Monday, May 7, 2012

It's Later Than You Think

Coming from a hippy town in California, New Orleans has been a drastically different experience in every way. All of these differences can be exemplified by many different aspects of New Orleans, but no part of the city’s culture is a better metaphor for the city as whole than the food.

            The most important part of New Orleans living, to me, is living a lavish, extravagant and excessive lifestyle, whenever possible. In this case, food is the most common example. New Orleanians, in contrast to Californians, eat very, very well, all of the time. Things like fried chicken, hush puppies and biscuits and gravy are extremely common, and things common in California, like sandwiches and omelets are made with butter, fat, and everything else that makes food taste good. When my parents came to visit me the first time in New Orleans, which was both of their first trip here, they were astounded about two things about the food. First, they were surprised how delicious the food was but also awestruck at the sheer caloric value (butter).  New Orleans also exhibits this attitude in other parts of its culture as well. People come to New Orleans from all over the world simply to drink heavily and party: something people choose to do just because of this excessive attitude. Mardi Gras is a whole holiday centered around just that. People eat well, drink better, and generally have a good time without regard for their health of work the following morning.

            New Orleans is also a place with much history and tradition. From Mardi Gras, to all of the festivals, to red beans and rice on Mondays, New Orleans has many traditions, and more than anything, these traditions are food based. Guys Po boys is a good example of  the importance of tradition to New Orleans. It was originally established in 1952, and when it was bought from the original owner in 1992, the current owner was adamant about changing as little as possible, despite the building being generally run down, but even today he strives to keep Guy’s as close to the New Orleans institution that he originally bought. Food festivals are another tradition that blends food, music, art, and many other aspects of New Orleans culture. These festivals include the Po Boy FestivalJazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, and many, many others which celebrate years of culture and traditions. Most of these traditions come from a very long time ago and are almost exclusive to New Orleans. New Orleans jazz music, as known as traditional or trad jazz, is mostly still played the same way it was in 1925, and is nearly unheard of outside of New Orleans, besides bands like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band which tours nationally. Despite being founded in 1961, a time when jazz music was going in many progressive directions, the Preservation Hall Jazz band still plays as if jazz is still in its youth. Just like in cooking, New Orleans music has, in many cases branched out, incorporating more modern rhythm and blues influence, though it is still, like the streetcars and the rest of the city, somewhat living in the past. Something similar can be seen in the restaurant scene as well. Eating in the French Quarter or other touristy destinations, one mostly finds most traditional creole food, but branching out one can find many more progressive restaurants as well. The “new” Freret Street in a great example of these kinds of places. These new restaurants on Freret, such as  Dat Dog or Company Burger, provide innovation to mostly fairly contrived food, and fresh, high quality ingredients, something that is not found in many New Orleans restaurants.

New Orleans is, and has always been a very diverse city, and this is especially reflected in New Orleans’ cuisine. This includes not only Cajun and Creole cooking, but also many other New Orleans ethnic groups, such as Italian contributions like the muffaletta, and Vietnamese foods such as Bahn Mi po boy sandwiches and Pho. So-called “New Orleans” cooking is especially diverse, since it has so many influences from old-world cooking traditions. Po Boy sandwiches for instance, take New Orleans and southern ingredients and puts them on traditional French baguettes.  Diversity is found even in different people cooking the same dishes. When you order gumbo or jambalaya at a restaurant  it could be drastically different than the restaurant up the street or someone’s home cooked rendition. This can often come down to ingredients, such as someone’s specific “trinity”, or influence from other kinds of food, especially in contemporary New Orleans restaurants.

New Orleans may be living in the past, but there’s a reason for it. People love to come to New Orleans to have a good time,  and in a city of plenty to indulge your self in, the best part of living in New Orleans is the incredible food. The New Orleans experience can be defined in an infinite amount of ways, hearing old-school jazz music, getting shit faced on Bourbon Street, but if you ask me, there’s no better way to experience New Orleans than a messy po boy sandwich and a cold beer. So while you’re here, don’t worry, be happy, it’s later than you think.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Eatin' Best at the Fest!

