Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On the Road: New Orleans, LA - JazzFest

This will be the first of many sequential posts in the "On the Road" category.  Why?  Perhaps because I just completed an 18-day road trip that began in San Jose and ended in N'Awlins.  I may try to fit in a few local Miami posts in between but as of right now I plan to cover NOLA, Seattle, and Portland.  There were also stops in Vegas and San Diego but I didn't really have any meals worth relaying in those places (Julian Serrano at the new City Center in Vegas was a disappointment.  Sushi Ota in San Diego was crazy good as usual but I played it basic.  Their omakase is a must do if in San Diego.  Cowboy Star in San Diego was decent for me but a total bust for my dining companions who let the manager know areas where the restaurant could improve itself, starting with cuts of beef that should never have hit the grill.  Ouch.)

Ok, enough with the babbling and onwards to NOLA and JazzFest!

This was my first trip to New Orleans.  As a matter of fact, it was my first trip to Louisiana which was awesome in its' own right since I could cross LA off of my lists of states not traveled (only 8 left including AK and HI!!).  I had flew out of San Diego on Thursday, landed in Miami Friday morning, did some much needed underwear laundry, and then headed to Ft. Lauderdale to catch and air chariot to NOLA.  I arrived around 6pm that Friday night and was picked up by a member of the bachelor party in a big white van that already had a weekend acoustic guitar purchased and ready to be rocked.  After meeting up with the rest of the group, we headed over to some hotel that I forget the name of to get the night started.  The best part about this group was that it contained some college buddies that I hadn't seen since ten or eleven years ago while "studying" at UMass in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Turns out one of the guys was playing in a band named Hi8us and touring across the country and, as luck would have it, was playing at the hotel that I forget the name of (we'll refer to it as the Forgotten Hotel from now on) that very night.

We showed up and the band was already rockin'.  Thirsty from a long day of travel, I searched out a frosty beverage that the locals call "beer".  Our luck streak continued - the hotel apparently does a crawfish boil on this particular night offering FREE crawfish, fried chicken, new potatoes, salad, bread, and all the beer you can pound until it runs out and someone has to go to the store to refill the cooler.  Talk about awesome!  When there is free beer and crawfish to be had, I check my shyness at the door and dive right in!  This was my leadoff plate...
Crappy iPhone pic of my 1st plate of crawfish, mid-domination

I mowed through this first plate, putting on a clinic of crackin' tails and suckin' crawfish heads for the rookies in attendance.  These bugs were meaty as hell with a spiciness that started out mild and then got fiery the more you sucked 'em down.  I gotta give props to the rookies who attacked the heads without reservation and became quick fans.  They probably would give props to the beers for the boost of liquid courage.  After another mini plate of crawfish and some fried chicken that was serviceable, I had enough base in my belly to feel confident about bar hopping all night long.  So, we bid adieu to our band buddies and the Forgotten Hotel and headed to Frenchman Street to check out some local jazz troupes before heading to Tipitina's to catch one of my favorite bands - the Greyboy Allstars.

 Frontman Karl Denson sax solo backed by the Greyboy Allstars @ Tipitina's

The Allstars put on a kickass show and the night kept moving along to a steady beat.  We bounced from venue to venue, taking in more music and having a great time.  Me and the groom-to-be found ourselves in a taxicab around 6:30am with bellies that needed sustenance.  I believe my words to the cabbie sounded something like, "Hey man, where can we get a po' boy right now?"  The next thing I knew, we were in front of The Trolley Stop Cafe.
Leaving The Trolley Stop Cafe @ 7:30am after annihilating a killer oyster po' boy

Granted, I was weathered, weary, and tired but this was an awesome oyster po' boy.  Just enough dressings to freshen up the flavors of the fried oysters themselves.  Yum, yum, yum.  I even contemplated taking one for the road and leaving it by my bed just in case I had a bout of sleepeating.

After about 4 hours of sleep I was up and at 'em again.  My roommate for the weekend and I both needed some fuel to get going.  I had sadly slept through the text inviting me to Elizabeth's in Bywater where they serve praline bacon so I figured, "why not another po' boy?"  We walked from the hotel towards Canal Street and happened upon The Pearl Restaurant & Oyster Bar which I had heard about previously from a friend and figured they probably made a decent po' boy.  The sweet woman at the counter filled us up on iced tea (unsweetened for me) and delivered a couple of shrimp po' boys to go.  After a quick stop at Meyer the Hatter, the South's Largest Hat Shop that sadly ended without a new headwear purchase, we headed back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of the gang at the van to head to Jazzfest.  Unable to contain myself, I devoured half of my shrimp po' boy on the walk back and finished her off in the van.  This po' boy was just OK and didn't have much in the way of dressing (tomatoes, lettuce, mayo).

