My amazing boyfriend had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. Of course I wanted to do something fun for him – he had me making pizza at Antico on my big day this past year, after all. He’s a difficult person to buy gifts for, so there was really only one option: an adventure. We love road trips and in surveying the cities we can easily reach by car from Atlanta, there was really only one option. Neither of us had been to New Orleans. Shocking, right? I think NOLA is a city for those who love to eat and drink, two activities that Xavier and I excel at. A quick trip to Priceline resulted in an amazing deal for a birthday weekend. Shockingly, I managed to keep this information to myself for approximately six weeks. Birthday surprise!
Then we made the mistake of whipping up frozen beverages to enjoy with homemade tacos al carbon, whereupon Xavier learned that my threshold for keeping his birthday surprise under wraps is a lowly two margaritas.
We reached New Orleans in late afternoon. There was plenty of daylight left, but thanks to some traffic in Mississippi, Central Grocery closed as we were pulling into town. We would have to wait until our next trip to try the best muffaletta in town. But our disappointment was quelled as we drove down Decatur Street to the hotel. We couldn’t believe how many people were milling around the streets, watching street performers, looking at merchants’ art on display, and drinking. Everyone had a beverage in hand, and most were the alcoholic variety.
I couldn’t believe that people were allowed to drink in the streets here.
Our first night in the city was a Saturday. The hotel was right down the road from Bourbon Street, so we decided to walk around and check out the scene. But first? Dinner.
Two iconic oyster bars were so close that we literally stumbled across them. Then I said, “Hey, I know this place – we’re supposed to eat here!”
The line to Acme was really long, so we checked out Felix’s across the street first. They were cash-only and had just lost their liquor license. It seemed generally sad and sketchy. So we braved the Acme line, which stretched down the street.
Were we ever glad we did! We were seated at the oyster bar, right in front of a shucker. As we waited for our food, he kindly handed over freshly shucked oysters that couldn’t be plated. In this moment, it did not bother me one bit that Xavier doesn’t care for raw oysters. I got them all!
|This is the face of a happy oyster eater
If you find yourself in New Orleans, do yourself a favor and order charbroiled oysters. Our shucker recommended them so enthusiastically that we couldn’t say no, despite the fact that – honestly – the description didn’t appeal to us very much. But how wrong we were! Oysters, garlic butter, and Romano cheese – that’s all they were, but how amazing they were. We demolished the plate in approximately three seconds, sopping up every last drop of garlic-butter sauce with the French bread.
Our other choices were a “New Orleans Medley” with gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and sausage. It was a good opportunity to sample a few of the local specialties, but I was disappointed in the rice to other stuff ratio. The shrimp po-boy was fine, but nothing special.
The next morning, we meandered over to Cafe du Monde for a meal I’d been anticipating for approximately four years.
Beignets did not disappoint.
We discovered, as so many tourists to New Orleans have learned over the years, that cafe au lait and beignets make the perfect breakfast combination. They are the perfect combination of crispy, yet light and fluffy. An avalanche of powdered sugar on top seals the deal.
At lunchtime, we made another attempt at a po-boy. At Johnny’s, where this stuff was heralded as the best po-boy in NOLA, we tried a shrimp sandwich. It looked delicious.
It was here at Johnny’s that we finally sadly admitted to ourselves the truth: po-boys just didn’t do it for us. Don’t get me wrong, they are perfectly decent and definitely tasty. But they had been built up as the Michael Phelps of sandwiches. To me, it tasted pretty similar to a sub from Wegman’s or a hoagie from anywhere in Philly. Delicious, yes, but not worth driving 450 miles to eat one. In typical fashion, Xavier slathered mayo on his and proclaimed it delicious. I ate mine plain and was satisfied.
The most exciting story about eating in New Orleans comes from our pursuit of the muffuletta. Have yo heard of a muffuletta? It’s a sandwich consisting of Italian meats, olive salad, and cheese. It basically sounded like the perfect food for my boyfriend. We’d heard about a place called Central Grocery from everyone – my mom to Serious Eats. Unfortunately, Central Grocery closed approximately ten minutes before we rolled into NOLA, and they weren’t to reopen until after we left. We were forced to find other options for this treat.
That brings us to Sunday evening. Walking around the Bourbon Street area, we happened upon somewhat of a street fight in front of Acme Oyster House. An angry gentleman was screaming and cursing at another man down the road. He looked like a local, and I enjoyed his creativity in unleashing insults. So when he finished fighting, I asked him where to find the best muffuletta in New Orleans.
He immediately cheered up. “Oh, I can show you that! It’s right down the road. Just follow me.”
Thus began our six-block power-walk down Royal Street.
“Where are you taking us?” we asked, struggling to keep up.
“Just a little ways up,” he answered. We learned that he has a daughter in Atlanta, but has lived in New Orleans his entire life. He did stay in Atlanta during the hurricane, and he really enjoys Piedmont Park. He’s still married to his wife, although they haven’t spoken in years. Getting divorced is a pain in the ass, he said. He fired a line of questions at us: what did we do for work? Were we married? Why were we in New Orleans? And silently, we wondered what was going on, what game he was running, and where the hell he was taking us.
Finally, we arrived to the hallowed location that serves the best muffulettas in New Orleans: a grocery store.
“This place?” we asked, doubtful.
“Yeah! The ingredients here are so fresh, and the girl working in back is really cute!”
We perused the shelf of sandwiches. No muffulettas to be found. He led us to the back, where a grizzled old lady curiously sporting pigtails asked what we needed.
“Is that the girl you think is cute?” I asked.
He shook his head empathetically. “Hell no!”
We received the muffuletta in a plastic clamshell box, and our friend – whose name, we had learned, was Richard – began his next campaign.
“Man, I need to ask you something. I got you this great muffuletta. Will you guys buy me a Bud? I need something to get this night started!”
“A beer? Really?” I asked, already knowing I was going to buy him one.
“Yes! Come on, Coach, put me in the game!”
“Okay, fine,” I allowed. “But we’re here on a weekend trip, and I want to have some memories. So can I take a photo of you guys?”
“Let me see that,” he requested when I’d taken the photo. “Oh man, I look like OJ Simpson!”
And so he did.
The muffuletta was decent, but I think we’ll make it a point to plan our next trip around Central Grocery’s hours of operation. Although an adventure is always fun.
Eating like a tourist in New Orleans was fun. Since it was our first trip and time was limited, we had to check out the big-name places like Cafe du Monde and Johnny’s. Next time, though, we’ll have to go beyond the beaten path. I have so many food recommendations from friends that our next time in New Orleans is already planned!
Have you been to New Orleans? What were your favorite food experiences? Do you think asking a local for recommendations is always a good idea?