Spring in NOLA – Musings and Munchies

March 24-27, 2011

New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin. – Mark Twain

Eating our way through New Orleans had been a dream of ours since Jordan and I met. It all started when he brought me to John Roussos’ New Orleans’ Take-Out in Madison, Wisconsin. Yep, Madison of all places!

John Roussos is a NOLA transplant. He used to work at Antoine’s in New Orleans, but he followed his sweetheart (and wife today) to the Midwest where his cravings for Cajun Creole pushed him to open up his own place. And it’s been going strong ever since.

“Etouffee,” “Po-boy,” and “Creole,” were words I had never heard uttered until I ate at NOTO. And the first time hot red buttery Shrimp Creole hit my tongue, I was hooked.

So needless to say, expectations were high as we drifted over the swampy marshes around Louis Armstrong airport and landed softly on the tarmac.

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Our adventure started in the back of a big van which easily could have transported a tour group of people. But “taxis” in NOLA all seem to be big vans or SUVs anyhow. Our driver – a lively Jamaican woman – was cheerful and full of laughter as she deftly swerved us in and out of traffic lanes at 80 miles an hour.

No worry. We were in New Orleans after all. And the sun was a-shining.

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Quick shower. Quick change. Quick departure to our first eating excursion!

It was a short walk from the Omni Royal Orleans at St. Louis and Chartres to Coop’s, so we took our time and soaked up the beautiful architecture, 80 degree sun, and crisp refreshing breezes.

As we were walking and talking about lunch, a dude in front of us (carrying a bag of fresh shrimps) overheard and asked us where we were headed. We said “Coop’s Place.” He said “Follow me.” Turns out, he was a cook there. Any voodoo priestess would call that a very good omen.

This bar slash casual eatery would be perfect for lunch. Smelled like savory seafood when we walked into the dimly lit dark wood bar. Locals chatted as they drank down Bloody Mary’s. I glimpsed some nice lookin’ Po-boys on plates.

The chalkboard menu only got us more excited as we saw words like “jambalaya,” red beans,” “crawfish,” and more. We ordered in a flash – two cups of filé crab gumbo, the “Coop’s Taste Plate” and the “Fried Oyster Shrimp Platter.” We’d sample as much as we could goshdarnnit!

The jambalaya was a stand-out here and would be my favorite version of the dish throughout our entire four days. The rabbit and andouille combo was sweet, savory, and comforting. The rice was softer than I was used to but the plump kernels wrapped in the tender shredded rabbit meat coated the tongue in a quilted layer of flavors. The andouille’s smokiness tied it all together. So friggin’ good.

The fried platter was simple in preparation but I could not have replicated this at home without some real experimentation. The oysters were intensely sweet, juicy, unbelievable. The best fried oysters truly I’ve ever had. The batter was shatteringly crisp yet had body. I would realize later that this type of batter was how they did it New Orleans, and it made so much sense as it perfectly holds in the flavorful fresh seafood juices of oysters and shrimp.

It really couldn’t get any better than this to kick off our NOLA adventure.

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After lunch we explored the French Quarter. Sun warming our cheeks and our hearts after the rainy cold we left back home.

We took a stroll through the French Market while munching on some deep fried peanuts. You eat em’ – shell and all! Couldn’t pass up the homemade creamy pralines and “Shoe Soles” from Loretta’s New Orleans which are like they sound, big shoe sole-shaped pastries heavily dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Perfect walking food!

Then we came upon a mecca of hot sauces – Nawlin’s Café & Spice Emporium.

Jordan was in heaven. We must have tried every sauce on the shelf! I also picked up a treasure I wasn’t expecting. The Uglesich’s cookbook. The Uglesich’s are a NOLA legend despite their generations-long restaurant closing up shop twenty years or so ago. I’ll definitely be using this baby at home.

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Believe it or not, after a few hours of walking, we wanted a snack. And oh, lookie here! Central Grocery – home of the original famous muffaletta sandwich!

P.S. you didn’t think we could go a day in NOLA without having a muffaletta did you?
Worth it, y’all.

Pick up some olive salad and Zapp’s Crawtater chips on the way out by the way.

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Frommer’s had a nice walking tour online which I picked up, so for the next few hours we casually strolled through the neighborhoods. They were quiet, fragrant, and utterly gorgeous in the spring sun. Forget Bourbon Street. THIS is the real NOLA.

We stopped in for an espresso pick-me-up at the Royal Café – a charming place with an inset patio that you get to through a narrow alley from the street. I love the nooks and crannies of the buildings and streets here.

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We made it to the great Mississippi after weaving our way through a variety of excellent street performances from Jazz bands, puppeteers, and hippie kids. A large barge chugged on by as I watched the great waters churn against the rock embankment.

I had always had a romantic attachment to the South and the Mississippi since I was a kid because the stories from the South were so foreign and exotic to me growing up in Newcastle, Pennsylvania.

And when I met Jordan, he’d recant stories from his childhood adventures growing up in McComb, Mississippi, and my imagination went wild with dreams of catching crawfish, eating boiled peanuts, pulling fresh figs off the trees, and licking honeysuckle along the railroad tracks. It made falling for him pretty darn easy actually.

So sure, I was a little anxious about being disappointed since my expectations were so high.

But I can honestly say that New Orleans inspired something in me that surpassed my romantic musings. I felt something more permanent and solid within me standing there next to Old Blue – something I could grab onto and nurture as I breathed in fresh river water.

Yep, this would be a trip to remember.

Next up: Dinner at the iconic Chef Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen!

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