 Strawberry Ice from Brocato's
My first Jazz Fest was many things; the most sweaty I've even been in my life, the most money I've ever spent on food and water bottles at a festival, and one of the best music festivals I've ever been to.

Brocato's Cannoli
Jazz fest food was about what I was expecting. Everything you could buy to eat was basically New Orleans food like jambalaya, Po Boys, muffelettas and many New Orleans fixtures that do not sell Cajun or Creole cuisine such as Mona's Cafe and Brocato's. The most popular item seemed to be the Mango Freeze sold by WWOZ.


What I thought was unique about Jazz Fest is how equal it makes everyone who goes. Whether you are rich or poor, in the end you have virtually the same experience as everyone else who goes to the fest. You stand in the baking heat, you eat the same food, get searched for contraband, and you fight to the front like everyone else. This creates a much more New Orleans experience than that of other jazz festivals I have been to. Monterey Jazz Festival, one of the world's oldest jazz festivals, for instance, has a stage which requires special (expensive) tickets. This is a stark contrast to the jazzfest experience where it is basically a free for all at all of the stages (except the VIP area in front of the Acura stage).
Cafe Reconcile's Strawberry Lemonade

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mud, Pork and Music

 Cochon Toppped Mac and Cheese

 Hogs For the Cause is an annual charity even held in City Park (City Pork) which benefits pediatric brain cancer. During this event, money is raised by about a hundred different stands roasting pigs and competing for trophies. These stands are run by groups from all roasts of life; those who just are there for the fun and competition of the event (these stands were typically very drunk) to professional resturaunts coming to compete, such as the eventual winner, Company Burger as well as Fat Hen Grocery, and even Patois had an entry.

Delicious Brisket Taco
Before the day before the event, I had never heard of Hogs for the Cause, or even been to city park, so this was quite an adventure for me. The day before, I was able to get free tickets to the event, and noticed that Trombone Shorty was headlining the stage. Not having a car available to us, we chose to take the St. Charles Streetcar, and then the Canal City Park Streetcar. When we arrived at City Park, we found a surprise at where Hogs For The Cause was been held. Mud. When I say mud, I am not just talking a about little mushy dirt on the ground. Most people were wearing boots or were barefoot, though I chose to keep my sneakers on throughout the event (this of course required a thorough washing of the aforementioned sneakers).

Who-Dat! Free Sean Payton!

Now let's get to the important part: FOOD. Everywhere you walked there were stands selling delicious food, everything from just Cochon de lait on its own, to tacos, and the overall winner, Company Burger's pork tongue sandwich. My personal favorite was Brisket tacos from New Orleans' own Taceaux Loceaux, some of the best "mexican" food in New Orleans. What I took away from Hogs For the Cause was, in addition to a good time and a full belly, was the idea that food is not only a good way to bring people together for fun, but also a great way for people to rally for a great cause.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Grocery Debaucle

The bulk bins at Whole Foods, an important part of a natural food store
Electronic price tags at Whole Foods.

This weekend, I went to two uptown grocery stores, Whole Foods, a nationwide grocery chain, and Langenstein's, the epitome of a local grocery store, with just two locations, both in New Orleans. Whole Foods is a very sophisticated natural food store. They take pride in having high-quality, natural products available nationwide, unlike most other natural food stores, but still with an emphasis on local products. Most Whole Foods are fairly large, with a very large variety of products, and this Whole Foods is no exception. They have everything you could expect in a grocery store, from local produce, to organic pharmacy products to a full service deli and bakery. Whole Foods is very expensive in general, and so it generally caters to a higher income clientele (In New Orleans Whole foods is located Uptown and in Metarie).
Freshly made food at Whole Foods

Langenstein's is a very different kind of grocery store. Though they are a more upscale grocery store than some, Langensteins does not carry the same kind of products that can be found at Whole Foods. At Whole Foods, all product are naturally produced, and generally not the kinds of name brands you would find at Target or Walmart, such a Jif peanut butter or Clorox bleach or even Coca-Cola. At Langenstein's, it is possible to find all of these brands, which are thought to be less natural or "good for you." Whole foods and other "health food" grocery store instead carry organic brands and, in the case of Whole Foods, even have their own generic line, called 365. People usually think of Whole foods as being a very expensive place to buy groceries, which in comparison to a store like Target or Walmart is true. On the other hand, independent grocery stores such as Langenstein's or larger ones such as Rouse's can be nearly as expensive as Whole Foods. Whole Foods and Langenstein's cater to two different audiences, but both being very far uptown are somewhat similar in catering to a fairly wealthy shopper, despite their differences.

