As I heard a New Orleans local put it, “There are only three cities in America: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. All the rest are Cleveland.” With all due respect to Chicago and Seattle, I like the company San Francisco seems to keep. Having never before visited the American south, I just returned from four days in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras.
Of course, the food is phenomenal. We dined on excellent fried alligator and duck gumbo at Cuchon, a polished eatery south of the French Quarter that also provided us with perhaps the best service of the trip. Fried alligator tastes like a tough cross between calamari and chicken. Cafe Adelaide came highly recommended, and is apparently an old New Orleans mainstay. Unfortunately, like many mainstays, Adelaide is way past it’s prime. The shrimp in my gumbo tasted like leftovers. Our entrees took way too long but, in a deft blow to service physics, not as long as our appetizers. A labor force fit for a small industrial city was used to deliver our food, which was still delivered to the wrong people. When we complained to the “manager” that (among other things) we were overcharged, he actually argued with us until relenting. Cuchon’s only rival came from Jackson Restaurant, a hip newer establishment in the Lower Garden District, where we ordered fried green tomatoes, chicken maque choux, and fried oysters. The service was excellent, and so was the food.
Drinking in New Orleans is a different activity. First and foremost, you can order drinks at the bar to go. I cannot overemphasize the feeling of total victory that consumes your first stride out to the sidewalk, cup in hand. It’s triumphant. Drinking is also dirt cheap. Classic cocktails, martinis, manhattans, and whiskey sours were $5 almost everywhere, as were New Orleans’ signature drinks like a Gin Fizz or Sazerac. Demand for beer is never higher than during Mardi Gras, and
yet the price of the supply is so low (3 buds for $3), it’ll make you wonder if you’re still in America.
Speaking of Mardi Gras…the floats we’re amazing, the crowds were friendly and festive, and there we’re way fewer boobs than I expected. Watching grown adults fiend after otherwise completely worthless plastic beads can be highly rewarding, especially since tens of thousands of abandoned beads literally cover sidewalks and trees. We hit Bourbon Street on Lundi (Monday) Gras, and both
Bourbon and Frenchman Streets on Mardi Gras. Bourbon is awesome, if a bit young, like, 21. No, more like a 21st birthday. It absolutely reeks of beer, as the streets are covered in to-go cups from the bars. Discarded beads are very slippery. The French architecture is gorgeous, and the quarter is larger than you’d maybe expect. Frenchman street is the part of the qu
arter that the locals visit, and we enjoyed live bar-rock and jazz in nearly every establishment on the rue.
I highly recommend taking the Natches steam boat for a two hour trip up the Mississippi river. The boat features passenger access to the engine room, two bars, a gorgeous dining room, and a charming two-piece jazz performance. The kitsch factor, however, is a bit of a let down: The buffet on board is mediocre, and looking around at your fellow passengers, one cannot escape the suspicion that a game of bingo, or perhaps a grand-slam breakfast is not too far off. I’m convinced that if some enterprising young southerners would just
ditch the buffet for gourmet bar food, dimmed the lights, and swapped the sleepy duet with a smokin’ hot jazz group at one end of the ship and a DJ at the other end, the riverboat industry might regain some of it’s lost glory.
Then there’s the people. Unlike San Francisco, New Orleans is almost perfectly binary on the color spectrum: just black and white. In four days I noticed two Latinos, and thought I was going to make it home without seeing a single Asian until we stumbled into Cafe du Monde, the famous bignet house. Bignets are a New Orleans specialty which consist of fried bread crop dusted with powdered sugar. For what’s essentially the most famous doughnut place in town to be entirely staffed by Chinese Americans was almost too much cliche to bear, even for me. Forget “The Big Easy”, “Who Dat?” is the city’s real motto, as one sees it crammed everywhere from t-shirts to billboards to newspaper front-pages. Style is in rough shape: women frump it up in pajamas, while men only seem to wear non-funny printed t-shirts which read things like “Skilled in Every Position” and “I Don’t Give a Fuck” and (of course) “Who Dat?”. On more than one occasion, I spotted front yards with plastic flowers planted in the ground (our hosts promised us you could see people actually watering their ‘plants’). One finds dilapidated houses everywhere, even in the wealthier districts. Many
establishments have balconies, everybody has a porch, and there are mouthbreathers everywhere. The sidewalks present a mortal danger.
Amidst the Mardi Gras swag, I struggled to find a classy piece of New Orleans to take home. Luckily, I found two beautiful original prints at Poets Framing and Gallery on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden district, which is somewhat akin to San Francisco’s Valencia street. If you visit New Orleans, you must visit Stephan Wanger’s art gallery. In an ode to his adopted city after the devastation of Katrina, Wanger is completing a series of mosaics constructed entirely of salvaged Mardi Gras beads. The scope and detail is stunning, and his current piece, when complete, will take the title as worlds largest bead image (take that, 5th graders of Scoil Naomh Iosaf elementary school in Ireland).
We definitely had a great time. Next stop: Cleveland. Just kidding.
Wow - Great Article said:
It was great meeting you Adrian – awesome story – I am glad you had so much fun here… Always Summertime in New Orleans – Stephan Wanger
It’s an excusable assumption, but the population being “binary” thing is actually not quite true. New Orleans is actually a relative melting pot compared to most other cities in the southern US. As you may have gathered, New Orleans is extremely atypical for the American South… It is an exciting blend of French, Cajun, Creole, Caribbean, Spanish (as in, Spain), and so on culturally. It is in many ways a sister city to San Francisco, and the two are probably the most similar of all US cities I’ve visited (and lived in, as well).
So anyway, my point is, while the black and white thing is obviously a major feature, there is (and has long been) a sizable Vietnamese population. Chalk it up perhaps to the French heritage (much Vietnamese cuisine is influenced, of course, by French occupation in Vietnam, etc), and the historically large Louisiana fishing industry.
Also, if you’re bored sometime, do a bit of research on how the rights (and lifestyles) of African Americans in New Orleans differed quite a bit from all other slave-owning states. African Americans (as both slaves and free people) in New Orleans had considerably better rights and status than anywhere else in the South. Even slaves could only be worked to certain limits.
I love San Francisco and may be moving back later this year. That said, though, I would not trade my time having lived in New Orleans for anything in the world. It is simply the most unique, weirdest, wackiest, funnest, happiest place I’ve lived in my entire life. No stamp or stereotype (certainly not the “Southern” term that has been a repellant for me since growing up in the south and leaving it for the west coast years ago) can properly define the place. It is a different little world, and we’re even truly open to befriending and including new people (try that in SEATTLE, omg…).
Anyway, glad to hear you had a good time in New Orleans. Next time, try exploring a little more of the local stuff… The French Quarter is awesome, and authentic, but there’s more… Try the Marigny as a start (since it borders the French Quarter), then work your way on over to Uptown, with the beautiful Audubon Park, amazing homes and architecture, an easy-to-use streetcar route, and Tulane and Loyola universities (not to mention, outstanding restaurants and bars). Then check out Mid-City, including City Park, and the funky neighborhood of Bayou St. John.
Adrian Covert said:
@Richard: Thanks for the great comments! I absolutely loved New Orleans, and if not for the sweltering summers, could definitely see myself living there at some point. I explored a bit of the area around Loyola, I even saw a comedy show at a bar near there (I forgot the name…but I remember it was named after the nearby street car station). Thanks again!