Last month, I went on vacation to New Orleans looking for the soul of the city. As always, I did my research with Chowhound, Roadfood, Yelp, had the advice of many friends. I learned a lot, ate a lot, and I want more. Here were my 7 best bites:
8. In any great sandwich city, their driving force is the bread – and in New Orleans, the name is Leidenheimer. Huge paper bags filled with their rolls are in nearly every sandwich shop and box trucks with a Leidenheimer cartoon ablazed roll through the city on repeat. These torpedoes don’t give much flavor, but the holding area is soft, and the dermis flaky. It’s a thing of New Orleans’ own. I had about 6 po’ boys on my map, but of the few I actually took upon, my favorite was from Guy’s (5259 Magazine St). Just down the road from the ever-tour-book Domilise’s, Guy’s was my destination because of the absence of a line around the block. Once inside, I walked up to the counter and saw the men making sandwiches. Big ones. And serious. I got the Friday special of grilled shrimp and fried catfish. The grilled shrimp in this mess had this hard smokiness that I’m still in clouds about, and the Barqs root beer from a glass bottle was key. The difference in that Barq’s, which you’ll see nearly everywhere in Nola, was similar to that of a Mexican Coke. I’d come back again for some seafood hero fried and fully dressed.
7. There’s a great restaurant scene going on here. Mixing flavors of cajun, and local Americana, plenty of restaurants are thriving just making great food. I picked out Dante’s Kitchen(736 Dante St), which I was surprised to hear has been in business for 11 years. It had all the excitement of a newer place, and the food was just thrilling. Similar to many other businesses in the city, Dante’s is located in a house barely redefined, with art in every room including the bathroom. It’s fancy and cool and chill and sophisticated. It’s all ages, but I was gently made aware by the water girl that my crowd might hedge toward brunch time. The menu is apparently always changing, and there’s lots of events happening with the times, so for me there is a lot of reason to go back – at any meal of the day. And I intend to.
It was too dark and I didn’t want to ruin the mood, so I forewent photographia, but here’s an accurate description with pictures from Food For Thought Miami
6. Banh Mi – Philadelphia was a lesson in fresh baked rice-flour banh mi rolls, but in NOLA I got privy to the massive inside mix from a proper banh mi. For the stupid low price of $2.50, the lady in the counter at Hong Kong Supermarket (925 Behrman Hwy) packed in nearly every meat shown below. People were ordering these by the family number, and I took about 10 minutes analyzing the process before putting in mine. Later, during the Super Bowl (suck it Patriots), biting into that banh mi, the flavors were intense and twisted. Cilantro, chicken fat (I believe), head cheese, warm meatball, cold pate, Vietnamese pork roll slices, daikon, bbq something animal, and pickled stuff. Those are a lot of flavors that a lot of people can’t stomach. If you can, you are in for a wonderful ride.
5. I’m always trying to learn about how different cities treat street vendors, which laws they have to be careful for, how they work around it, and who visits them. In New Orleans, it’s a budding and restrictive industry. With the books saying that they can’t operate within 600 feet of a restaurant, must move every 30 minutes, and can only number 100 in total, the city is clearly not hip to the chain of entrepreneurship. You can see more rules over at NolaFoodTrucks.com
It’s a shame, because New Orleans is soooo ripe for great Mexican food. After Katrina, with the amount of construction and rebuilding that needed to be done, the influx of immigrants from Mexico was tremendous. With them, the taco trucks came. And as work slowed, workers migrated, but many still remain who’ve decided ‘We like it here.’
While riding my borrowed bike to a trendy po’ boy shop, I hit upon one of the best taco trucks I’ve had all year (NY included). The trailer was called Taqueria DF Tacos (S Claiborne and Eagle) and was flanked by Mexican workers who loved that I actually would try their food. I was pretty full already from Guy’s, but I couldn’t help my excitement and ordered fresh watermelon juice and a pan-pig carnitas taco. Wow, such great textures and realness. It came to me that day that Mexican might be my favorite style of food. These flavors just drive me wild. I wish I could have ordered more.
Leave it up to J-O to find the most out of the way, gnarliest taco stand in the city that no gringo knows about…
4. KING CAKE! - I couldn’t believe how much I liked this. I mean, just looking at one, it looks like a big cinnamon bun, but the one my hosts and I got was so moist and chewy and rich. It was just fabulous. Everyone seems loyal to their own places, but my first and only was at Antoine’s in Gretna (1300 Stumpf Blvd), so I will stay loyal to them for this post.
