Wednesday, December 4, 2013

New Orleans: the Big Easy (Day 1)

Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans in 2005, and the city is still struggling with its aftermath even now.  When people think of New Orleans, images of Mardis Gras and drunken parties on Bourbon Street immediately pop to mind.  I had no doubt that particular center of tourism had recovered and was back in full swing.  But what about the rest of NOLA?  I had read mixed views on how well the city was faring eight years after the storm.  I had an obligation that would take me to New Orleans in early December, and I decided to add a few days to explore and get acquainted with the post-Katrina version of the city.

I arrived on a cloudy and somewhat somber Wednesday.  I didn’t know quite what to expect, and the drive in from the airport did not reveal much.  I booked myself into a guesthouse on Esplanade, in the heart of the old city, as I wanted to be within walking (or biking) distance to most everything.  The guesthouse was adjacent to the Treme neighborhood, popularized in the HBO series.  I never watched that series, as was obvious by my mispronunciation.  Still, I knew that the area had its own charm as America’s oldest black neighborhood.

After I checked in, I was hungry and the first thing I wanted was good spicy Cajun cooking.  I checked on Yelp, and was happy to see that a highly rated restaurant was just around the corner, and it was cheap as well!  And the name of the restaurant was "Cajun Seafood."  How perfect was that!

As I walked several blocks north toward the restaurant, the neighborhood grew noticeably rougher.  I didn’t feel unsafe, but I am not sure I would want to be walking here by myself late at night.  The graffiti under the bridge was interesting though.

Cajun Seafood is a hole in the wall, albeit a very clean and well run hole in the wall.  The shrimping community in the Gulf of Mexico has a large Vietnamese contingent, so I was not entirely surprised to see that the restaurant was run by a Vietnamese family.  It appeared to do a robust take out business, mostly of Cajun classics, but also traditional southern food (like fried chicken necks), Vietnamese cuisine, and tons of fresh whole raw seafood.

I ordered two beers, loads of spicy crawfish, gumbo, and some sides and dug in.  It was totally yummy, and a great bargain to boot!

When I finished, my lips were burning a bit from all the spices.  It was a long walk to the center of old city, but the weather had cleared a bit and I felt a need to walk off the overindulgent lunch.  I took a casual stroll, thinking how different NOLA was from most cities in the country.  Each building appeared to have its own personality, and even the tiniest of homes (and some were very, very tiny) took pains to stand out.

The people were equally colorful.  Those are goats, not dogs, by the way.

As I approached center city, the city took on a more genteel character, and some of the historic Southern charm was obvious.

The people were as interesting as ever, ranging from a couple who decided to sit out in the middle of a street for some inexplicable reason, to an entrepreneurial vendor who was selling "made to order" poems, to the usual crowds in the nearby public square.

I am not sure whether Moonwalk refers to Michael Jackson or not, but the area along the water way had a lot going on as well.

I needed to get back for a meeting, so I turned around.  The walk back took me through Bourbon Street, and then through Armstrong Park.  Bourbon Street was lively, but still very touristy even during the day.  I didn’t take that many photos.  Still, every city has its share of “statue” guys, but this is the first I saw sitting on a garbage can.  I also had not realized, though probably should have, that Bourbon Street still has some of the old sin factor bopping around.

Armstrong Park, by comparison, was pretty empty.  The very large center city green space is a landmark honoring Louis Armstrong, the king of jazz, but frankly was pretty boring and lacking in character.  I thought it did a disservice to one of the country’s most innovative musicians of all time.

I spent the rest of the day attending to my obligations.  Later in the evening, I had dinner at Chef Emerile’s NOLA.  He was one of the guys who put New Orleans cuisine on the map, so I wanted to try it.  The food was fine, but I would have better meals during my stay in the city.

After dinner, I headed over to Frenchman’s Street, which in my opinion is far superior to Bourbon Street for excellent music, cocktails, and nightlife.  Moreover, the area does not allow either crack selling or even cat selling.  Wait, what??

I wandered around a bit, hopping from place to place, until I settled on Japanese jazz club of all places.  I had experienced some excellent jazz during my years in Tokyo, so I wanted to give it a try.  The place was fun, especially by the fourth cocktail.  I had to get up early in the morning, however, so I headed back to the guesthouse sooner than I would have preferred.  I stopped to listen to some street musicians, and then made the short walk back.

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