It’s been a pretty local but wonderful week here in Louisiana. My folks were here most of the week, so we’ve been out exploring together. It was wonderful to spend some time with them, but they sure did wear me out! While most of our time was spent in New Orleans, we did get out into Acadiana (Cajun Country) for two great nights as well. For a link to the map of all the places in this post, click the link HERE.
It is always great to be back in New Orleans. I lived here for two full years from 2007-2009, trying to help the city recover from Hurricane Katrina. I taught 8th Grade math at Francis Gregory Elementary School in one of the most challenging but rewarding chapters of my life. I made some really good friends and forged a lifelong bond with the Crescent City. The culture, music, people and food get inside of you, and I always feel drawn back here.
While my folks were in town, I stayed at my friend Walker’s house. Walker is a New Orleans native, and started teaching when I did back in 2007. He’s changed schools a couple of times, but is still teaching here. Back when I lived in New Orleans, we both lived in the French Quarter, and got to hang out a lot together. He often invited me along to events I would have never known about on my own, so I am very grateful to him for helping me navigate the city during my time here. It’s always great to see him and catch up on all the New Orleans gossip and get a first-hand account of what the school system is up to. I was really busy with my folks, so we didn’t get to hang out a lot, but it was definitely good to see him.
My folks’ train got in late on Tuesday, but we still went out and got a poboy sandwich from Nola Poboys which is a good spot right on Bourbon Street that’s open late. Poboys are sandwiches on a French baguette, and it really is the bread which makes the sandwich. Good poboy bread is light and fluffy and barely seems there at all. After dinner, we ducked in for a quick beer or two at my mom’s favorite bar: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Lafitte’s is a dark and wonderful little bar at the end of the developed part of Bourbon Street, and two blocks from my old apartment. It’s a great place to sit by candlelight and watch the world go by. Historically, it’s one of only three buildings in the French Quarter which survived both of the big fires in the 1700’s, and is therefore one of the only three French colonial buildings found there. Most of the rest of the neighborhood is actually Spanish colonial architecture.
The next morning, we headed over to Lil Dizzy’s on Esplanade for a delicious breakfast, and then headed out to wander through St. Louis Cemetery #3. As I’m sure most of you know, New Orleans’ cemeteries are mausoleum style with above-ground tombs, making them fascinating places to visit. From there, we headed down to the French Quarter to visit the French Market and check out some souvenirs among the hawkers’ stalls. On the walk down, we stumbled into a shoot for NCIS: New Orleans, one of my mom’s favorite shows. It was a crash scene where a car runs over a dummy, so we had to watch from afar, but it was fun to see. After our shopping and in need of a little pick-me-up, we had a cafe au lait at Community Coffee on Royal St. From there, we went to visit the old Ursuline Convent, the oldest surviving building in the city and a second building which survived the fires (the third is Madam John’s Legacy on Dumaine St.). The convent has some fascinating history to it, and houses a really interesting museum about the nuns and early catholic settlers of New Orleans. The chapel is also beautiful and a nice place to sit and think.
After such a busy morning, we stopped in for lunch at Central Grocery, the originator of and only place you should get a muffuletta sandwich. If you’ve never had one, a muffuletta is a combination of wonderful Italian meats and cheeses on delicious locally baked bread topped with an amazing olive salad. It’s a real treat. Plenty of places around the city make them, but this is the original and the best. There’s a reason there’s often a line out the door there. Bellies full, we wandered around the French Quarter some more, heard some great music on the street and stopped in for a cocktail at Napoleon House.. Napoleon House was actually set up to house Napoleon in an attempt to rescue him from exile and bring him to Louisiana. He never made it, but it’s still and interesting story, and a great place for a drink.
That night we had the best oysters for dinner at a little place called Frankie and Johnny’s which is uptown, near the river. We had char-grilled oysters to start and fried oysters to finish, and they were amazing all around. This place is definitely worth a visit if you want to get good oysters at a fair price and in a local atmosphere. From there, I took my folks to one of my favorite bars in New Orleans, Snake and Jake’s Christmas Tree Lounge. This is another old, dark bar, and is one of the quintessential dive bars in the whole country. They were good sports to go there with me, but I know it’s a place they will remember.
