeze at least one post-worthy meal if I picked right, managing the periods around my conference. But, I’d been too busy to put in research work – I landed having no idea where I might try for dinner, what hot and tasty spots sat near my hotel.
And perhaps that’s the way to go, as I’d say this was one of my most successful trips (food-wise) I’ve ever had. The highlights?
Beignets at Café du Monde
First stop, one hit just 25 minutes after checking in to my hotel half a mile away, had to be Café du Monde. Touristy – yes. But necessary. And smart, as the fluffy, sugary beignets satisfied my post-flight hunger (no airplane food for Dianderthal) and got my carb-loading party started (got a half-marathon and 20-mile bike ride this Sunday – I’d say there’s no better city for carbing it up).
Two Dollar Tacos at Johnny Sanchez
This was a walk by – a place I noticed after finding my first option still closed (an article I came across on my taxi ride wrongly noted a happy hour that started at 4:30) and my #2 option not there at all (I later found it was just on the other side of the building). But ‘twas kismet, as at Johnny Sanchez I found quite possibly the best fish taco I’ve ever bit into. With ten minutes of happy hour left, I ordered a two-dollar catfish taco from the menu, only to find myself desperate for the delicately breaded and fried fish, the luscious sauce, and just soft enough tortilla once I finished it. When I asked for another, I was told they didn’t have more catfish tacos after happy hour. But, I could get a drum taco instead – exactly the same thing, just a different fish. I said sure, though I’d never heard of drum (as a food) in my life (they’re an important commercial crop on the Mississippi). And for the second time that day, I reached fish taco nirvana. Also delicious at Johnny Sanchez – the crispy chicken taco (also two bucks), made special with a sweet, almost nutty sauce (labeled as a red chili glaze), and the house margarita. My only gripe stood with the place’s chips and salsa – lackluster at best. At least the bad chips kept me from overeating.
Fries at The Company Burger
While in search for Day 1 happy hour option #2 (see above), I glanced this burger spot and Googled it, thinking it a good spot for lunch the next day if I had an opportunity to get out (I wasn’t in a burger mood when I first noticed it). Left with a padded noontime break at my conference, where potatoes and rubbery chicken were sure to be served, I made a dash for it, estimating that I could make it to the restaurant and back – sucking down a burger and fries in between – within an hour. What I hadn’t anticipated was how sweaty I’d get taking on the muggy N’awlins streets in my conference gear (assembled to keep me warm in the air conditioned workshop rooms). So I perspired a bit during my journey, but the sweet potato waffle fries dipped in a couple of Company’s selections from their mayo bar (yep!) made the trip worth it. My only regret was rushing back to make it within the hour, stowing the fries in the hotel room fridge (never to be reheated or returned to), only to sit and still be served a disappointing plate of chicken and potatoes (things got started a tad late).
Fish (and Ambience) at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
Work trips sometimes mean you have to go out to eat with your colleagues. And eating with your colleagues (especially when you’re the new one) sometimes means that you have to suck up your Only Child Syndrome (OCS) tendencies and venture to places you may not otherwise choose, often glitzy chains or overrated (and overpriced) celebrity chef venues. This choice, however, was not of the flashy celebrity type but more of a celebrated and beloved staple, in the late chef Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s. Being in New Orleans, I went (once again) for the drum rather than the salmon (though, with a creamy sauce, it sounded amazing) – yummy news for my insides, as it came topped with a modestly fiery chipotle butter and a delightful serving of mashed potatoes. It stood as my classic New Orleans dining experience of the trip. A plus was getting to know some of my new colleagues – a great gang of folks with good taste.
All Things Edible and Drinkable at Willa Jean
That block where I failed to find Day 1 happy hour option #2, where I was fortunate to find The Company Burger, is also home to a chic barre studio and chic apartment spaces. With a prime spot on the block is the bright and lively Willa Jean, a homey boutique café smack-dab in the heart of what seemed to be hipster central, serving brunch until 4:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The wait at 10:30 was an hour (not bad at all if we’re talkin’ brunch) but, stepping out by myself, I got a stool at the bar right away, able to witness to the dozens or so different concoctions whipped up by my waiter/bartender du jour. With my race less than 24 hours away, the mimosas being sipped by half the diners didn’t tempt me. I ordered a latte and planned to be sturdily satisfied with my beverage. Then the girl next to me (another single; like me, from California and done for the day with her conference) ordered Willa Jean’s Frosé – basically, a wine Icee. And just like that, I caved. “I’ll take a Frosé, please,” I heard myself tell the guy. He smirked, as if he knew all along a girl like me couldn’t skip the booze. And a girl like me had to try the chicken biscuit (with Tabasco honey) and the chocolate chip cookies. This is the place I will surely return to the next time I’m in town, for the food and definitely for several glasses more of slushy wine.
So while it was a quick trip, it proved succulent indeed, though it left me only wanting for more. Perhaps carbo-loading trips to New Orleans should be my new tradition – anyone down for a marathon?
Café du Monde
800 Decatur Street and other locations
930 Poydras Street
The Company Burger
611 O’Keefe (corner of Girod & S. Rampart)
K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
416 Chartres Street
611 O’Keefe Avenue
By the way, even with the Frose, I finished my Bike Tour/Half Marathon combo – which proves that wine always wins.