I got a fondness for the dirty south, and New Orleans is as dirty as it gets.
I went for the first time this season, and confirmed its reputation as a nexus of decadent food, debauchery, and the most deregulated alcohol industry I have ever fucking seen. It was a long time coming, New Orleans. But together we made it count, starting with Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the oldest bar in North America.
I literally just got out of a cab, checked in at my hostel, and walked five blocks to Lafitte’s to drink something cold and local. The bar was packed with Friday night partiers, but was nonetheless comfortable and friendly. For 293 years, generations of patrons have enjoyed Lafitte’s for its atmosphere and dimly lit interior, creating and telling stories ever since its dodgy beginnings in the hands of a smuggling racket. It is a testimony of the city’s endurance, outlasting citywide fires, hurricanes, prohibition laws, and bullshit. This is not just any watering hole; Lafitte’s is an aged well of handcut stone.
It resides on Bourbon Street, the main arterial line of the French Quarter, blocks away from a notoriously balls-out wild nightlife that resonates for miles. I wasn’t in any mood to party, but I at least wanted to see Bourbon Street in its prime. After a couple beers, I left Lafitte’s to check it out.
It’s not that often that I have a culture shock in my own country, but shit man, this was insane. A full on mile of fucking dudebros, honeys, shiny plastic beads, neon strip bar lights, and loud music, wall to wall, street to street. It was like JMU’s party scene times twenty. It wasn’t even during Mardi Gras, which is even bigger. And still, Bourbon Street was a Mecca of self-indulgence, drawing hordes of partiers every weekend. I felt like I was walking through a carnival solely devoted to debauchery.
But I didn’t come to New Orleans to party (this changed later); I came to New Orleans to eat. It wasn’t hard. In New Orleans, great food is everywhere.
Cajun and Creole Cuisine
Over the weekend, I sought out the best Cajun and Creole cuisines from the shittiest looking places I could find. It turned out to be the easiest thing I did all weekend. I’ve never seen anything like the food scene in New Orleans, which is abundant at every turn. Catfish, alligator, gulf shrimp, pork, spices, you name it. All by people who have done it their whole lives. All local. All awesome.
Some favorites included the Shrimp Poboy from Killer Poboy’s, a small kitchen in the back room of Erin Rose, a cool lowlight establishment of character and ambiance. Seared jumbo shrimp with a sweet slaw of marinated carrots, daikon, cucumber, herbs, and a spread of Sriracha aioli on a fresh baguette. Dat Dog had a great alligator sausage with Cajun mustard and a side of Crawfish Étouffée Fries, which in all honesty tasted like Suicide Girls making out in my mouth. At Mr B’s Bistro, its signature dish kicks hordes of ass: Barbecue shrimp sauteed in Worcestershire-spiked butter sauce with a dash of pepper and Creole seasoning. I devoured the shrimp and got another baguette from the server just so I could finish off the sauce.
Cafe Du Monde was perhaps the most iconic restaurant that I visited. It is famous for its beignets, which they shovel out of their kitchen by the thousands all day long. They served me three pieces of deep fried French doughnuts buried under a heaping pile of sugary crack-powder. They were awesome, even though the line to get inside went for blocks down the street.
Cities of the Dead
My hostel was a short walk from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest and best known of NOLA’s “Cities of the Dead”. It is a walled off city block of dilapidated, awesome looking 18th and 19th century mausoleums. I wanted to go on Sunday morning, but thanks to other idiots, they had just closed it off to the public unless you came with a licensed tour guide.
I signed up with Free Tours By Foot, a local nonprofit tour guide service, to check it out the next morning. We met outside of a bar in the Quarter about a mile from the graveyard. The host, Kathy, spent the next 45 minutes slowly walking us there and telling us the history of the French Quarter and the development of the city’s burial process. It short, it is a colorful history of debauchery, crime, infrastructure and sanitation problems, and ultimately a high groundwater table that made it altogether impossible to bury anything, that prompted the people of 18th and 19th century New Orleans to revert to their Spanish and French styles of above-ground burials.
Remains of well-known politicians, architects, and other distinguished people line its graves. Worn by centuries of sun and rain, these tombs bear the scars of early times deep within their cracks of mortar and stone.
Great place, but I had to take off early. I left Kathy a $20 and ran back to my hostel to change into paddling clothes. Some guys from a kayaking company picked me up a few minutes later, and we headed northeast to paddle the swamps around the Pearl River for a few hours.
New Orleans is surrounded by a huge wetland system of marshes, bayous, meandering rivers, and a network of man-made levees and canals. New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours is a local outfitter that offers guided kayak trips along one of the bayous near the Pearl River, an hour northeast of the city. By coincidence, the launch point is next to a roadhouse used to film scenes from the first season of True Detective. I had to rewatch the show later recognize the smoky old honky tonk and parking lot that they used to film all of their hard dealings and dangerous people.
We launched and paddled upstream past river shacks for an hour before reaching an open swamp. A layer of mist lay across the bayou, which was devoid of any color, save an occasional early flower or patch of moss on a cypress tree.
It was winter in the bayou country. Gators were in hibernation, bugs were weeks away from hatching, and all was quiet on the water. It was a dismal place where people probably do lose sense of direction and wander endlessly through its channels and dense, foggy overgrowth. And in horror fiction, a dark, rotten hand might come out of the water and take you by the arm. It was where the weak die young and metal lives forever.
We zigzagged around trees and bramble for an hour before turning around and heading back to the bar. We returned using another route, paddling upstream on another channel until we reached the Pearl River. From there, we hooked to the right and came back down a faster channel past a series of abandoned, flooded river shacks before crossing through a slough and stopping at the takeout.
And of course the gas station next door sold hot, freshly smoked Cajun meats, because why the fuck not? By that point, we all had worked up a huge appetite for shrimp, alligator sausage, and motherfucking pork. It’s nothing short of ridiculous how abundant this stuff was. We mowed it down and came back to the city.
Badass Cajun Crawfish
On my last day, I was satisfied in every way but one: I had to find a good local crawfish boil. Some Chicago-based girls who I partied with earlier that weekend on Frenchmen told me about Mississippi River Bottom, a bar and grill just around the corner from all the action on Decatur.
I sat down in their garden early Tuesday afternoon and ordered a pile of crawfish at the market rate of $6 a pound. The cook told me that the tourist restaurants like to charge around double, but they want to keep it local. Fine by me.
I devoured by claw and tail and left a wrecked pile of slaughtered Cajun shellfish as my fondest memory of the dirty south.
It’s settled. I’ve been unvirgined to New Orleans, and she’s a wild one.