The Big Easy-With a Whole Lotta Soul

Last week I was able to join Derek at the end of a work conference for a few days in New Orleans. We did a whirlwind tour and lived to tell the tales. Here’s a rundown of what we did and what we ate while visiting The Big Easy.

I can still vividly recall Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that came along with it for Louisiana and Mississippi. It was late August and I was driving from my university to my hometown and all I could do was cry. For whatever reason I felt with very serious conviction that I needed to drive the 50 miles home with no air conditioning in solidarity for all those living in the real-life nightmare after Katrina. I still remember all the semis loaded with goods to truck to survivors, the news coverage, and learning that some of my friends were going to step away from college to go help New Orleans rebuild. Any tragedy is tragic, but for whatever reason Katrina sat heavy in my heart.

But as many people may already know, and I can now attest to, New Orleans is resilient! That city is built on resiliency- and while I’m not here to gloss over the things that still need to be done (or the immense difficulties survivors had to face and in some cases are still facing) it was amazing to learn about so many personal stories of rebuilding. Things you don’t even think of unless you’ve had to live through that type of chaos. Suffice to say-I love New Orleans! (We’ll save the heavy for another day.) If you’re currently hungry I suggest going and grabbing a little snack because it’s about to get food-y up in here.

Day One

I flew out on a Wednesday and OMG Midwest weather, I hate you. Luckily it was just a huge rainstorm I had to drive in but I was nervous I was going to miss my flight because I had to watch my speed (I got there and through security with an hour to kill…but you just never know!!) Once I got to the hotel I kissed my cutie husband we were off for an early dinner at Mother’s. Mother’s is pretty notorious in New Orleans and I am so glad it was my first food there. I mean, look at this:

Famous Ferdi Special. That’s ONE sandwich.

Baked ham. The perfect chewy and soft roll. Roast Beef. Delicious sauces and au jus. It was just magical. I have had soul food before, but this sandwich felt almost like a religious experience. Sounds silly perhaps, but it’s true-I felt connected to the city in one bite.

Yet I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t disclose that my actual FIRST bite of NOLA was Mother’s Bread Pudding with Brandy Sauce. This stuff was heaven. The sauce was so boozy and caramel-y and the bread was soft but hadn’t lost all of its’ integrity and I think there was fruit in there somewhere so it was basically healthy. Easily my top three foods consumed. If I ever have to have a last meal, this will be on the menu.

I’m actually sad I can’t have that now. Anyway. After that transcendent experience I was hooked and ready for more! We decided to tourist it up and headed to Bourbon Street in the rain. (Full disclosure, I’m going to have some unpopular opinions from here on out.) Bourbon Street was mostly what I expected with a few bonus uncool things thrown in. Luckily it was not packed so we were able to ‘experience’ some of the finer things this party street has to offer before scooting along.

So someone forgot to mention that the NOLA Hand Grenade has multiple hard liquors in it including but not limited to: GRAIN ALCOHOL, rum, and vodka. Everclear is something I haven’t ingested in like 12 years? So yeah, that was just enough for me. (please note the plastic grenade on top of the drink. I’m a sucker for a good theme.) I ordered the ‘skinny’ version which was made with sweeteners rather than sugar because of course, that made a big difference.

It started to rain harder so we killed some time watching TV in the hotel before ticking off another NOLA institution- Cafe’ Du Monde. If you don’t know what this is, well, consider yourself lucky I suppose, because you don’t yet have any idea of what you’re missing out on. Do I need to explain beignets? Or chickory coffee? I think I’ll leave it for you to explore. We were very lucky because usually there is a line out the door-but the place was completely deserted (hah, get it) when we got there! Here’s an adorable photo of Derek using a single paper napkin to thwart the mounds of powdered sugar (it actually worked!):

#classytourist #mywifemademedoit

At this point we were somehow kind of, sort of, hungry again. Neither of us had eaten a proper breakfast or lunch so we decided that two dinners was totally acceptable. This time we tried Frenchmen Street which is known for pouring music from every building at almost any time of day. It was pretty surreal to see so much going on at one time. But we were on a mission for hot dogs and we most definitely got way more than we ever expected. Dat Dog, I love you. I know, I know, I’m the Midwest Ambassador and yes it did feel a little like I was cheating but…it was worth it. (Plus, the server was wearing a Murder By Death hoodie and that means instant friend). Just look at this, fall in love with this, this is the Guinness Special and it was phenomenal. This is probably the second best hot dog I’ve had in my life. (Number one you ask? Hot Doug’s Chicago Dog. RIP.)

Irish Guinness sausage, Andouille sauce, onions, shredded cheddar cheese, bacon, and yellow mustard.

Yeah. That was a good hot dog. Derek ordered the chef special which allowed the chef to create a hot dog for him in the moment. The dog was the Vaucresson Hot Sausage piled with so many toppings I can’t even remember them all. It was good. We were happy. We floated home to rest up for the night.

