Wednesday, June 8, 2011

To New Orleans, From Houston: Good game.

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 10:40 PM

When Spring Break rolled around this year, my grandparents surprised my husband and I by stealing our kids off to Disney World, leaving us a week to indulge in the quiet company of each other. Instead, I decided to bolt to New Orleans with three girlfriends. After all, it's not everyday that you find a classy hotel with a rooftop hot tub available just far enough away from Bourbon Street to get away from the noise and crowds, yet close enough to walk to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and café au lait at 3am and to Brother's Food Mart on the way back for a few paper boat of fried chicken and french fries. (Ridiculous, I know; and I couldn't care less!)

The two requests that we had of our hotel was that it should be located where four rather young ladies would be safe walking back from our evening adventures and that it had to have a hot tub. I went a little crazy searching for the perfect location on Trip Advisor...I looked at e.v.e.r.y listing in NOLA including the B&Bs and guest houses. I even used Google's aerial view to seek out visible pools and spas. I'm a very thorough researcher! I hovered over a promising blue square near Canal Street and zoomed in. Location was the ultimate deciding factor and the Omni Royal Crescent on Gravier Street couldn't be beat, for it held a rooftop hot tub.

Being from Houston, I had some really high expectations of New Orleans cuisine. I thought I would be stumbling over boudain and po-boys all day and night. I will cut to the chase and say that from my experience, which was only three days long and very centralized in the Quarter and nearby areas, Houston still wins. For variety, cost, and convenience, H-town has it on the lock down, IMHO. Both cities lack in the late night eats department. But we did get ahold of some very tasty grub in some unexpected places that definitely granted NOLA bonus points.

We decided to ride the trolley just for kicks and go take a picture of our friend's home, though she lives in California and sublets the place to someone we don't know. After that we walked over to the Lafayette Cemetery. It was beautiful and majestic in an old world kind of way that you don't see often in newer cities like Houston that do little to preserve such sites. We were already hungry but wanted to see this hallowed ground first. It was a quick visit as our stomachs soon rushed us back out the gates.

We went looking for somewhere to eat and stumbled upon a corner deli called The Grocery. There were a couple of little tables and chairs out front and it was a beautiful day so we went in to order a patio lunch. I got to talking to the owner, Marcy, a young woman in her late twenties and it took a moment to notice she was working hard to speak clearly, and when she shook my hand, it was with her left. She turned her right hand over to show me it wasn't quite ready to work the way it used to.

"I had a stroke. From alcohol. Four years ago." She spoke slow and clear to be sure that I heard her. "Tell them that." Her message was clear- she had faced death at a very young age and wants her story to be told as a warning to others.

She struggled through rehabilitation therapy and it seems that she focused so hard on her goals that they had no choice but to materialize. And her food- excellent. While I toot my horn about Houston's food scene, we are direly lacking in the sandwich department. The chicken salad po-boy I ordered was perfect- not sweet, not too creamy, dotted with pecans and the chicken was obviously made on site as it had that home-cooked texture and flavor. We tried the BLT and the BBQ po-boy too and both were awesome. They have a great selection of local beer too. The Grocery is just off the Trolley at 6th and St. Charles. It's a very happy place thanks to Marcy's spirit and the friendly staff.

For some reason it was hard to find food in the Quarter after 9pm on a Tuesday night. I guess I had the impression that the Quarter never sleeps but what do I know? It took me 30 years to get to NOLA so I really didn't know what to expect. We walked all over looking for somewhere to eat that didn't require reservations, wasn't strictly bar food, and was within a decent price range. I refused to eat at the seedy little Chinese restaurant that we kept passing- I was in New Orleans dammit! I was going to eat good!

We had walked past a little spot called Fiorella's, an Italian cafe and bar, and decided that would be our best bet. I wasn't quite in the mood for pasta but we were all starting to picture each other on a skewer with a side of drawn butter and I'm the worst about getting snarly when I'm hungry. So we grabbed a table and looked over the menu. I checked Yelp to see what people said to try at Fiorella's and for some odd reason every review was of someone proclaiming the greatness of this Italian bar's fried chicken. I'm not kidding. Check it out yourself.

I hesitated and then ordered the fried chicken, from the Irish bartender who challenged that I couldn't finish it all. Fried chicken. Irish bartender. At an Italian bar. In Creole country. It was sounding more like Houston by the minute. No one ordered pasta- everyone got fried chicken. It was the most ridiculous thing I've ever put into my face. I had to use both hand to lift a single breast and the juicy flavor explosion nearly knocked my hungry ass out. It was amazing. Needless to say a few primary colored drinks and an hour later we were stuck with four heavy leftover pieces that I nibbled on later and brought home the next day as a souvenir for a friend. I owed him one. Sorry for the bad photo- I just took one and dug in. But you can see how one piece towers over the salt shaker, dwarfing the bowl of mashed potatoes (I don't even remember how they were, poor things.) It turns out the cooks were a bunch of college boys. They are going to make some women fat and happy someday.

I don't think I've ever stood in a line as long as the one that snaked out and across the street from Johnny's Po-Boys on St. Louis St. I had been told I had to try it. It wasn't Johnny's fault that I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped. It took close to two hours to get the first bite in my mouth and by then snarlies were upon me. The people were nice and the food was good, but not two hour good. We had shrimp po-boys and gumbo. The shrimp was good, but a thick blanket of shredded lettuce hindered the encounter.

We walked with our food to sit by the river so I fed the grass the lettuce, doused the sandwich with our travel Cholula, and chowed down. It was good. I will say that. An hour an a half before that it would have been damn good. The gumbo was bland and had cooled down too much so that it was overly gelatinous. My Lebanese husband makes a mean, painful gumbo that I favor, with every sea creature imaginable so it's hard to contend with that. Oh well. That's what I get for falling into a tourist trap.

3am eats in NOLA

Of course we had to go to Cafe du Monde but the line during the day is laughably long. Who the hell waits that long in a line for some fried dough? When we found out it was open 24 hours a day, we planned a late night return instead.

It turned out that at 3am, there is no line, but the cafe au lait is still hot and the beignets are still made to order. And it's cash only, at that hour at least. Maybe it was because we went the Sunday after Mardi Gras, but New Orleans was sleeping and we were drinking coffee, ready for fun. A few bars were open and we made one last stop before running, yes running, back to the hotel. But just as we crossed Canal Street, a delicious aroma beckoned us into a massive all night corner store called Brother's, where we found ourselves ordering a paper basket of fried chicken and steak fries. Houston. We have a problem. Where is my 4am fried chicken option ?

Bars to check out:

The first night we skipped the whole yard-long drink from cheesy-Nola-Bar-X and headed for where the locals hang out on Frenchman's Street. It was a Sunday night so not a lot was happening though there were a few bars with food and live music. It was chill, which was what we were after.

Don't miss:

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop- the oldest bar in New Orleans. It's dark and mellow and the clientele is a hazy flux of tourist with a few friendly locals mixed in. On occasion a tour comes through, as the bar is reputed to be haunted. Great whiskey selection- don't order a Long Island or anything colored in this refuge. Please.

Pravda Bar- Another chill bar on Decatur with a great dusky atmosphere and a cute little turtle in a pond out back that likes to terrorize the goldfish.

Fiorella's fried chicken. It's ridiculous.