Being the diary of New Year’s in New Orleans
or the advertures of a budding Epicurean on a budget
Text © 2008
photos © 2008 Scott W Clemens
December 28th, 2007
Our college football team had been invited to play at the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in New Orleans, Louisiana, and my girlfriend Cayce was going with them as a base-drummer in the marching band. I was going with them too, both as a fan and a supporter of my girlfriend’s musical pursuits. We flew out of San Francisco at 12:35 a.m. on Continental Airlines. We reached Houston in about three and a half hours, waited out a short layover, and boarded a second plane for the hour-long jump to New Orleans. In total I probably got about three hours of sleep, while Cayce got more like four on account of me being a comfortable pillow.
While walking out of baggage claim we were solicited by a taxi dispatcher. He directed us to a large white van where we were quickly joined by four other passengers. On our way to the downtown I kept an eye open for signs of Hurricane Katrina’s legendary destruction. Our driver, who was extremely friendly and happy to tell us about the city, talked to us about the flooding, pointing out where the worst of it took place. At one point along the highway he called our attention to a brown band four feet up on high stone wall separating the road from the residential area behind it. He told us that it marked the top of the flood waters, which didn’t recede for three weeks following the storm.
Our driver also gave us this piece of advice: stay in groups and don’t walk at night. Crime is rampant in the city, especially near the Canal Street Guesthouse where I was staying. I soon found out what he meant. The area around the Guesthouse is full of destroyed and abandoned buildings. It’s two blocks away from one of New Orleans’ last surviving projects, an area that both our driver and Sam, the proprietor of the rooming house, told us to avoid. To make matters worse, to get to the downtown we’d have to pass beneath the freeway, through a homeless community of tents and sleeping bags that must be at least two-hundred individuals strong, a few of whom were already drinking when I arrived at 9:45 a.m. The area is patrolled by an army of police. Indeed, in my time in New Orleans the only type of people I saw more of than police were the homeless that they appeared to be continuously monitoring.
One of the saving graces of the Canal Street Guesthouse location is that New Orleans’ famous streetcars, which are very affordable at $1.50, pick up out front (in the median called the ‘neutral zone’ due to its history of dividing the French and Spanish quarters hostile to one another). As for the Guesthouse itself, it gets a mixed review from me and a terrible one from my girlfriend, who disliked it so much that she considered finding another hotel room for the night. The rooming house dates back to the 19th century and has an authentic feel. Sam was a nice and personable host, and I would say that the room he led us to was cozy. The furnishings were old, sturdy and attractive, and the few pieces of art on the walls were quite pretty. However, there were many obvious problems with the room. The lighting was dim, the paint on the wall was cracked in places and so was the bathroom floor. The television was an antennaed relic from sometime in the early 80s, and the remote didn’t work. I should also say that though my stay took place in winter and thus air-conditioning wasn’t an issue, the fact that the AC in the room ran on quarters was not a sign of quality. On the other hand, it’s only $328 a week for their best room!
Cayce and I didn’t stay in the room long. Despite our fatigue we were both eager to get out and see the city. We made the walk down Canal Street to world famous Bourbon Street. Upon arrival I was more than a little surprised. Bourbon Street is something of a dump; a narrow and dingy road if ever I saw one. It houses a hodge-podge of restaurant/bars, tourist shops and strip joints. While I can’t speak for the latter, the other two are of highly uneven quality. The strip joints display their wares very prominently and many of the t-shirts hanging in the shop windows feature swearing in one creative fashion or another. All that being said, for adults looking for a little bit of culture the area has its charms. Much of the architecture is beautiful and many of the businesses in the area are quirky and interesting.
‘La Bayou’ on Bourbon Street is a neat, medium-priced bar and restaurant. The décor comes complete with a giant stuffed alligator behind the bar and lamps made from various jazz instruments (we sat next to the saxophone). A series of large mirrors facing each other from opposite walls isn’t a bad touch either. To immerse myself in New Orleans cuisine I ordered an andoille sausage and chicken gumbo that was nicely spiced and hearty. Cayce ordered a Cajun Po’Boy, a giant sandwich packed with spicy meat and served hot. We both enjoyed the meal and cleaned our plates completely.
After lunch we endeavored to wander around the French Quarter. Almost as soon as we began to move we chanced upon Jackson Square, a pretty area of greenery and street shops partially marred by the large number of homeless surrounding it (one of whom was shouting obscenities at a tourist when we arrived). On one end of Jackson Square on Chartes Street is St. Louis Cathedral. The seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans houses a number of beautiful stained glass windows and a ceiling full of gorgeous frescos. Though perhaps not as spectacular as those in Europe, St. Louis Cathedral’s solemn atmosphere and wonderful artwork make it a nice stop while experiencing the downtown.