Thursday we went for a fancy jazz brunch at the historic Court of Two Sisters on Royal Street. I worked at this restaurant for a few months when I had just moved to the city, and it is a really nice place. The brunch is a bit pricey, but the food is excellent and the atmosphere is very Old New Orleans. After a wonderful meal, we headed up to explore another old cemetery: Lafayette #1. We were very fortunate to run into a gentleman who was starting a tour of the cemetery when we arrived. He was great, telling the story of the cemetery in the larger picture of New Orleans’ history and sprinkled with personal anecdotes about his own family. I spent most of my life as a tour guide, and I know a good one when I see one. This was an excellent tour and we really enjoyed it.
After the tour, we headed further uptown to the Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, located on the grounds of the Ursuline Academy. This chapel houses two important historic statues from New Orleans history. One, located in the main alter, was the statue the locals prayed to before the Battle of New Orleans. The other, the tiny “Sweetheart Statue”, was placed in the window of the Ursuline Convent during one of the cataclysmic fires of the 1700’s. The nuns believed the statue changed the wind’s direction and blew the fire away from them. After our visit to the shrine, we stopped in for a drink at the Columns Hotel, a great place to get a peak inside an historic Garden District building. It’s a beautiful little bar with historic furnishings and a great atmosphere. From there, we went for dinner at Joey K’s, a nice little spot on Magazine Street. Sadly, the food was not great, but it was nice to try somewhere different. We stopped in for a drink at Ms. Mae’s, a New Orleans institution, and then headed back to the French Quarter for a drink at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleon. This bar is really neat, and revolves very slowly while you sit at it. It’s barely noticeable, and takes about fifteen minutes to do one complete revolution, but it’s fun. I can sit there for hours going around and around like a kid.
Friday we started with coffee and beignets (French donuts) at legendary Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter. This is one of the must-do stops in New Orleans, and for good reason. With a good start to our day, we went and picked up our rental car for the weekend and headed out of town. Our afternoon started with a visit to Oak Alley Plantation, one of the great old sugar plantations along the Mississippi River. We really liked our visit there, and especially the guided tour of the “Big House”. I appreciated that they didn’t shy away from discussing the role slavery played in the sugar plantations, and made an effort to be forthcoming about this side of the story. After our visit to Oak Alley, we ran right up the street to B & C Seafood Restaurant and tucked into five pounds of delicious boiled crawfish. It took my folks a while to relearn the skill of picking crawfish, but it was a fun time. After lunch, we headed on to Lafayette and rested up for a bit after a long day. That night we went to Randol’s Restaurant for good Cajun food and music.
Saturday we were off early to get to Mamou early. Mamou is the Cajun Music Capitol of the World, and every Saturday, Fred’s Lounge opens its doors at 7:30 a.m. for drinking, dancing and Cajun music. We got there just after 9, and the place was already packed. Beer was flowing, the dance floor was packed and everyone was having a good time. I’ve been to Fred’s Lounge a few times before, and it is always a great place to be. The whole thing winds down by early afternoon, so you really do have to get there early. I also love that beer in Cajun Country comes in 10 ounce cans. This is one of those little idiosyncrasies that I always find amusing. It’s so hot out there in the summer, that a 10 ounce beer is just about right, and on a really hot day, you might go with the 8 ounce variety.
Sadly, at some point we had to move on. We left Mamou and headed down the road to Opelousas. I wanted to get us some good boudin (a special Cajun kind of sausage), and I like the boudin at Billy’s Boudin and Cracklin’s. We enjoyed our boudin and a nice wander through the historic Cajun village (free) across the street before heading on to Eunice. In Eunice we went to the Prarie Acadian Cultural Center, a branch of Jean-Lafitte National Historical Park. I wanted to give my folks a chance to learn some more about the Cajun people and their culture, and this is a good place to do just that. There are interesting displays about the history, culture, music, food and lifestyle of the Cajuns, and I think this is great for a quick stop.