 The Lobster tank at Langenstein's

 Freshly made food at Langenstein's

Monday, February 27, 2012

If you're going to New Orleans, Make sure to see the Mardi Gras

 My first king cake, one of the better (of many) king cakes I tried during Mardi Gras. $6 at Breaux Mart.
 Lucky Dog cart. Had too many of these.

 After Pontchartrain,  we went to Mahoney's Po Boys. These are "dirty fries", french fries covered in gravy and roast beef debris from the grill.
A full size hot sausage Po Boy.

 Mardi Gras supplies.

Cafe Du Monde.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Kentucky Kornucopia

Food has always been really important in my family. Thekitchen’s always been a place of gathering. We had an eclectic mix of food for real. My dad was from thesouth but my parents both lived out in California so there was all sorts offood from fried chicken to Indian stuff that I don’t know how to pronounce. All sorts of weird stuff. I remember a Korean friend movinginto town and I didn’t really know him at the time but he comes over for dinnerone night and he asks my mom, he’s like “you sure y’all are from around here?You don’t really eat like it." 
We eat some I guess more traditional southern food and weeat Korean food with all sorts of glass noodles and bulgogi and all sorts ofjunk. Squid jerky. It’s really salty. Lots of Cuban food. Blackbeans and rice. Fried plantains. I really like this Cuban dish that’s reallyjust shredded beef that’s fried until it’s crispy and then you eat that withsome black beans and rice. And fried plantains. 

My dad cooked a lot growing up. My mom’s very into health food. My dad very muchwas not. He cooked mostof the meals. He did a lot of chili. That’s his favorite, and like soups. He’djust kinda take whatever was around.I cook a good bit. All of my brothers and sisters cook. Atleast know their way around in a kitchen. It’s kind of vital. Growing up, ifyou cooked you didn’t have to clean up and we had five kids and two parents soeverybody wanted to cook because nobody wanted to clean up.  

Just as soon as I was old enough I wanted to dowas my brothers were doing, what my dad was doing. One of the earliest memories I have in our house is my dadteaching me how to flip an egg when I was still standing on a stepstool to getto the top of the stove. I sous-chef a lot for real. My brother likes to cook a wholelot so he’s generally over at our house and he’s usually on the stove. But Iusually go for like Italian. Noodles and sauce is pretty simple. Some gnocchi,some ratatouille or whatever. It’s all the same junk. Soups and chili.

My mom would cook more like Indian food and curries. Shewould cook all sorts of weird mixes but she also cooks like down home; what shecalled “cathead biscuits.” And they be like big old chunks of stuff to putgravy on. It would be like a whole wheat lump of biscuit-like doughabout the size as  you fist. About theshape of a cat’s head.

I guess they owned a restaurant. In Louisvillethey had like a little hippie joint. Kinda making I guess California food typeof deal. I don’t know. Like weird hippie vegetable food that’s good for you.Indian stuff. It was called Trader Inn I think. They had like “if your wifecan’t cook trade ‘er in.” 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Everyone loves Camellia Grill, right?

If you ask most people in New Orleans, they'll tell you the same thing; Camellia Grill is one of the best diner style restaurants in New Orleans. In fact, when looking through Yelp reviews I could only find a single review less than 3 stars from a New Orleanian. There are however, a number of reviews to the contrary opinion, almost exclusively written by tourists.

My personal favorite unfavorable review on Yelp comes from Lauren R. of Virginia Beach, Virginia. This review also shines light on and important element of eating at Camellia Grill. Aside from things like the waffles, pies, and the veggie omelet, the menu at Camellia Grill is very limited for its vegetarian customers.

Many reviews, both favorable or unfavorable, complain about the wait, a crucial component of the Camellia Grill experience. In most cases, the wait does not significantly affect the rating, but some say that the wait is not worth it.

