New Orleans: Parting Thoughts

As I sit in the Atlanta airport during my layover on the way from Nashville, it seems like a good time to reflect back on my time in New Orleans.  Being in a different city “every month” is conceptually simple, but the logistics of travel mean that what I usually mean by “month” is “four weeks”.  But since there are a few extra days that accumulate every month, I get to sneak in a couple of five week stays.  I’m glad that New Orleans was one of those.

In each most cities I’ve booked time in, I’ve been aiming to stay “downtown”, or some local equivalent.  Wherever the city is centered, and where the highest concentration of walkable/bike-able stuff is found.  I picked the French Quarter for New Orleans, and it was great.  Amazing food, nearby Carnival parade routes, and some great sites and museums meant that I always had something interesting to do if I wanted it.

That said, the French Quarter is very itself, and from what I could tell, not all that much like the rest of the city.  It felt like I got a great feel for the French Quarter, and made a couple of visits to New Orleans during my time.  While I left Atlanta with the feeling that there was more I could have experienced there, that feeling is acute as I leave New Orleans behind.  I barely scratched the surface of an amazing place, and I could totally imagine a repeat visit.

Given how vocal I am about enjoying food, it’ll come as no surprise that one of my favorite things about living just outside the French Quarter was the food.  There’s an incredible variety of Creole and Cajun restaurants, and almost every one has a sampler of classic dishes on the menu which made it super easy to compare them and find favorites.

Ironically, that abundance was, on occasion, a bit of a curse.  If I woke up one morning and didn’t want another bowl of gumbo for lunch, there were almost no options in the Quarter that could help me find something different.  I was forced to explicitly explore outside the Quarter to find most of the options I returned to.  (Plus I spent a ton of time going to local supermarkets for fresh produce to snack on at home, which helped a lot.)

Another downside to being so close to the Quarter is that while the food was all pretty great, it was also priced for tourists.  It felt like every meal was $3-4 more than I would have paid at a restaurant serving the same thing a mile further away.  That’s something I felt I could sustain for a month, but don’t know how comfortable I’d be with that long term.

One thing that I noticed, though this is purely anecdotal, was a prevalence of bars.  With only a few exceptions, every restaurant I went to during my time in New Orleans had a bar.  Some of this is likely explained by spending so much time in the French Quarter, but it felt like even when I was outside of the Quarter, many restaurants also had bars.  It’s also possible that this is more common than I’m really aware of since I rarely think about bars, but in Atlanta, for instance, only a couple of places I ate had bars.  I’m not sure that this speaks to a cultural quirk of the city, but it might.

Speaking of city culture, the vibe I got from New Orleans was relaxed and intentionally fun.  At least some, and.maybe even most, of that impression likely comes from specific time and place: Mardi Gras and the French Quarter.  That said, even when I ventured further afield that impression remained.  The locals that I talked to seemed to be in agreement that the vibe of the city as a whole was great.  They did point out that it’s an expensive place to live, though, and my brief look at the price of condos in the building where I was staying concurred.

One phrase that more than one local used to describe the city that really resonated with me was “the northernmost city of the Caribbean”.  They seemed to mean to describe a general relaxed attitude within the city, and also often added a dig at the bad condition of the local roads.  Which was well deserved.  I mentioned how bad the roads in Atlanta were at some point, but they were worse in New Orleans.  I saw (and rode through )some incredible potholes during my stay.  The road surfaces were generally in terrible condition, making me even more grateful to be riding a pretty rugged bicycle.

Overall, I really enjoyed my stay in New Orleans.  I’d recommend a visit if you’ve never been, and would love to go back for more.  With that said, let’s get onto the most important part of this post.  Let’s talk about food.

Three courses at the Gumbo Shop

I found the Gumbo Shop during a Google search for Creole food in the French Quarter, and it turned out to be another example of the internet being awesome.  I ate here four or five times, and I got some gumbo every time.  It was great.  Sometimes I only got a cup of gumbo so I could eat other things with it.  One thing that I really enjoyed when I was willing to spend a bit more on a meal was the multi course option on the menu.  Gumbo, an entree, a vegetable, and a dessert, all of which were delicious (their choux corn was a real stand out) was a nice way to wrap up a long day.

Bo kho at Pho Tau Bay

One of the first places I found when I started craving something not creole to eat was Pho Tau Bay.  I went in planning to get some pho for lunch, but saw a soup I’d never heard of on the menu.  I like trying new things, so I ordered it.  And wow.

Bo kho is like if you started with a pho broth, but added lemongrass and paprika, put carrots and chunks of beef in it, and simmer it for hours so the carrots and beef tenderize and the flavor really develops.  This is definitely in contention for my favorite noodle soup now, and I love most noodle soups already.  I think I ordered this every one of the five or six times I ate at Pho Tau Bay and I have no regrets.  Except maybe I didn’t go.more often.  If you ever see bo kho on a menu at a Vietnamese restaurant, I recommend it.