(Oh, and I bought a super awesome Christmas ornament that we have named Frenchie? Want to see her? Let me know in the comments and I’ll post about Frenchie. She’s such a beaut.)

Day Two

So I woke up feeling hungover-oh yeah, grain alcohol. We got our barrings together and headed to brunch before our Three Hour Tour! Derek had heard of a spot pretty close to the hotel called The Ruby Slipper and it was just what we needed. Banana Fosters French Toast for the fella and shrimp and grits for the lady. And coffee. Lots of coffee. Food was good but I don’t think my pictures do it justice. After brunch we were picked up for our Thee Hour Tour! The tour was through Southern Style Tours and I think our guide did a pretty good job. We learned a lot about New Orleans history and saw a substantial amount of the city itself.

I don’t want to give away too much about New Orleans in case you are hoping to visit soon but what I will suggest is that you try to make time to do a city tour (that includes a cemetery). The cemeteries in New Orleans are so unique and an interesting way to learn more about the melding pot of culture and necessity that the city is made of. It felt a little weird to take photos but it’s hard not to see the cemeteries as nothing short but beautiful.

When I die, I hope people bring me pumpkins instead of flowers.
This cemetery was home to a vault that cost a half of a million dollars! The story goes that the woman who had it built was mad at her kids so she decided to spend their inheritance to build one of the most ornate vaults in the entire cemetery. The thing has stained glass. (We visited St. Louis Cemetery Number 2 if you ever want to go find the stained glass vault yourself.)

We also got to stop by the city’s sculpture garden!

At the end of the tour we did go visit one of the levy breeches from Hurricane Katrina and learned more not only about what caused the breeches, but what has been done since then to hopefully never allow this devastation to happen again. We did not visit the Lower Ninth Ward where flooding hit some of the most vulnerable populations of New Orleans the hardest. Until you have seen the massive scale of the devastation, and really piece together every single thing that went wrong, it’s hard to have a clear picture of what a colossal cluster took place. Sigh. I have a lot of thoughts still on this subject that’ll I’ll hold onto for now but keep this in mind-there was a lot that went wrong but the people of New Orleans have done a fantastic job of rebuilding. It may not be the city it once was, but there’s a hell of a lot of good things happening there today. (Again NOLA=resilient)

After our tour we headed to dinner at Cochon Butcher which had a cool/weird space/star wars theme going on. One thing that Cochon Butcher is noted for is their take on the famous muffuletta sandwich. A muffuletta is composed of things I love: green olives, meats, and cheese. I love tangy green olives! I was hopeful with this sandwich! But, it kind of left me feeling ‘eh’. It’s not that the ingredients themselves were not tasty but the sandwich was lacking….something. Perhaps that’s just the story of the muffuletta and I should back off of one of the ‘Holy’ New Orleans food groups. I’ll give it another try another trip. Derek however had a cubano that was to die for, and the house made pickles made me do a happy food dance.

Derek and I had a whole conversation about what was happening here. What do you think?

We ended the night by trying the ‘other’ beignet spot in New Orleans-Cafe’ Beignet. Unpopular opinion #2 (maybe three depending on were you stand with my muffuletta story)-this is my favorite beignet place in New Orleans. The beignets were just a little crispier and the line was way shorter. Don’t get me wrong, both places are amazing, and I encourage you to go do a comparison yourself some day. 

Also, Derek brought back the napkin bib and it totally works!

#stopit #letmelivemylife

By this point my stomach is like “what are you doing to meeee??” So we decided to head back to the hotel.

Day Three

Last full day in NOLA and we were going to make it count! The Three Hour Tour (you realize I’m capitalizing that so that you’ll sing the Gilligan’s Island song, right?) was great the day before-we learned a lot about the history of New Orleans-but today? Today we are doing a food tour. I found the food tour through Groupon and ‘unfortunately’ they only had the Lower Garden District (LGD) Tour available during the time we were there. Initially I was a little bummed we wouldn’t get to try the famous NOLA food spots/foods (gumbo, po’ boy, etc.) but maaaaan, this was the luck of fate! This tour was phenomenal! Derek and I ended up being the only two on the tour that day so it was as if we were VIPs getting our own private show of the unique eats that the city had to offer. The tour guide, Ariadne, was just the best. She was knowledgeable, friendly, and a lot of fun to talk to. Sidewalk Food Tours is the way to go if you want to experience tasty foods and learn about the culture of NOLA. (They also have tours in other cities/countries-I’ll be looking them up again in the future!)

We met up at a place called Turkey and The Wolf which Bon Apetit named Best New Restaurant in 2017. Before Ariadne arrived we got to chat with a nice fella who was waiting for the place to open. He basically told us his life story but never his name and then pulled out a piece of King Cake from his pocket before we said farewell. Dude was living his best life.

