Monday, April 30, 2012

Road Trip Part 11: Rita's Tequila House

There was supposed to be a storm coming in the early evening. It would not arrive, but we had no way of knowing that.

"Let's go out in the afternoon," I said. "If it starts pouring we can go back to the hotel. Or do whatever else we want."

"Okay," Elizabeth said.

So we walked around, popping into stores looking at artwork and used books, buying bottles of barbecue sauce and Hurricane mix, looking for a present for Elizabeth's younger sister. (We got her a mini voodoo doll.) Eventually I needed a drink. We stopped into a bar with three-for-one beers and a DJ screaming at people, even though there were only four paying customers. We found another bar once I finished my three beers, which in the heat only took about fifteen minutes. And then we went looking for another.

Walking down Bourbon we noticed, through the bar area of Rita's Tequilla House (a bar to which I have never been) a patio in the back. We decided to check it out.

There were a few people on the patio when we arrived but within half an hour they had all left and we had it all to ourselves. It was one of the most enjoyable spots I have ever been on Bourbon Street. It was a hot, humid day, but the shaded patio provided respite from the weather. (Can you spot the kitty?)

I had myself a Dos Equis and Elizabeth drank a Blue Moon. 

Elizabeth announced that she wanted to get another Hand Grenade before we left town. I thought that sounded good, too. We could not get into the restaurant we wanted for dinner, they were booked, so we decided to just do whatever we felt like for the rest of the afternoon, and we felt like hanging out on Bourbon Street. (This was Elizabeth's first time in New Orleans and, like my first adult trip, the pull of Bourbon Street was strong to her.)  But I suggested that, before we started ingesting grain alcohol, we should get some food in our stomachs.

The Tequila House menu was not surprising: nachos, fajitas, tacos, etc... Nothing really looked all that good, but I suggested a chicken quesadilla and Elizabeth agreed.

It took quite a while for the quesadilla to come out - our server put in the order as "nachos" by mistake. But it was worth the wait. Surprisingly - almost shockingly - this was one of the best restaurant quesadillas I have ever had.

The tortilla was crispy, the chicken and cheese were delicious and the caramelized onions and peppers were a nice touch. Just a great quesadilla.

Elizabeth had her wedges with guacamole. I would rather lick a Bourbon Street curb at 1 AM.

I spread some sour cream on one wedge. It was fine but did not add anything to the quesadilla.

Now, let's put things in context. You do not need to seek out this quesadilla should you visit New Orleans. There is absolutely no need to dedicate a meal to Rita's. But should you find yourself on Bourbon Street and in need of a secluded patio and a bar snack, this is a great option. We were there for about 90 minutes and, out of all the bars we visited in the French Quarter, this may have been the most pleasant. Not my favorite by any means, but definitely the most relaxing.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Road Trip Part 10: Lucky Dogs

Three memories.

March 6, 2000. My friends and I were at a bar in the French Quarter when I looked at the TV and saw that Shaquille O'Neal had 50 points with the game still going on. But I was 21 and at Mardi Gras; was I really going to leave my friends and go back to the hotel to watch a Lakers game?

I sure was. 

"I'm going back to the hotel to watch the rest of the game," I announced. My friends did not even question me.  Just outside our hotel, on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse, I spied a Lucky Dogs cart and grabbed myself a dog.

I watched the rest of the game, fell asleep and was awakened around 4 in the morning by my friends stumbling back in, with Lucky Dogs of their own. One of them flopped down on the bed and passed out. So I ate his Lucky Dog. I mean, he had woken me up, I was still hungry, and he obviously wasn't going to eat it. It only seemed fair. 

The next morning (and most of the afternoon) they did not get out of bed. They bought Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo on pay-per-view, the only unpleasant experience I have ever had in the Crescent City. "How come you're not hung over?" Cara asked me.

"Because I came back at midnight instead of 4," I said. "And also I ate two Lucky Dogs: mine and your boyfriend's."

July 17, 2002. My birthday. My friend Tom and I had been out for many hours in the French Quarter. Staying at that same hotel as I had two years earlier. At the end of our evening we got Lucky Dogs from that same corner. Loaded with all the toppings, the things weighed more than a pound each. We got on the elevator, sweating booze in the sticky New Orleans summer air.

There were two other people in the elevator: a young woman, perhaps 20 and supermodel hot, and a guy in his 50s dressed in a suit. The girl told us our dogs looked disgusting. We didn't really care what a hot young girl thought; we had each other and our wieners. (Okay, that came out wrong.)

But the older guy decided he would try to make himself look cool in the girl's eyes by making fun of us. I let the first couple sentences go but after the third I looked at him and said "What the fuck is your problem?" Just then the elevator stopped at our floor. I stepped off but kept my eye on him, awaiting his repsonse.