 Galactic jams for the masses behind some dude's giant head

We got to the fairgrounds, grabbed a few beers, and headed to the main stages.  We caught the end of the Band of Horses set and then headed over to the big stage where Galactic, another one of my favorites, was playing.  Pearl Jam was set to play on this same stage later so we traversed through the masses and finally found a spot to setup camp for the rest of the afternoon.  There were thousands upon thousands of people at the fairgrounds and tons of vendors with good eats.  It wasn't long before I suggested a crawfish pie to the bachelor and he went and scored us a few.  After that it was strictly a liquid diet of Miller Lite while we watched Galactic jam.  Irma Thomas came out and belted out a tune with the boys.  She is featured on their latest release, Ya-Ka-May.
Yat Ca Mein - sobering revival

Speaking of Ya Ka May...  I was hungry and spotted a sign for "yat ca mein" and had to give it a shot.  I first sampled yat ca mein (yakamein, jakamein, yat ka mein) at Cobaya Gras back in March when Chef K, Chef Chad, and Chef Mike put their spin on it and I was eager to check out the traditional version while in N'Awlins.  Yat ca mein is basically spaghetti noodles in a beef broth with beef, scallions, and 1/2 a hard boiled egg floating around (I had already scarfed up the egg in the above pic).  The best description I've found is on my buddy Chef Chad's blog, Chadzilla, so click the link and get yourself some free knowledge.  The version at the fairgrounds was nice and spicy, reviving me from lack of sleep and many beers on a muggy day.  I was ready to go for a few more hours now and headed back to the group to catch Pearl Jam who put on a kickass show.

We left the fairgrounds and headed to a sports bar to watch game one of the Celtics/Cavs series.  What's for dinner?  Another po' boy of course!  My third po' boy of the day came in the form of a crawfish po' boy with ample dressings.  This po' boy was better than the shrimp one I had from Pearl but not as good as the oyster one from the Trolley Stop.  After watching the C's blow a nice lead and the game, most of the guys went back to the hotel to nap.  Knowing that would be the death of me for the night, I powered on with the Best Man and stayed to watch the Mosley/Mayweather fight.  The fight was a real snoozer after the first couple of rounds, so much so that we left with a few rounds to go because it had "judges decision" written all over it and we were to catch another killer jazz band, Soulive, at the Blue Nile on Frenchman.  After Soulive jammed a drum circle broke out and a few local horns players came in and added their touch to the music.  It was, in an obvious word, awesome.  So awesome, in fact, that once again I found myself in a cab at 6:30am headed to the hotel, doing my darnedest to avoid another po' boy attack.

Sunday morning we woke up and a few of us planned to hit up Commander's Palace for their jazz brunch.  CP's is a classy joint and requires a collared shirt and/or blazer to be worn while dining.  I had the requisite collared shirt but I still felt underdressed as most of the locals who were dining there did so in their Sunday best.  Next time I visit, I'ma do it with the proper duds.  I ordered a mint julep and looked at the menu where my eyes immediately focused on the words, "Eggs Cochon de Lait", and it's description, "Smoky braised pork debris over black pepper and rosemary biscuits with soft poached eggs, winter mushrooms and bourbon-bacon fat hollandaise".  Just typing that gave me a heart attack.  Anything that combines the words pork, eggs, mushrooms, bourbon, and bacon has got to be good.  An appetizer came with the entree so I went with the Turtle Soup which was rumored to be a house specialty.  For the also-included dessert, I went for the Creole Bread Pudding Souffle, aka the "Queen of all Desserts".  A few Bourbon Smash's later, our meal arrived.

Eggs Cochon de Lait @ Commander's Palace

It's fitting that this was the best picture I took with my trusty iPhone on this trip because it was the best damn thing I ate on this trip.  The pork was tender and the eggs added their runny awesomeness to the pile.  The bourbon-bacon hollandaise?  I don't think that needs any commentary.  Just read those words again and if it doesn't sound completely, mind-numbingly, heart-stoppingly awesome you probably need to reconsider getting up in the morning.  This was a very rich dish and it left me reeling on the ropes, uncertain if I could even take a bite of the Queen of all Desserts when it arrived.  I found the will to continue though and found the Queen to be one helluva dessert.  The souffle was topped with a meringue that was browned nicely on the top, making the dish a little sweeter than I thought it would be.  I enjoyed it a lot but had to tap out halfway through.  The only thing that sucked about this whole meal was when I agreed to play "credit card roulette", knowing that I had 33% chance to lose and that 33% chance meant 100% with my gambling luck as of the past 2 years.  Oh well, it was a fantastic meal and I had a great time reliving the past few days while tapping my feet to the jazz trio who livened up the room with some classic New Orleans tunes.

We rode the trolley back to Canal Street, the rumbling of the street car on the rails and its' screeches and squeaks sounding off like a jazz band drum solo with a horn buzzing in.  My feet were still tapping.  In fact, I don't think there was a time over the whole weekend where my entire body wasn't moving to some sort of beat.  The heartbeat of New Orleans seemed to sweep me off my feet with soulful food and soulful music and that made for a perfect ending to a long road trip.

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