Fishing poles and Blues. Peanut butter burgers and baked potatoes. Straw hats. Daiquiris and cover bands on Bourbon. Shrimp po-boys. The way everything smells after the rain. Beignets and cafe au lait. Decatur and Esplanade. Street art for sale. Haunted tours at night.
One of my favorite books, 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, reads just like that. Pages of lists of simple life things that make the heart smile. For a while, Eric and I would read a page of that book each day, putting an initial by the one thing on the page that made us happiest.
Today, my list of things to be happy about comes straight from a page in my life’s book, set in New Orleans.
A Little Backstory
New Orleans is a meaningful place for the Highlands. In September 2005, Eric helped lead a convoy into the city, if you could call it a city. The streets were flooded. They soaked in absolute darkness, such a foreign concept for a major city. Gunfire sounded in the distance. This team of public servants zig-zagged their way to USCG Station New Orleans, which had been literally overrun by civilians. Order was restored, and over 5,600 Coast Guardsmen proceeded to save 33,500 lives shattered by Hurricane Katrina.
Completely unprepared to cope with collapsing levees and tens of thousands of amassed refugees at the Superdome, FEMA was essentially relieved of duty. The United States Coast Guard began to coordinate disaster response using the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS was originally developed to allow multiple agencies to communicate in a state of emergency. Basically, it’s a common language that allows things to get done.
Due to his extensive ICS training, Eric was chosen to lead the Logistics Section, coordinating all supplies, medical response, facilities, food and ground support from Station New Orleans. This was the crowning achievement of his 20 years in the Coast Guard, though there was nothing really glorious about it at the time. I know horrific images of those days in New Orleans are still etched in his mind.
If It Ended There
But the story doesn’t end there. For those who have visited New Orleans in the years since Katrina, you know the streets are once again full of music, and the people are still full of life and love. Every visitor to the city has their own list of things to be happy about, as they wander aged streets that hold centuries of stories in their spires.
And that was the crux of the beauty in my visit. I had heard these stories from Eric, and I just didn’t know what to expect. I am in awe of these people who rebuilt homes, and crossed state lines to recover the courage to come back and face their loss. You don’t sense loss in them. You sense victory.
What We Saw and Ate
We stayed on NAS JRB New Orleans, a military base in Belle Chase. Since it was about half an hour from downtown, we didn’t venture out every day of our week in the area. Eric and I made three trips into town together, and he went out once by himself to chase some Blues (his favorite).
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed our low-key visit and our discoveries. I hope you enjoy the photo tour and share your own NOLA discoveries in a comment.
Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill
Our first visit to the French Quarter was on a Saturday evening, at the tail end of a long travel day. We made a beeline for Yo Mama’s, recommended by friends we made at Lone Star in Austin.
Turns out Eric had visited this dive bar before, but he hadn’t tried the recommended dish: Peanut Butter Bacon Burger.
You may, as I did, picture a hamburger slathered with peanut butter. The reality is more subtle than that. There is enough peanut butter to taste, but not enough to be overwhelming. And this thing is crazy good.
No fries on the side here. Instead, a loaded baked potato which was also worthy of an honorable mention.
We both ate our weight in carbs, but we knew we’d be walking it off over the weekend! Our bartender/server was a sweetheart and was the perfect introduction to the friendly, no-pretense-needed-here people of New Orleans.
Cafe du Monde
We explored the beautiful, centuries old streets of the French Quarter, still full from dinner. It seemed like a different country to me, from a different time…almost like exploring the streets of old Europe (which makes a strange sort of sense, given most of the current buildings were constructed during the 18th century by the Spanish).
I couldn’t stay away from my next destination for long: Cafe du Monde. Since I had been practicing the correct pronunciation of beignet (ben-YAY) for most of the day, working it into every sentence I could, I think Eric was ready to fill my mouth with this powdered delight and get a break.
Not really, he’s a sweetheart. <3
Our Yo Mama’s bar friend confirmed that Cafe du Monde is the place to get beignets in New Orleans. We seated ourselves on the outskirts of the outdoor patio, with a breeze and a view of Jackson Square and the goings-on around us.
I was surprised by the low prices on the menu. You’d think such a tourist hot-spot would take advantage and jack up their prices! Cash only though, as are many places in the area.
We enjoyed our beignets, served in three, and the customary cafe au lait. What a treat to sit back and relax…and people watch!
We closed out our evening with a walk down Decatur to Esplanade, then up to Bourbon Street. We walked past Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, said to be the oldest structure used as a bar in the United States, and into the heart of the action.
Bourbon Street isn’t really my scene, so I probably won’t go back. But I wanted to experience it at least once! Daiquiri in my hand, Eric and I enjoyed a cover band at Funky 544 for quite a while.