Turkey and The Wolf surpassed all expectations I had…by like miles. Easily the best thing I ate not only in New Orleans, but perhaps one of the best sandwiches I’ve eaten in my life. Look, I realize what I’m getting ready to type may seem like I’ve lost my mind but you do not understand. The fried bologna sandwich at Turkey and The Wolf is absolutely worth whatever type of fare you need to spend to get there. Like today. And you need to bring me back this sandwich. One bite of this and I knew we were going to have a capital G Good Day.

Don’t judge the sandwich on my crappy photo taking skills. I was in a hurry and OMG it was so good. Also, bonus points for the 90’s era McDonald’s plate.

From there we visited Juan’s Flying Burrito, the world’s first Creole Taqueria. Juan’s is a cool story that is based on the ‘Renaissance’ of Lower Garden District’s Magazine Row (awesome shopping area!). Super yummy tacos here and a really cool vibe.

Believe it or not, we still had three spots left to try! We took a little detour and walked by some historic mansions in the LGD (hello, mansion used on American Horror Story’s The Coven; oh look at you, house owned formerly by Anne Rice!) before heading to Little Korea BBQ.

Little Korea BBQ sprung up out of, well, necessity, after Katrina. Something I hadn’t thought of was that after Katrina, there were no fast food restaurants left (and those that were left were having a hell of a time getting product in, needed to complete repairs, etc.). Little Korea BBQ saw the need and actually opened up shop initially in an abandoned Taco Bell. It did so well that it was able to move to the LGD (which is a big deal). We had all the fermented things and some fried vegetable dumplings. It was just enough of a change in pallet to let us carry on. And I love a good dumpling.

Stein’s Deli was our last stop before dessert (yes, dessert!) and happens to the NOLA’s only Jewish deli. We had The Sam. It was a damn good sandwich. 

And last but not least in any way, District Donuts. Oh my District Donuts has a rotating selection of amazing doughnuts and other pastries every day. We had this delicious yeast doughnut with peanut butter, chocolate, and bananas called the Gold and Black. (P.S. if for some reason you’re needing a King Cake, they are currently shipping them!) This was a great way to end our impromptu VIP walking food tour.

Cutest Space Invaders ever.

 As we were finishing up our guide mentioned she was leading a Haunted History Tour that night so we made a quick decision to do that too since she was such a phenomenal tour guide. I had looked at ghost tours originally but didn’t book one in fear that we would accidentally book a tour that had people positioned to scare you (not my thing) so after reassurance from Ariadne that her tour was 0% haunted house-like, we were sold. 

We had some time to kill before that though so we headed to one of the Mardi Gras museums. It was fine for what it was. There’s so much work that goes into those floats! We got to learn a little more about the history of Mardi Gras and see the artists at work-and it was definitely way different than what we did with Homecoming floats in high school 🙂

We spent our last night in NOLA learning some of the more unfortunate pieces of history. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, haunted history tours are other intriguing ways to learn more about the history and culture of New Orleans. We spent most of the night in the French Quarter and even got to visit the oldest continuously operating bar in America- Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (disclaimer, the internets seems to think that while this bar is one of the oldest, it’s not the oldest, so believe what you’d like). I won’t spoil any of the good stories because I probably wouldn’t do them justice anyhow, but I definitely suggest going on one of these tours if you get the chance (and look up Ariadne!) No ghosts were spotted unfortunately, but a great time was had by all.

After that, we had one last dinner in NOLA at Verti Marti. This is a 24/7 deli that gets rave reviews. The folks that took our order were super kind (although I’m short and couldn’t really see them over the counter) and the menu is expansive-which may have been my downfall. I basically ordered the first thing on the menu because I was a) hungry and b) overwhelmed with choices. I wasn’t a huge fan of my sandwich, but Derek loved his. So we’ll chalk this up to experience and next time, I’ll be prepared.

Good night New Orleans! I love you!

Day Four

Before we packed up to head home we took a walk down to the French Market and stopped to have (more) beignets. At this point we were basically professionals and no paper napkin bibs were even needed. French Market was a nice mix of food, art, and your typical market wares. We stopped in at a hot sauce shop and did a hot sauce tasting (I’m pretty proud that I tried the hottest one in the store and lived to tell the tale!), tried some pralines (if you like pecans, these are a must), and found one last lunch spot called Coop’s Place. Again, another awesome hole in the wall joint serving authentic NOLA essentials. We ordered some seafood gumbo and a sampler platter than included shrimp creole, cajun fried chicken, red beans & rice with sausage, and rabbit & sausage jambalaya. Everything was tasty. (also the seafood gumbo was pretty legit-Derek and I both had a little crab claw in our gumbo and were able to have a mini claw fight at the table like mature adults do in restaurants.)

And then, it was time to head home.

I have to say, I am a big fan of New Orleans. The city has soul and such an interesting story. I most definitely suggest NOLA as a weekend getaway (as you can see, you can really get a lot done in just a couple of days) but just make sure to pack your eatin’ pants!