The Arrivals sidewalk smelled like stale cigarettes, the cab like an upturned bottle of baby powder, and the Air B n B like chalk. Our hosts were Matijas and Katie. He was from Amsterdam and she was American. It was unclear what they actually did other than rent out their rooms to strangers like us, but we didn’t question it.
Instead, Alex and I threw our suitcases up into the makeshift loft, which held only a single fan, a single mattress, and a string of golden Christmas lights. We asked our hosts for their favorite restaurants and promptly turned on our heels and high-tailed onto the dusky streets. Thus began our culinary exploration of New Orleans.
Alex and I had been looking forward to our college spring break for months. He and I have traveled in Morocco, Spain, and Canada (go to Montreal!) together, and were excited for our next tour. We’ve been dating for around two and a half years and enjoy being each other’s travel companions. While we don’t agree on everything, we tend to agree on food.
This time, the sole purpose of our visitation was the Creole and Cajun cuisine. We carried around a Lonely Planet and Michael Murphy’s “Eat Dat”. If you ever decide to book a plane ticket to New Orleans and explore Nola food culture, buy it – we found it essential. When our plans diverged and we found ourselves craving just one more version of shrimp and grits, we flipped to the appropriate index and selected Atchafalaya, a gorgeous candle-lit restaurant with great food, small portions, and underwhelming service. When we craved snowballs after taking a lengthy, humid walk through the City Park, we found Pandora’s Snoballs five blocks away, where we re-discovered the childlike feeling of joy after eating something so red that it stained your tongue and lips for the rest of the day.
We also kept a full charge on our iPhone batteries so we could check in to each restaurant, cafe, and bar on Yelp. We made a list of “Must Eats” — which, during the eight nights we spent in the Big Easy, morphed and grew as we soon learned that we couldn’t just sample one kind of po-boy. There are hundreds of po-boys, we reasoned. We needed to at least try a few and see which kind we preferred. Fried oysters, clams, or catfish? These were the hard-hitting questions we sought to answer. (I still am unsure, but I think I’ve decided oysters.)
The Air B n B was located in the Bywater, a hippie/artsy meets up-and-coming-yuppie neighborhood. Each house was adorned with pearly, plastic beads – leftovers from Mardi Gras or permanent fixtures? – we couldn’t tell, but we praised their constant appearance. The city was festive, yet tranquil and languid. Each house looked like it had been painted recently. We spotted lilac houses, cerulean houses, sage green houses. I took photographs. I couldn’t stop myself.
We were starving from the flight, and Matijas recommended Mimi’s in the Marigny, a smoky tapas bar with a supposedly rowdy upstairs. We practically skipped down the street in joy, anticipating tapas, which always reminds us of our feverish, ephemeral summer in Spain. We ordered Abita beer and sampled two dishes.
The first was patatas bravas, a classic Spanish dish of cubed potatoes fried lightly in oil and drizzled with aioli. It is spicy, savory, and satisfying. The shrimp, of which we were only served three, were also delicious. They came with shells and faces intact. We removed the heads and sucked out the flesh, then picked the leftover bits of meat from the hardened orange carcasses. It was gory and my hands smelled like Cajun shrimp afterwards, but it was worth it, as if each morsel was tastier because of the labor needed to extract them.
Next, we walked to The Joint. The barbecue smell permeated the block, as welcoming as the warm yellow light above the door. Inside, pig paraphernalia and art decorated the walls. We ordered at the counter and received four-dollar beer in plastic cups, which we took outside to a large wood picnic table near the smoker. French women smoking cigarettes sat at a white plastic table nearby. We shared a brisket sandwich with coleslaw and baked beans and ordered two Abita drafts for good measure. Although the brisket was a little fatty and the sauces were pretty good but not overwhelmingly interesting, the baked beans were impeccable. And thanks to New Orleans’ open containers laws, we were able to bring our half-finished beers with us when we left. Although a bit sloshed down our shirts, most flowed down our throats as we walked the darkened, cat-filled blocks.
Deciding we needed a third and final meal, we headed to Bacchanal. A longhaired Australian bouncer in a black muscle tank greeted us. He had been in the United States, he said, for two weeks. Their website claims, “Bacchanal is a wine laboratory where food music and culture collude with Holy Vino to create the most unique evenings you will ever experience in New Orleans Ninth Ward.”
Known by locals and tourists alike, Bacchanal is alarmingly lovely. It is picturesque. I was instantly taken back to the evenings I spent in Nice when I visited my best friend’s family. We ate creamy soups for dinner then played games with her cousins as the backyard darkened. Bacchanal’s combination of reimagined French dishes with a courtyard that exudes a neighborhood block-party vibe charmed and impressed me. Hipsters with seemingly bottomless pockets abounded, buying forty-dollar bottles of wine. The entry room is a wine shop, with wines from around the world starting at twenty dollars and ending around seventy. Cheeses are available in a fridge by the door, with different cuts and types of cheese ranging from four to eight dollars.
After selecting a (cheaper) wine and a cheese, we brought our purchases to the counter. Our wine bottle was uncorked, slapped with a white Bacchanal label, and handed back to us, along with two long-stemmed wine glasses and a metal table number.
When I expressed dismay that our cheese was leaving us, the tall bespectacled man behind the counter reassured me. “Don’t worry, we’ll find you,” he said, as if it were a mantra.
My fear that our cheese would not find its way back to us became more visceral once we exited the entry room and explored the backyard space. The yard, adorned with varying sizes and sorts of lights from Japanese lantern to Who-ville style rainbow globes, was teeming with maxi-dressed young women, pot-bellied grandfathers and wives in sundresses and sandals. Bluegrass music emanated from the stage, where three men called the Courtyard Kings played string instruments. All the tables were taken, so we climbed the steps to the cocktail bar and stood on the balcony, smoking American Spirits. Neither of us smoke, but when in New Orleans…
Lo and behold, our food did arrive. Warm toasted bread adorned with honey-colored olive oil, cherry and apricot chutneys, perfectly sour pickles, and our cheese, still whole and intact, but accompanied by a knife that beckoned its demise. We grinned at each other.
Later, when the wine was drained and the cheese was demolished, we chose to indulge even more. We ordered seared beef tongue with salsa verde and the ceviche seafood salad, and finally, the goat’s milk panna cotta, flavored with espresso and mascarpone.
We chatted with a bride and groom, married just an hour ago from Los Angeles – both screenwriters – who told us both to move to Hollywood. Perhaps, we thought. But maybe, instead, we would move to New Orleans – and this was only our first night.
Emily Menken is a New York/Baltimore writer with a penchant for crashing automobiles. Feel free to add her as a friend on Yelp.