Then we made our way south to one of my favorite little hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the country, Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant outside of Kaplan, Louisiana. I’ve been coming to this place for years, and the food is really amazing. They are known for their turtle sauce picante (a wonderful Cajun turtle gravy, over rice) and seafood pistolettes (kind of similar to fried empanadas). We shared an order of the turtle and had a pistolette each and then headed back towards Lafayette. After a quick rest, we made our way downtown to the parade route in time to watch the Krewe of Rio parade. We really enjoyed this parade - it was long enough not to be too short, but not so long it gets tedious. The floats were pretty and we enjoyed catching the beads they threw. After the parade we enjoyed some beers on the patio at Legends Bar downtown.
Sunday we headed back to New Orleans, dropped off the rental car and headed out for an afternoon of Mardi Gras parades which we watched from Lee Circle. We caught the end of the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale, and then all of the Krewe of Carrollton and Krewe of King Arthur parades. New Orleans' parades are amazing to see, and I’ve never seen anything quite like them, but they aren’t short. We enjoyed them though, and it was a perfect cool, sunny day for parades. When we were paraded out, we headed back to the French Quarter to meet my friends Mike and Kristy who had ridden in the King Arthur parade at my old local bar Fahy’s. We had a beer with them and then went for a nice meal at Oceana Grill. We stopped in for one last drink at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop before calling it a night.
I had to get my folks to the train station by 6:30 a.m. so it was an early start on Monday. With them safely on the Crescent and D.C. bound, I went back to bed for an hour. Later that morning, I had breakfast with an old girlfriend of mine, Katie, who I haven’t seen in a number of years. It’s a shame how things work out sometimes. Katie and I were great friends and always had a good time together, but we just couldn’t make a relationship work. We parted ways and made our own paths forward, but it was great to finally catch up with her again down the road. We talked and laughed and had a really good time together and it was really great to spend some time with her and hear about her kids and her life.
After that I wandered around for a bit and then went and met my friends Mike and Kristy at the Erin Rose in the French Quarter for a few beers and to catch up. I enjoyed learning about the King Arthur parade from the inside and how it all worked. It sounds like it was a lot of fun to be on the float. Mike told me it was, in his mind at least, the closest thing to being a rock star without being a rock star. When they went home, I wandered around my old neighborhood for a bit, enjoying familiar sights and smells. It is always great to be back in the French Quarter.
Yesterday I some work to do, so didn’t get into much during the day. I spent some time at French Truck Coffee on Magazine Street working on my podcast, and then had a quick beer at The Bulldog. I really love the number and variety of great places to hang out at in New Orleans. You’re never far from a great, eclectic bar or cafe. Later in the day, I went to meet my friend Luke at his house. Luke and I met when I first moved to New Orleans during our teaching orientation and have been friends ever since. Luke is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off of his back and has always been there for me when I’ve needed someone to talk to over the last 12 years. It was good to see him and his son and hang out for a little while. I spent the night at their place last night, and woke up in the middle of the night to some crazy thunder and lightning outside. New Orleans has quite the storms sometimes, and while I like being in my van during a storm, it was also kind of nice to be inside and out of all of that too.
I’m trying to finish up some work this morning so I can get out of town for a day or two. I have had a great time in New Orleans, and will be back for Mardi Gras, but there is a lot of Louisiana I want to be sure I get to too, so I need to get moving. New Orleans is such a comfortable place for me and so full of good friends that it is always hard to leave, even knowing I’ll be right back. So this week I want to get down to Grand Isle out on the gulf coast, and then head to Baton Rouge to meet a friend for the parades there on Saturday. Then I’ll be back in New Orleans by Sunday to get ready for the last three days of Mardi Gras. Since Mardi Gras is Tuesday, I’m not sure how I’ll be feeling on Wednesday when I usually write up my This Week on the Road, but I’m going to try. I hope you can all find a little Mardi Gras celebration this week, as it really is a good time and a great reason to celebrate. I remember celebrating last year in Marshall, North Carolina, and while it wasn’t New Orleans, it was a really good time (read that story HERE). So have a great Mardi Gras out there, wherever you are. I’ll see you right back here next week.