Shawarma and gyro at Olive

Olive was another one of my food retreats from the French Quarter.  Sometimes after days of eating seafood stews and andouille sausage, all you want is some hummus, falafel, and a good salad (and maybe some halloumi).  Olive was ready to provide.  They also served a Lebanese style tea that was really great.

I didn’t have my first meal at the New Orleans Creole Cookery until pretty late in my stay.  We wandered in at random while my mom and sister were visiting, but i made it a point to go back after they left.  That first visit I ordered the creole pasta, and it was a revelation.  Slightly spicy, slightly tangy, richly tomato-y, and texturally delightful with chunks of bell pepper, perfectly cooked noodles, and spiced shredded chicken.

A quick aside about “creole pasta”.  This was a menu item on quite a few menus, but not only did no two places I ordered it from make it the same way, no two places even made the same dish.  For instance, the New Orleans Creole Cookery made something reminiscent of a spicy Italian marinara sauce, but with cayenne in the sauce and chunks of bell pepper and shredded chicken added.  I also ordered creole pasta from the Spicy Crab, and it was a much thinner sauce.  It was almost more of a spicy tomato soup with thin noodles swimming in it.  It was great, but so different.  Finally, I had creole pasta at Zesty Creole (more on them below).  It was built around a creamy garlic alfredo sauce with penne and finely diced bell peppers.  The sauce was loaded with cheese, making it thick and creamy and delicious in a way that most restaurant alfredos can’t manage.  It was really fascinating to explore these radically different ideas of what “creole pasta” might be, especially when they were all so good.

Back to the Creole Cookery, their fried catfish was the best I had in the city.  Tasty batter, perfectly crisp, but not so heavy that it overwhelmed the fish.

Cucumbers in chili oil and dry pot chicken at Zhang’s Bistro

Zhang’s Bistro was the nearest result to me when running a map search for Sichuan food, and after eating there it boggled my mind that they weren’t way more busy.  The food was incredible.  Maybe this is why there aren’t more non-Creole/Cajun places in the French Quarter?  If you can make food this good and not be consistently busy, I can only imagine that most people are looking for the famous local cuisine when they’re in the area.

Anyway, Zhang’s was great.  Their menu was limited, but they were on par with some of the better Sichuan meals I had in NYC over the years.

One interesting little side note is that the first time I went, I realized that I was pretty sure that Zhan’s represented the first time I’d ever been in an Asian restaurant and seen no Asian staff.  It was lunch, so there were only two or three people in the front of the house, but none of them were Asian.  The service and food were great, so it didn’t matter, but I did notice it.

Blackened redfish and bread pudding at Zesty Creole

One of the phrases I’ve used when telling people about my travel plans is that I want to be in each city “just long enough to become a regular”.  Four or five weeks isn’t that long, but it was long enough to become a regular at Zesty Creole.  One of my first meals (and my favorite Jambalaya) after arriving in New Orleans was at Zesty Creole, owing as much to their proximity to my apartment as to their enticing menu.  Once I’d eaten there, though, I knew I’d be back.

In a nice bit of symmetry, my final meal in the city was also at Zesty Creole.  Across the five weeks between, I’d come to recognize (and be recognized by) about a third of the staff.  I even got a hug on the way out after telling folks thanks and that I was leaving town in the morning.

I think I probably ate about a dozen meals across five weeks, so 2-3 a week, at Zesty Creole.  That gave me an opportunity to go through almost half their menu, and while the convenience of proximity definitely contributed to that frequency, the quality of their kitchen was a bigger factor.  Every dish I ate was delicious, and made me want to come back and try something different to see if it was just as good.  Kind of like when you discover a new author that you wind up liking and want to read other stuff they wrote because you know you’ll enjoy it.

If you’re ever in New Orleans, I recommend a meal at Zesty Creole.  If you manage to swing by, I’d love to hear what you think.  Especially of their biscuits, which I thought were some of the best I’ve ever had.

Three courses at Miss River

The food section of this post has been mostly focused on places I ate more than once, but without becoming a food blog I wanted to mention the one “fine dining” experience I had at Miss River.  Even though this is enough of a non sequitur as to deserve its own post.

Short version: the food was great, and while I could nitpick at it (the sweet potato brioche was too rich to taste the sweet potato, frying the saltines that accompanied the gratin in butter was like putting a hat on a hat for an already rich dish), the food was all incredible.  Besides, I already mentioned not wanting to be a food blog.

The main reason it stuck with me is that the entree I had was just so interesting.  It was clearly structured as a Thai style green curry: bell peppers, eggplant, and some other veggies in a green curry sauce.  But a sauce unlike any other green curry I’ve ever had.  There was no hint of coconut milk that I could discern, and it was quite sour (and also intensely green).  Almost as if they’d pureed lemongrass as the base of the sauce.  While generally I’m looking at “delicious” as the primary goal of a nice meal out, sometimes it’s nice to have “thought-provoking” be the primary descriptor you wind up with.






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