Part of what people seem to like about Camellia Grill, aside from the food, is the atmosphere, as well as the waitstaff. Many rank it very highly, even though they say the food is nothing special, simply because of these factors. They rave about the outgoing nature of the waiters and and chefs which many say make the experience.

There does however seem to be another near consensus about Camellia Grill. Most reviews mention that eating at Camellia Grill is best when taking part in one of the most important New Orleans traditions: Drinking (something the author has NOOOOO experience with). Many reviewers complain about the wait to eat at Camellia around breakfast time. Most of these are also from out of town, and after asking around about the restaurant I found that few people actually ate there at breakfast, despite mostly eating food usually associated with breakfast.

Eating at Camellia grill says a few things about a person. First, they do not care that the meal they are about to eat is going to likely cause them to eventually have a heart attack or at least severe gastric disturbance. Second,  you are not some one who cares greatly about service and convenience. Last, if one goes during the late night hours.....well, we all know what that says about a person.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Po Boy for a Po Boy

From its history, the cuisine and the sheer funkiness of the restaurant, Guy's Po Boys on Magazine St. is a New Orleans institution through and through. Guys does not have a website, nor is there much information about anywhere on the internet besides Yelp and Urbanspoon. This a figured to be a good sign for a authentic New Orleans institution; no heavy marketing or advertising, no trying to be something it's not, just an honest, old-fashioned hole-in-the-wall with delicious greasy Po Boys.

I was able to gleam some basic information from the articles and reviews, however. Guy's has not been owned by the original "Guy" in many years (if my math is correct it was established in 1952). The current owner, Marvin Matherne, purchased the restaurant in 1992, and has owned it ever since. His strategy for the restaurant is to change it as little as possible from Guy's original vision, which he seems to have accomplished.

Aesthetically, the restaurant is, well, ugly. The tables are beaten up, and from the outside it looks similar to a lot of the funky mini marts that can be found on Magazine. Matherne doesn't mind however, and focuses solely on producing delicious, affordable sandwiches.
Now we get to the important part: the food. After pouring over Yelp reviews for 20 minutes, I was understandably conflicted about what my greasy lunch adversary would be. I've had a decent amount of Po Boys since I moved out to New Orleans, mostly at Mahoney's as well as the Po Boy Preservation Festival on Oak St. I finally decided upon a Roast Beef and Gravy sandwich, which was promptly delivered. Armed with a glass bottle of Barq's Root Beer and a bottle of Tabasco, I delved into my sandwich. My girlfriend had a pastrami Po Boy, which was also excellent. The main thing I noticed about the sandwiches was the bread. Most Po Boys I have had have been served on bread that seemed more mass produced, but this bread seemed to have come from a local bakery; it was crunchy, chewy, and covered in flour. The only other roast beef and gravy sandwich I have had was from Flambeaux's the Po Boy place on campus, and this was much, much better. There's dozens of great places to get Po Boys in New Orleans, but many lack the real authenticity of Guy's. If you want a REAL Po Boy uptown, this is your place.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Red Beans and Rice; Isn't That Nice

     This Monday I, like many of those who reside in New Orleans, took part in the tradition of eating Red Beans and Rice. The Monday tradition comes from when women would wash clothes on Mondays and would set out red beans to cook with a leftover ham bone from the Sunday's dinner. I usually eat red beans and rice every Monday in the campus dining hall, but this Monday I decided to get something better.

     Mahoney's Po Boy Shop on Magazine St. serves the dish on only Mondays and I had been eager to try their rendition after eating their Po Boys. The Po Boys are some of the best I've had since I've moved here, and it is one of my favorite places to eat in New Orleans. At Mahoney's, Red Beans and Rice is served with a side plate of delicious cornbread drenched in butter and your choice of hot sausage or fried catfish, the latter of which I opted for. Mixed in with the beans is sliced smoked sausage and ham, which adds much of the flavor, as well as a ham hock. The dish is then garnished with green onions. On the table there was both Tabasco and Crystal hot sauces, which are definitely an essential part of eating red beans and rice.

Red Beans and Rice at Mahoney's

Click here for a brief history of Red Beans and Rice (and a recipe!)