Firstly, how great is the word 'y'all?' I'm envious of all y'all who can use it in everyday practical situations. Down here in Australia we have no equivalent- except for "youse", which is the sole domain of bogans (google this word if you're unsure).
Returned recently from 10 lovely days with my partner in New Orleans which turned out to be one idiosyncratic trip for two foodies on a budget. There was disappointment and revelation, joy and bewilderment... as our best-laid eating plans were scuttled in favour of chance discoveries and restless exploration. That's the beauty of travel! Sally forth with me into reminiscence, dear reader, if you please! Warning: the report will be non-chronological and ramble, ramble 'til the butcher cuts me down.
We lived at 1930 Canal Street about 10 minutes north of the Quarter. Slightly barren landscape (sandwiched in between car rental lots) but a terribly lovely guesthouse.
We get perverse kicks out of refusing taxis and walking/taking the streetcar. I find that you discover more hidden gems on foot rather than being ferried quickly from A to B. (Also, we're in our early 20's and don't have full time jobs yet :P)
We can't afford too many upper line restaurants. Our criteria for an enjoyable meal is that the place has a memorable (not necessarily refined or classy) atmosphere; and that genuine respect and dedication is shown to the cuisine. Basically, we don't eat at restaurants who exist to sell T shirts.
The awfulness of MOTHER'S made me cry. Boil a fillet steak for an hour. Now shred that up into bits, cover it in salt water and call it beef debris, then look me in the eye and expect me to pay for it. Would you be able to sleep at night? Heck, no, son! 2/10
On Christmas Day we ended up in MAGNOLIA GRILL on Decatur for want of anything else being open. Didn't seem like a place with much soul, and the surly waitstaff confirmed it. Not awesome Sopranos-surly, but I'd-rather be-at-home-playing-XBox surly. But the blackened catfish po-boy was pretty darn good! Good garlicky spicing, juicy fish, little so-bad-they're-good mayonaise packets. 7/10. That evening, still hardly anything open, FRENCH MARKET CAFE. Decent fried shrimp po-boy. 6/10
JOHNNY'S did us a pretty good fried oyster one afternoon. Oysters were nice and fat, po-boys were thick and bread held up well. 7/10
But here's one of our top finds: KJEAN'S, on Carrollton just east of Canal. It's a little fresh seafood outlet that also does some hot fare (no tables though). Sure it's up in Mid-City, but it's so cute, and it's along the streetcar line! Oyster po-boy is long as my forearm... good, sturdy bread... at least a dozen gorgeous oysters. Life affirming stuff! 8.5/10.
Stuffed crab there had too much stuffing, not enough crab- but it was cheap. 7/10.
LIUZZA'S: bowled over by the atmosphere. Despite the crowd we felt so welcome here (If you're a waitress, calling me darling gets you another few dollars in your tip, instantly. I'm a softie). Sauteed shrimp po-boy was decent (could've had punchier spicing), but made great by... dipping it lovingly into in my creamy shrimp and artichoke soup! Mmmm! Sacrilege! 8/10
PARASOL'S: Roast beef. My goodness. Bam! Even the bread and dressing were tops. 9.5/10. But hot sausage was like a party in my mouth... and everyone brought salt! 5/10.
Sorry Parasol's- you get the dubious honour of best and least best po-boy (Mother's is an aberration against nature and will not be counted). Saltiness level was just difficult to eat, bro.
2) Soul Food
PRALINE CONNECTION was our last proper meal in New Orleans, and what a pleasant finish. We had a stellar gumbo... thin texture, but just bursting with flavours of crab and caramelised trinity. Meatloaf was maybe a bit light on flavour (it did make good friends with hot sauce) but mustard and collard greens were spot on, great depth with a hint of bitterness, mac and cheese was even a little complex (several different cheeses, perhaps)? "Australia! I love you guys," said our waiter in his awesome outfit, shaking our hands vigorously. "Thank you for making us your last meal in New Orleans". No, dude. Thank you. 8/10
TWO SISTERS KITCHEN was 5 minutes walk away from our guesthouse. Heck almighty we fell in love with this place. The rotating menu, the profusion of slow-cooked vegetables, the complimentary cornbread and potato salad... over several days we had oxtails, fried catfish, ham hocks, fried chicken, cabbage, greens, mac, red beans and rice. Nothing particularly blew our minds but in combination with the friendly welcome and the neighbourhood ambience (surroundings felt safe, too) it was like having a loving auntie gently fattening us up... and we put up no resistance. 9/10
3) Cheap Fried Chicken
POPEYES: spicy dark meat was just a little bit dry, and spice mix was a bit muddy. But otherwise crunchy and satisfying, surprisingly nice dirty rice with real liver bits. 7.5/10.
