(New Orleans) - New Orleans is Bourbon. It is flirty and festive. It is rambunctious and out of hand. It is the Mardi Gras. New Orleans is French. It has beignet, café au lait and Etouffee’. It has restaurants named Fleur de Lis, Remoulade, Broussard’s and La Provence to name a few. It has Parisien-styled promenades, large serene courtyard and intricate architecture with iron balconies. New Orleans is the ultimate fusion food. It is Creole. It is Cajun. It has jambalaya, gumbo, Po’ boy, pralines and Italian Muffuletta sandwiches.
What’s distinct about New Orleans food is the spice. The genius combination of cayenne, paprika, garlic, oregano, thyme and black pepper, forms what we call Cajun seasoning. It is hot, smoky and savory. It awakens your senses and opens up your palate to be able to taste the freshness of other ingredients that come with the dish. Specialty NOLA food stores that sell spices, mixes, pre-packaged dishes, sauces, etc are scattered all over the city. This makes it easy to fill up my pantry when I get back home.
Café Du Monde
Every time I visit a new place, I start with what’s the best that the place has to offer. New Orleans is notoriously known for its French donuts called beignet. There is no other place to get the best version of this pastry than Café Du Monde (800 Decatur Street). The beignets here are freshly cooked, fluffy, chewy and lavishly dusted with powdered sugar. Hot chocolate goes perfectly with this. Although some of my friends preferred the café au lait, I favored the rich, thick hot chocolate to finish every bite. Dipping a piece of beignet into hot chocolate is an ingenious way to eat this.
I have seen this place on Travel Channel. Acme (724 Iberville Street) is the legendary seafood restaurant in the Big Easy and famously known for its chargrilled oysters. The fresh ones are fantastic too and cheaper. A dozen was not enough for me that night. I was not up for their 15-dozen oyster challenge either. I would need an intense and strict preparation to adhere to this summon. Oyster is not the only best thing here; the fried seafood platter of catfish, oyster and shrimp with lots of hush puppies did not disappoint as well. Although the seafood in this dish is crusted and fried, its freshness is not expunged. Other notable dishes we tried that night were jambalaya and gumbo.
Feeling more adventurous the following morning, we attempted to take the St Charles Streetcar and try a restaurant outside the French Quarter. We didn’t find the restaurant that was suggested to me by a friend due to lack of updated information. However, we landed on this French bistro with outstanding food. The rosemary rotisserie chicken is moist and flavorful; the chicken pesto pasta is fragrant, creamy and yet deliciously light. Madeleine’s dessert and pastries are worth the calories. The strawberry napoleon and fresh fruit tart provide a satiating finish to an unplanned lunch.
The main reason why we went to New Orleans was for the volleyball tournament. I don’t play volleyball but my friends do. I was just the self-designated cheerer and after-game planner for the group. As much as I want to support my friends in their campaign to bring the trophy to Chicago, I wanted to see more of New Orleans and enjoy the place as well; Hence, everyday before heading to the tournament area, I strolled around the French Quarter, peeked at some interesting southern stores, snacked on some only-in-New-Orleans food like the muffuletta and captured some picturesque shots of the market place. This city has so much character. All of my senses are feasting on countless wonderful things that are only found here.
I was not referring to the remoulade sauce but rather, the restaurant along Bourbon Street. After a few hours of traipsing around the city, we stopped at this place for some refreshments and a light snack. I got myself a small serving of fantastic seafood gumbo that is both smoky and spicy with big pieces of crawfish and crab legs in it. More exciting than the gumbo, is the official cocktail of NOLA called Hurricane which is mixture of different kinds of rum, orange, pineapple and grenadine syrup on crushed ice. The bluish cocktail below is the “bayou self” which is a concoction of coconut rum, blue curacao and tropical juices. Beware! These drinks are pretty strong but who cares if you’re on a vacation.
What is New Orleans without crawfish? The spicy bag of fresh steamed crawfish is a perfect accompaniment with ice-cold beer while friends noisily, yet gleefully, prattle on about any topic under the sun. And the jambalaya? Yes, the jambalaya here is the best I have ever tasted. Nothing fancy, just straight-up bold Creole flavors suffused with every grain of rice.
I stayed only for 4 short days in this city and usually I don’t go back to the same restaurant more than once in a single trip. But the beignet is too good for just a single visit. The picture on the left was taken on my fifth visit to Café du Monde and I even brought some pre-mixes with me back to Chicago. I think this is the essence of the Big Easy. New Orleans is resilient. No matter how strong a hurricane comes to their shore and destroys everything that makes this city great, NOLA will bounce back and regain its indelible authenticity that attracts tourists to come back over and over again. The food, the people and the place stick to your sub-conscious that will naturally urge you to come back. Yes, I will be back.