Sorry, no picture of mine, but you can see another sample and a top five at IheartNola.com
3. Willie Mae’s (2401 St Ann St) – This is a heavily discovered local gem. In the middle of a neighborhood not used to corporate accounts, this block was lined with Acuras, Mercedes, Lexi, and SUVs; and in this heavily segregated city, it would seem that a magnet was attracting all the white people within a mile and a half radius into Willie Mae’s own dining room. At first glance of the room, I thought I was being taken as a guidebook mark, but I ordered anyway. Then it came out to me:
It’s all about the wet batter. This thick layer of crunch and sweaty insides I have never seen matched in my fried chicken-loving history. It’s touristy as hell, and it’s worth it.
2. Verti Marte – When I walked in, I had trouble ordering because the menu is huge, and everything under the glass looked like love. I figured I could trust anything out of this kitchen, so I asked for whatever was awesome. For my first meal in New Orleans, I will never forget this unlikely salisbury steak sandwich. The roll was sweet, soft and touch, and the spices were a momentous wave of flavors. Now, I wouldn’t recommend Verte Marti for a tourist, because there’s no where to sit, barely anywhere to stand, and the locals will get mad at you for crowding up the place, but if you work nearby, this is lunch for life. It’s got to be one of the top 10 deli kitchens of all time. 1201 Royal Street
VM is inside the French Quarter. I realize now that the French Quarter is where all the tourists go and is filled with stupid stuff that tourists like. Walking through, I felt like I was going to throw up from all that BS with the sunglasses and silkscreened art – but Verte Marti was my saving grace. New Orleans is such a beautiful city throughout, you gotta do the French Quarter, but I wholeheartedly recommend the other 3/4.
1. Cajun Seafood (1901 Almonaster Ave, and others) – THIS is why I came to New Orleans. You cannot find anything like this in NYC. It’s the Crawfish Boil. Basically, they have these shrimps and crawfish nearly simmering in cajun spices ALL DAY. Also, in typical lower income fashion, they have turkey necks, pig hocks, and sausages also marinating in that Cajun boil. I ordered 3 shrimp and 1 sauteed crab. Fantastic. This crab was intense with sweet and pepper seed spicy and incredible deepness. There was nowhere inside to sit, so I was swooning on the curb in the parking lot. I wished it the crab to be soft shell so I could eat it entirely, but it wasn’t, so I had only as much shell as my teeth would let me. Unbeatable. I want more of this. History
Endnote: I came during Krewe du Vieux. This was a big parade that basically kicks off carnival season. Although I missed being in NY for the Giants defeating the Patriots once again (again, suck it, Pats), this was a great time to be in town. This parade was awesome – all killer, no filler, and few tourists. It’s a constant stream of brass bands in front of floats among so many people partying. The parade had almost no down time at all, this was how it’s supposed to be done! And these floats, they aren’t tame, they are very much so rebellious in nature – with a wink. Lots of papier mache fornication, odd-ball creatures (theme of the parade was Crimes Against Nature), and political off-color commentary. It was totally refreshing for me to see.
For example: What do you think happened if a parade in NYC featured a float of Mayor Mike Bloomberg being flogged by a transgender buffalo? That person probably wouldn’t stay around for a while.
The more I go to other cities, the more I realize how much New York is in a police state, and are a bunch of knee-jerking, litigious, xenophobic, pantywaists. The amount of visiting never-returners erodes business ethics and quality control. The rise of PR agencies has shifted favor from what is good, to what looks good. I have been able to disregard it because the majority of this sticks to Manhattan, but the constant encouragement by those making the rules is hard to ignore. It’s a shame. It’s disheartening.
That being said… on the plane ride back, I was able to see lots of cities of the US. They were pointed out by a collection of flickering buildings and streetposts. Then, as Philadelphia sent me to New York within a span of 20 minutes, I saw this amazing expanse of lights. NY was limitless. And on the bus back to Jackson Heights, the most beautiful scene I can remember emerged as it quickly filled with 8 different colors of people, and these differing languages started lighting up the cabin. And when the bus turned to Roosevelt Avenue, this electricity of the world was constant and loud. I can see how a tourist would be intimidated because there is nothing like this in the world.
There is a lot wrong with New York, and I do get down on it for killing our natural resources like oysters, clams, greens, and turkeys – but here I realized that the most precious resource for NYC, our immigrants, will not stop: it keeps on growing. Today, I am more reaffirmed than ever that I have to help people realize this and make it easier for the newest wave to achieve here. This is it.
——-Thanks to Annie, Hunter, and Jerome for putting me up.