From there we moved on to the French Market, a gaggle of flea-market style sellers of such tourist items as alligator heads, feathers masks, t-shirts and cheap jewelry. After wandering through the crowded corridors between booths we found ourselves outside of the New Orleans Mint Museum, reopened just two months previously after being damage in Hurricane Katrina. We decided to go inside and paid a small entrance fee.
The downstairs of the New Orleans Mint is slightly lackluster unless you are perhaps an enthusiast of rare coins, of which there are several displays. Most of the displays involve non-descript minting machinery. The value of the museum for us was instead found in its second floor in an extensive gold exhibit on loan from the American Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately for the reader, this outstanding collection of gold artifacts moved on shortly after our visit.
After the mint Cayce and I strolled back through the French Market to the other side where two outdoor cafés were featuring blues bands close enough together that they interfered with each other’s sound. We stopped in at a shop called ‘Southern Candymakers’ on Decatur Street, a delightful little shop filled to bursting with various sweets. Cayce got an ice cream there that was quite good. Later in the trip I found a friend of hers enjoying a stick of white-chocolate covered marshmallows from the shop. She told me that it was as delicious as it looked.
Hours of ambling aimlessly around the city brought us to Pirate’s Alley and a spot overlooking the mighty Mississippi, which looks even mightier in person. When hunger hit us we stopped in at ‘Pere Antoine’ on Royal Street, a Cajun casual dining restaurant. The food and service were both excellent. Cayce ordered a nicely spiced jambalaya and I decided upon a crawfish pie that was a very good mix of crunchy pastry and creamy Cajun sauce.
Not wanting to walk at night, the two of us caught a cab back to the Guesthouse. Though Cayce was uncomfortable in the place, the bed was soft and the sheets were warm. After such a long day it was very easy to fall asleep.
December 29, 2007
The next morning Cayce and I rode the Canal Street streetcar down to the Sheridan hotel. Cayce’s comrades in the University of Hawai’i band had just arrived and were checking in, as were the school’s cheerleaders and dance troop. It was a pleasant bedlam for me as an observer and an extreme annoyance to Cayce, whose attempt to check in was met with a twenty minute run-around. In the meantime, a bum who was either deaf or good at acting wandered into the lobby. He offered me a none-too-clean hand to shake and I did so out of both politeness and force of habit. He then showed me a napkin with the words “got any change?” written upon it. When I shook my head he made a disgruntled gesture and went over to the long line of UH guests waiting for the elevator. He proceeded to hit them up one by one for money (succeeding much of the time, to my surprise) before hotel security got wise and escorted him off the premises.
Eventually Cayce managed to find her room assignment and the two of us headed up to case out the accommodations.
Cayce shared a room that had two twin beds with three other girls, a situation that indicated poor funding on the part of the university. It was simple and clean, though small. The view from a large window at the far end of the room was its most striking feature. It looked out upon Canal Street, and beyond that the Mississippi River. It was very pretty in the midday sunlight and no doubt would have been gorgeous at sunrise or sunset had I been around to witness it.
By the time Cayce was finished settling in we were both getting pretty hungry. The two of us, plus Cayce’s bed-mate Janelle, went down to the French Quarter in search of a late breakfast. We eventually found it at a small café called ‘Fleur de Lis’ on Chartres Street. We were attracted to the place somewhat counter intuitively by its remarkably long line to order up at the register. We waited a full half-hour to place our orders, and it was worth every minute. I had a ‘Fleur de Lis Omelet’ stuffed with crawfish tails, pepper jack cheese, bell peppers, and onions. It was covered in a red crawfish sauce that gave the dish both a light kick and a rich flavor. It was probably the best thing I ate in New Orleans, which is saying something given the quality of the food in the city. Cayce and Janelle weren’t disappointed either, and all three of us left praising the Fleur de Lis’ quality.
While Cayce and Janelle went off to a band practice, I rode a streetcar back to my room at the Guesthouse. When I arrived I was struck by the smell of something wet and unpleasant in the entryway. My room wasn’t much better and smelled strongly of propane, a side effect of the gas-powered space heater. Despite the smell, I set about using up time by taking a nap and doing some writing.