Kind of like Sixth Street in Austin, Bourbon Street is the place for cover bands. If you want the good stuff, Frenchmen is where you want to go. But more on that in a second.
Our Sunday destination was The Presbytere, part of the Louisiana State Museum complex, with its face to Jackson Square. Admission is an easy $6 for adults, 10% off with AAA. The Presbytere is open 10 AM-4:30 PM, Tuesday through Sunday.
The Presbytere is divided into two floors. The bottom floor is currently devoted to an exhibit called Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond. It’s a fascinating, in-depth look at the days leading up to Katrina’s landfall, the devastation and response, and even the engineering behind levees and why the ones surrounding New Orleans didn’t hold.
In fact, one of the most eye-opening parts of the museum is easy to miss. It’s on the right wall as you enter the section about the levees – a screen on the wall.
Take a seat on the bench facing the screen, and be amazed as the presentation leads you through the dates and hours when each levee broke. Watch the water seep into neighborhoods across the city, and hear audio recordings of residents as they recount the flooding of their homes.
Appropriately, the exhibit doesn’t end on a negative note. It concludes with an inspiring celebration of the rebirth of New Orleans, and residents’ hope for their future.
The second floor of The Presbytere is dedicated to Mardi Gras. For those who aren’t familiar with the history behind the festival, you’ll probably be as astonished and interested as I was.
We rushed through Mardi Gras a bit because our tummies were rumbling.
Eric was hankering for an authentic po-boy, so we found Johnny’s Po-Boys at 511 St. Louis. I couldn’t believe the menu! Who knew there were so many po-boy varieties.
Eric opted for the Shrimp, which he really enjoyed. It was quite sizable and apparently was even better with hot sauce.
The dining room gets packed, especially on the weekend, so don’t be afraid to share a larger table with others. Another cash only spot.
I decided I just wanted some coffee. Yelp led me to a tiny spot called Spitfire Coffee at 627 St. Peter, less than a block away from Jackson Square. These people know their espresso, and have the customer loyalty to prove it.
I ended up opting for an Iced Chai, which ended up being the perfect choice for a hot Sunday afternoon.
Speaking of hot, we ended up calling it a day for that very reason.
Wednesday evening marked our next foray into the French Quarter. This time, we decided to follow another recommendation and walk down Decatur until it ran into Frenchmen. We were told Frenchmen had the best and most authentic live music.
They were right. Music was coming from everywhere – beautiful Jazz and Blues sounds. After dinner, we parked ourselves at Vaso, an open venue with plenty of room for dancing at 1407 Decatur St. Blues was on the menu for the night, Eric’s favorite. Jazz is my favorite, thus the largest conflict in our marriage.
But this story wouldn’t be complete without our final, epic dinner in New Orleans. I don’t know how we’d do without Yelp, which once again led us to an amazing gem.
Adolfo’s, located at 611 Frenchmen, is located up a mysterious and narrow flight of stairs. Through a door you’ll find the dining room. It’s very small – I don’t think it could seat more than 40. Because of that, you can expect a wait almost all the time. Try and plan ahead! Another important note: this is also a cash only place.
Adolfo’s is known for pasta and seafood, not necessarily in that order. The menu is extensive, and one really doesn’t know what to try first.
We started with French onion soup and a glass of pinot for me. Next came sides, which accompany any entree. Choose from house salad or pasta. I didn’t expect much of my pasta, a simple linguine with marinara. But holy moly, that was the best marinara I’ve ever had!
When our entrees showed up, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Eric chose a special: rainbow trout. Normally it’s served with pesto, but he opted for a custom made combination of marinara and Alfredo sauce. It was so. good. Between the two of us, we totally polished it off.
I wanted to try Adolfo’s Ocean Sauce, which everyone was raving about on Yelp. It’s a creamy combination of crab meat, shrimp and crawfish. It isn’t all mixed together, though. The crab meat is lumped on one half of your entree, with the shrimp and crawfish separate on the other side.
Our server (who was awesome, by the way), recommended I have the ocean sauce with grouper or steak (he may have had some other recommendations, but I got lost in the possibilities). I ended up being under-awed with my dish, but I think it was because of the grouper…which I think I just don’t like. Compared to the rainbow trout, it’s mushy and not as tasty.
Overall, I can’t stop thinking of this place and I’m looking forward to going back. It’s not cheap – ended up being over $90 including tip – but for the quality and experience, I think it was worth it.
Thank you, New Orleans, for a wonderful week full of delicious tastes, important education about the history of our country, soul-touching music, and beautiful people. I’m looking forward to my return -B