But hidden inside IDEAL CONVENIENCE STORE, corner Canal and Galvez, lies KRISPY KRUNCHY CHICKEN. Nudge respectfully through the perpetual crowd of gangsta customers. Find the smiling Hispanic lady behind the pile of chicken. Get some dark pieces then get outta there quick smart. You're rewarded with juicy, succulent stuff and the joy of finding food in unexpected places. 8.5/10
CAFE DU MONDE is lovely, beignets are uber-hot to the point of caramelising the sugar! And does a mean hot chocolate- its not too sweet and we love its rich velvety texture . We don't have half-and-half in Australia, so that might have something to do with it. 8/10
CAFE BEIGNET lacks the atmosphere or established patina of CDM... but personally I prefer their beignets a bit. I'm open for all arguments. I just think their beignets are lighter, fluffier, not drowned in sugar, whereas sometimes at CDM it felt like we were eating a crispy shell with the insides missing. Anyone with me on this? 8.1/10
5) Gumbo and seafood
PRALINE CONNECTION: See above review, gumbo: 8/10
GUMBO SHOP does not have the best gumbo in the city, as it claims its chicken and andouille gumbo to be. It was a soup that tasted like andouille. But the seafood gumbo is real pleasant, if a little thick for my liking- and we had a hot apple cider with our gumbos (what freaks we are!) that was the bomb- hints of citrus, cinnamon and clove. Yes indeed. 7.5/10
NEW ORLEANS SCHOOL OF COOKING
Was immense fun and good value... I was expecting a small feed but its 4 courses (really 3 and a praline) sufficed for lunch. Perhaps its because we were taught by a lovely Cajun ex-kindergarten teacher named Anne who was the epitome of cheerful generosity- people got seconds and there were still leftovers at the end. We watched gumbo, jambalaya and bread pudding being made. Gumbo was chicken and andouille which was a bit too salty and oily for my taste, but real complex with crispy pieces of fried garlic! Jambalaya was similar. Bread pudding was a bit kooky (coconut and pineapple?) but great texture. 8/10.
Turtle/chicken/gumbo soup trio (best 3 soups of the trip). Butternut pumpkin soup. Duck cassoulet. Grilled black drum. Bread pudding souffle which was just an excuse to drink the whiskey cream sauce straight from the spoon. Pecan pie. Shout out to Ray and Chris, our two excellent young waiters who served everything with a knowing, inclusive wink that said "Y'all are students on the cheap trying to be classy but also here to get slushed on martini, huh? Dude, two years ago we were doing exactly the same." 9.5/10
ACME OYSTER HOUSE: At the airport, we farewelled NOLA with an ultra quick half dozen natural, half dozen charred. Naturals were chunky if a bit bland... but charred were the absolute bomb. Melted parmesan had seemingly coated the little dudes entirely. Still bubbling in garlicky juices on our plate. 8/10.
FELIX'S: Man, a lot of bloggers built this up as the place in the Quarter to go for cheap oysters. However, we found the natural oysters to be also bit insipid (and they didn't have the range of hot sauces that Acme did, although the add-your-own-horseradish) was a great touch. Similar with the char-grilled oysters- small oysters, watery sauce that lacked punch! That being said, they do a pretty nice gumbo- dark with oysters in- which is good value, and we didn't mind our supplementary crawfish tails and blackened alligator bits. 7/10.
Conclusion: I'm going to give Australian oysters the crown for real briny, aphrodisiacal flavour. I know I sound ungrateful, but hey, different strokes... and I invite anyone to come down under and I'll steam you some large Tasmanian oysters with soy, ginger, scallions, sesame oil, garlic oil and spicy bean paste.
STEIN'S DELI- little Jewish deli we found on Magazine St. We'd just come from New York and satisfyed a bagel and whitefish salad craving. A really great, inviting atmosphere in this place. People walked in and out smiling, stocking up on Jewish goods. 7.5/10
TAQUERIA GEURRERO- next to Angelo Brocato's on Carrollton near Canal. We loved this little strip of Carrollton- it was like our own mini-French Quarter, 10 minutes on the streetcar. After a few trials and errors with this friendly local Mexican, we worked out what they do best. Tacos! Duh! 3 Tacos are only $6.00- knockout pulled pork and pulled chicken, fresh crunchy salad. Other meals are average, but they do a pretty ship-shape red beans and rice, south of the border style. 7/10
BENNACHIN- Finishing off this report, the 2nd best meal of the trip. On NYE, we wanted a quiet place that was off the usual tourist map and tracked this West African joint down. We had tilapia with spinach and fried plantains (a huge food obsession) and beef and okra soup with fufu. A sea of spinach was puckishly flavoured with, I think, dried prawn and maybe a stock cube, and spilling off the plate. Fish was delicately poached in garIic and ginger on a pilaf-like rice. I rolled the fufu (cassava paste) into dumplings which I threw into my thick okra soup, amazingly dark (surely they don't use a roux?), savoury and brimming with chunks of melting brisket. It's simple food, but in its soulful, honest execution it's chasing Commander's by a whisker. 9.4/10
Respond, argue, recommend as you will. It's been almost as pleasurable writing this up as eating in NOLA. Love your town and its people and see you next time