Unfortunately, the UH band practice ran late, and by the time I got suspicious that something was up I had lost the day, much to my disappointment and chagrin. It wasn’t until nightfall that I got a call from Cayce and headed down to the Sheridan on a very crowded streetcar.
Shortly after arrival plans were set in motion to get a large number of UH band members together for dinner. Within half an hour a dozen of us were headed down Bourbon Street. While this made for good company it also made it difficult to find a place to eat. Bourbon Street on a Saturday night was an entirely different scene from our earlier experience. It was filled to the brim with voices, laughter, music (much of it live), neon lights, and the wandering inebriated. The restaurants in the area were extremely crowded, with people often lined up to the end of the block. We searched in vain for a place that could seat us all without an hour wait, until we came to the familiar site of La Bayou, where a waiter said that he could seat us immediately. I attempted to convince the group to move on, but I was overruled by their combined hunger.
So it was that I ate at La Bayou again. It was not a bad experience. The group went in together on a plate of fried alligator that was both tasty and unique. The only way to describe it is like a cross between fish and chicken, though it truly has a flavor and texture all its own. For a main course I ordered the catfish platter, which was fried catfish on top of French fries. Though not spectacular it was both hearty and filling.
At about the time we were finishing our meal the last game of the football game of the season caught my attention on La Bayou’s two television screens — a match-up between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. Being a football fan and not wanting to miss the chance to witness two NFL records and a perfect regular season, I stayed in the bar as the group went to wander Bourbon Street. I first tried a ‘Hurricane,’ a mix of lime juice, passion fruit syrup and rum. Incidentally, it was reportedly created and named sometime in the 1940s, so the title is ironic instead of in poor taste. It was pleasantly sweet and extremely smooth going down, through perhaps a little pricey. For my second drink I tried a Godiva Chocolate Martini, a mix of vodka, vermouth and chocolate liquor that was good but had a significant bite to it. At that point I was no longer feeling adventurous and ordered a White Russian. I was surprised to receive the best I’ve ever tasted, the Kalua and vodka perfectly mixed with cream.
At half-time I left La Bayou and returned to the Sheridan to wait for Cayce and finish watching the game. The hotel had set up a large projector to showcase the action, and I sat down at their bar to watch. I nursed another White Russian, this one mediocre, and reveled in the lively crowd’s reactions throughout the close match-up. In the end the Patriots prevailed and cemented their remarkable perfect regular season, with Tom Brady and Randy Moss both breaking records in the process. Cayce arrived just as the game was ending. I escorted her up to her room and hung out for a short while before catching a taxi back to the Guesthouse. I arrived just before a storm began and slept soundly despite the thunder.
December 30, 2007
It was still raining heavily when I awoke, but by the time I was ready to leave the sky had cleared. For brunch Cayce and I went to a place called ‘Mena’s,’ on Chartres Street. Through not up to the standards of the Fleur de Lis, there was no wait and the food was very good. I had hot cakes, which were fluffy and rich, along with sausages that were fairly standard. Cayce had the hash browns and assured me that they were among the best she’s ever had.
After brunch Cayce went off to another band practice and I headed down to check out the Aquarium of the Americas at the end of Canal Street, which has been almost completely restocked after losing nearly all of their wildlife during the power outage that came with Katrina. Within I saw many forms of sea and river life from both North and South America, along with a few scattered birds whose presence I could not explain. It was an enjoyable visit, with the seahorse and Amazon River displays being the most memorable sections. However, the aquarium does suffer from a fairly poor set of displays. While the aquatic life is staggering both in number and variety, the tanks themselves are often small and lackluster; the displays and exhibits are geared primarily towards young children. While this would have been great for traveling families, for me it left many displays simplistic and uninformative.
In the afternoon I returned to my room for a brief nap before heading out to join Cayce and her family: Marty, Nola, and her little brother Cooper, all recently arrived from California. As I waited at the streetcar stop in front of the Guesthouse after dark I felt very exposed. There was no enclosure, and the lone bench was spotlighted by a bright streetlamp. It didn’t seem very safe. Perhaps in echo to my thoughts, I had hardly waited a minute before I was approached by a bum who informed me that the area wasn’t safe. He told me that I was going to get robbed if I stayed where I was and offered to lead me to safety through some backstreets that he knew. Because my Momma didn’t raise no fool, I politely declined and said that I’d wait for the streetcar. He said that he wanted to ride it as well but didn’t have exact change. Seemingly forgetting what he had just said, he asked if he could give me fifty cents back for a dollar. Sensing out the situation, I told him that would be fine. He took the bill and walked away, saying “I was telling you the truth” in a wounded voice. After he was out of sight I decided that it was smarter to wait for the streetcar from beside the safety of the iron-bared Guesthouse entrance.