"I don't have a problem," he said, "but you do. Those are going to make you fat."

Tom decided to interject: "We don't care if these make us fat... because we're already fat!"

At the time his comment struck me as an example of Algonquin-Round-Table-level wit. The next morning it seemed less so.

At any rate, we ate those Lucky Dogs in our room and damn were they delicious.

Late April, 2004.  Jazz Fest time. The first night in town with my friends Dave and Carla, the former who had been to NOLA more times than I, the latter who had never been. We introduced her to the Hurricane, the Hand Grenade, and the concept of the Bourbon Street stand selling plastic cups of beer. Eventually in the early-morning hours we needed a second dinner. We took Carla by a Lucky Dogs cart and she got a dog with her name spelled in mustard. Somewhere in my collection is a photograph of a wild-eyed Carla holding up her hot dog, proudly displaying her name.

A few nights later it turned into a guys-night-out, as the ladies decided to stay in. Kevin bought Mardi Gras beads for everyone and we eventually stopped for Lucky Dogs. Another picture in my collection, even more bizarre than the one of Carla, is of me, Kevin, and Dave and Dave, all of us stuffing our faces with hot dogs, wearing necklaces and looking like a pathetic lot.


So it might not surprise you to learn that I have never had a Lucky Dog while sober. (Something I imagine I have in common with thousands, if not millions of visitors to New Orleans.) But after walking around for an hour or two in the French Quarter after eating those beignets at Cafe Du Monde, I was hungry again, while Elizabeth was not. I said no problem, I will just get myself a Lucky Dog.

I ordered one with mustard and onions. The display says $5.75, tax included. The guy charged me six. I wonder, do they routinely jack up the price by a quarter, hoping drunk people won't notice? Or is the sign outdated? I didn't ask; I didn't care.

I was worried it was going to be one of those things that only tastes good when you have a few drinks in you (like, say, a Jack in the Box taco) and that I would spit the first bite out and say "What the hell is this?"

But I didn't. It was actually pretty good. It did not alleviate my longing for a Dog Haus dog (after three and a half weeks I'm actually missing one of those even more than a Double-Double, al pastor taco or Zankou tarna wrap) but it was much better than I was expecting it to be. It was hot, thick, and the bun was perfectly soft. I would have no problem eating one of these again, sober or otherwise.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Road Trip Part 9: Cafe Du Monde

I have mentioned, more than once, that Charles Kuralt's America is probably one of my ten favorite books I have ever read. For those of you who have not read, or perhaps never even heard of this book, I will summarize: when Charles Kuralt retired from CBS he decided to spend a year living each month in one of his twelve favorite places in America. To start the year he spent the month of January in New Orleans:

"'Unique' is a word that cannot be qualified. It does not mean rare or uncommon; it means alone in the universe. By the standards of grammar and by the grace of God, New Orleans is the unique American place." 

Most mornings in New Orleans he stopped by Cafe Du Monde. I'll let him explain:

"You can buy beignet mix and cans of distinctive chicory-flavored Louisiana coffee and take them home, but the sugary square doughnuts and the cafe au lait never taste the same as when they are brought hot to your table and served in the open air beside the crossword puzzle and the basketball scores there at the corner of Decatur and St. Ann. There is never an hour of the day or night when beignets and coffee are not tendered at the Cafe Du Monde, but even if you have to keep your jacket buttoned against the cool fog rolling over the levee into the market squares, the hour after sunrise is best. Then, late revelers and early risers meet. Once I was among the former, but in my old age I have discovered that the coffee, the best in the world, tastes even better after a little bit of sleep."

My own experience with Cafe Du Monde is less extensive; I visited it in 2000 when I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, when my friends and I had to wait more than half an hour for a table and I wasn't even hungry. In 2004, when my friends and I hit up New Orleans for Jazz Fest, the only person who asked for a souvenir was Tracie and she asked for a can of chicory coffee from Cafe Du Monde, so I stopped by and bought one for her, but I did not have any food or coffee myself. Other than those two trips, I don't remember any others, though I know I have walked by the place dozens of times.

But Elizabeth had asked me before we arrived in New Orleans if she could just have beignets from Cafe Du Monde for every meal. I told her no, but promised that we would go at least once. We attempted to on the first day we were there, but it was next to impossible. Lots of people were still in town after the NCAA Championship Game and the crowds were even bigger than they had been when I was at Cafe Du Monde during Mardi Gras.

But the next day, after we took a paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi, we stopped by the cafe and were able to grab a table.    