Eventually I did manage to take the streetcar without getting mugged. I met up with Cayce and her family at the Marriott on Canal Street. In a bizarre turn of booking logistics the UH band, cheerleaders, dancers, and even the players had to get two separate reservations at two separate hotels to make it through the week. As such, everyone had moved across the street from the Sheridan to the Marriott that afternoon. The hotels proved to be much the same, though in Cayce’s case the view changed from the Mississippi to a less impressive sprawl of dirty rooftops.
Finding somewhere to eat on Sunday night in the French Quarter proved to be as much trouble as Saturday night. If anything, with both the Sugar Bowl and New Years drawing nearer the crowds increased. Eventually we ended up waiting for over an hour and a half in front of ‘Deanie’s Seafood’ on the corner of Dauphine and Iberville. It made for a cold and hungry business, not to mention a late dinner. Fortunately the wait was vindicated by some excellent food. A very helpful and friendly waitress started us off with a basket of small, spicy potatoes in place of bread. They were very good and complimented the food to come. I ordered the crab quartet, a sampler plate featuring crab au gratin, fried crab claws, crab cakes, and one whole fried soft shell crab. Not only were all four delicious, but they were also well presented. Using crab shells as containers for the crab cakes was an especially nice touch. Of all four dishes, I liked the crab au gratin best. It had a delicious taste that was both well textured and complex. Cayce and her family also enjoyed their meals a great deal, though the barbeque shrimp ordered by Nola and Cooper proved to be messy eating.
December 31, 2007
On Monday morning I set out to meet Cayce and her family once again. Tired of waiting for streetcars, I decided to walk instead. The weather was nice and the trip was somewhat enjoyable, even though I became lost on several occasions. On my way I passed through a residential neighborhood that was covered in greenery, a historic building called the Beauregard-Keyes house that had a cement wall surrounding it studded along its top with many gruesome looking shards of broken glass, and a man who stood on the sidewalk and bellowed: “I don’t have any (expletive) friends, and that’s how I (expletive) like it!” Overall, the journey was quite colorful.
I eventually caught up with Cayce and her family. They had a plan to ride the St. Charles streetcar from one end of the line to the other, and I was happy to come along. I’m glad I did. Bourbon Streetand downtown New Orleans have a seedy side, not to mention still damage that remains from Hurricane Katrina. Had I just hung around there I would have had a very different view of the area.
The St. Charles streetcar took me on a ride through New Orleans’ Garden District, and it was beautiful. Not only is the area as lush and green as the name would suggest, it is also filled with many huge Southern-style mansions that were a joy to look at. T University stands near the area’s terminus and is also noteworthy for its old-university style of brick buildings and Christian statues.
We paused at the end of the line for a late lunch (or breakfast, for me) at ‘La Madeleine,’at the far end of St. Charles. La Madeleine is a small French diner, featuring sandwiches, salads, pastas and pastries. Again, the food was outstanding. The pasta salad came as a side but was easily worthy of a main course meal. It was easily among the best I’ve ever come across. The rest of the food didn’t disappoint either, and my chicken parmesan sandwich was excellent.
After eating we rode the line back to Canal Street. Cayce went off to play a pep rally and her family returned to their hotel to sleep, leaving me with a few hours to kill. I spent them watching football in the Marriott bar/lounge, which had bland food and overpriced drinks but comfortable seating and good atmosphere. At one point I got sick of the prices and went down to Bourbon Street to a place called ‘Jester’s.’ The bar uses a simple but novel idea: combine alcoholic beverages with slushy machines. A variety of frozen drink dispensers stand behind a long counter (there is no seating) in such flavors as Hurricane, Margarita, and even White Russian. Drinks are served in either portable Styrofoam cups or, in the case of a large, tall souvenir cups in the shape of a jester. I got myself a strawberry Daiquiri that was inexpensive given its volume and headed back to the Marriott to take up one of their comfortable couches. On the way I was threatened and cussed out by a group of young Georgia fans, but ultimately found the situation so ridiculous that it was funny rather than frightening.
Before Cayce got back I received a call from my friend Tom, a fellow UH student who was in town with his girlfriend, her parents, and his brother. I abandoned the waiting game and met the group near Harrah’s casino. Together we walked around and bought a few beers, once from a street vendor and once from a convenience store. Just as we were hitting Bourbon Street I got a call from Cayce. After going back to pick her up at the Marriott we reconvened with Tom and company to ring in the New Year.
I have to say, Bourbon Street on New Year’s Eve was an amazing party. The street was so packed full of people that it was difficult to move, almost all of them drinking and having a good time. And yes, just as the Girl’s Gone Wild videos advertised, there was even a little nudity. I stopped in at a different Jester’s further down the road and bought a large ‘190 Knockout,’ complete with souvenir cup. I don’t know exactly what was in it, but it was orange and contained an estimable amount of hard liquor. As might be expected, it kept me going strong for the rest of the night. At 11:55PM we found ourselves on a block composed almost entirely of UH fans and decided that it was a good place to wait for the year to turn. Midnight came and went amidst a sea of cheering, singing, and pro-UH chants. It was a great time.
It was 3:00AM when I finally began hailing a cab to go home. It took forty-five minutes of standing outside with the temperature in the high thirties and a cold wind biting through my sweatshirt before I realized I wasn’t going to get one. Every cab that passed me was full and there were three groups on the same block trying to catch one. Two of them had been there longer than I had. With few other options, I began to walk. I hoped that the New Year’s crowds might be thick enough to deter any unsavory characters, but as I moved away from Bourbon Street they thinned out quickly. About five blocks from the Guesthouse I caught up to two trustworthy looking gentlemen and slowed my pace to make a trio. I made conversation and found out that they were UH supporters from Hawai’i as well; something that I think greatly reduced the overall creepiness of me starting to walk and talk with them. Only a block away from the unlit depths of the overpass homeless community, one of my companions spotted an empty cab. He literally ran out into the street and got in front of it to make it stop. The two got in and invited me to join them. I did, thanking them profusely. They replied that they “took care of their own.” The one that had hailed the cab refused my offer to help with the fare, so I slipped some money to his buddy instead. They dropped me off in short order and I headed inside for some much needed rest.
January 1, 2008
As might be expected, I slept in very late the next day. Though Cayce was off getting ready for the Sugar Bowl I met up with her family to walk over to the Super Dome. We got there before the gates opened and spent some time at the Sugar Bowl ‘fan fest,’ a pep rally for both teams involving lots of fight songs and spectacle. When the gates opened I said my goodbyes to Cayce’s family, letting them go to their seats while I headed off to mine.
As a stadium the Super Dome was impressive. I doubt that there was a bad seat in the house, and it was very easy to get in and out. The bathrooms were even moderately clean, if a bit too full of pot smoke in this particular case. However, food and beverage fare was not good, though perhaps expected. Generic and stale stadium favorites such as nachos and hot dogs dominated the concessions stands, and overpriced Bud and Miller Light made up the drink selection. It seemed odd to me that in a town with such excellent cuisine none of its great food extended to its football stadium. I thought that it might be able to offer something to differentiate it from other parts of the country.
I ended up in the Georgia seating section, a consequence of a ticket shortage caused by UH brass giving away 5,000 of their allotted seats over concerns of not being able to fill them. Contrary to their (foolish) expectations, tickets sold out in less than forty-eight hours and were opened up to season ticket holders only. This left people like myself to scrounge up whatever seats we could find. Fortunately the Georgia fans proved to be friendly, though things might have gone south fast if their team had started losing. Since that never happened they proved to be an amiable bunch. Hawai’i got clobbered, playing one of the worst games I’ve ever seen. At least Cayce played well.
I walked back to the Guesthouse after the crushing defeat, feeling extremely disgruntled. The expert analysis of why my college team had lost so badly offered up by various Georgia fans echoed in my head as I went to sleep, thinking “I came all this way for this?” over and over again. Of course, I didn’t come only to see my team win, but it was hard to remember that at the time.
January 2, 2008
The next day our wounds were still fresh and Cayce and I didn’t have the heart or the time to try out someplace new for breakfast, so we again ducked into Mena’s for some pre-flight grub. I got a muffuletta sandwich, a toasted concoction of capicola, salami, mortadella, emmentaler, provolone, and olive salad on Sicilian bread. I thought it was fantastic, but Cayce got the same and found it to be too heavy for her tastes.
We caught a cab to the airport right after eating. While waiting for the plane we talked about what we’d miss: the food, the history, the southern hospitality. We also talked about what we wouldn’t miss: the seediness, the dilapidated settings, the wandering homeless. And, of course, all those damn Georgia Bulldogs fans.
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