The menu is not complicated because it doesn't need to be. When you can do two things - coffee and beignets - better than anyone else in the city (or perhaps the country), you don't need to do anything else.

This is actually considered not crowded.

The menu is printed on the napkin dispenser but it wasn't necessary: we'd known for weeks what we were going to order.

Elizabeth had the cafe au lait, and she loved it.

Just black coffee for me, but I also loved it.

And an order of beignets. Brought shockingly hot to the table, almost too hot to handle, the pillowy, fried dough under an avalanche of powdered sugar is as delicious as almost anything you will ever eat. Do I even need to try to describe the taste? Are the pictures not worth thousands of words?

Those of you who wrote yesterday that you have never been to New Orleans and want to go all have my sincere hope that you make it one day. I find the place magical. But on the other hand, you're kind of lucky: you don't know "what it means to miss New Orleans," as the old Louis Armstrong song goes. Memories of meals like this will haunt you. (But... it's worth it.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Road Trip Part 8: Le Bayou Restaurant

After that breakfast you saw yesterday, we walked around for a long time, all over the French Quarter, along the river, down past the aquarium, by the casino, and into the Warehouse District, where one of us (you can guess which) wanted to check out Avery Fine Perfumery, the sole U.S. location of the company that has stores in London and Modena. 

After heading back to the hotel for a couple of hours, we went out on the town in the afternoon so that Elizabeth could try her first Hand Grenade(s) and enjoy some of the other cool bars in the Quarter. When it came time for dinner we walked by Acme Oyster House. I ate there once many years ago and loved it, though I had no illusions about what the line was going to be like. And it was indeed just as long - longer, even - than I had expected. So we decided to go elsewhere. Just around the corner we passed Le Bayou and decided to duck inside.

I try not to show pictures that feature people, but it wasn't really possible here, and I wanted you to see how cool the restaurant looks, with the big glass double doors open onto Bourbon Street. 

Many New Orleans restaurants feature the same items: po' boys and fried seafood platters. This is not a complaint; this is why I love New Orleans.

Well, and also the ice cold beers served to you in plastic cups so that, should you not finish it with your meal, you can wander out into the street with the drink in your hand. 

Elizabeth had the fried shrimp po' boy and I took a taste. I loved it. The shrimp had just the right amount of batter, the remoulade was delicious, and I even liked (or rather didn't mind) the fried green tomatoes.

I had the crawfish cake sandwich. It was good but not as good as Elizabeth's po' boy. There was too much filler and not enough crawfish. I would have preferred one large cake to two small ones; the bun:seafood ratio was a little too high. (This is also how I feel about pretty much every crab cake sandwich I have ever had, too.)

But, just as with every meal I have ever had in New Orleans, I still liked it. I mean, it was still fried seafood.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Road Trip Part 7: Magnolia Grill

It was sprinkling our first morning in New Orleans, but the rain provided a bit of cool release from that warm, sticky air that often pervades the French Quarter. We walked down to the banks of the Mississippi; the mist was too thick to see across to Algiers. We walked to Cafe Du Monde - before the trip Elizabeth had asked if she could eat beignets for every single meal in New Oleans - but there wasn't a seat to be had and more than twenty people were circling the room, waiting to pounce upon the first open table. We walked through the French Market and considered getting something to eat there, but when I approached a particular counter to order food, the guy working intentionally ignored me. I walked away.

Across the street I spotted the Magnolia Grill and walked over to take a closer look.

A crawfish omelet sounded like a the perfect food at the moment.  

It was cute inside and not at all crowded. Our server was quite friendly. I'd never been here, never heard of it, but felt like I'd been here many times. 

Several things on the lunch menu looked good but it was only a few minutes after 11 and I was thinking breakfast, which they serve all day. 

 Yeah, like I'm really gonna have a beer with breakfast.

Well... it is The City That Care Forgot. I had myself a Turbodog.

I don't drink beer with breakfast nearly enough. 

I really liked the crawfish omelet, full of the mudbugs, peppers, onions and mushrooms. The hash browns were as crispy as any I have ever had, almost burnt; some people don't like them that way, but that's just fine with me. I added a couple of dashes of hot sauce out of habit, but it wasn't necessary. 

Elizabeth had the biscuits & gravy: pork sausage, flaky biscuits, and a creamy, peppery gravy. Not surprisingly, she couldn't finish the plate. I was pretty full myself but they looked and smelled so good I had to try a couple of bites. It was really tasty.

There was nothing spectacular about this meal - it's certainly not in the top half of meals I have had in New Orleans - but it was still enjoyable. As I mentioned, the service was really friendly and the prices were reasonable. It hit the spot for what we needed.