Jersey Joe Does New Orleans [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe] Jul01

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Jersey Joe Does New Orleans [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

It’s the city of soul food, jazz music, Mardi Gras, and of course Ground Zero for Hurricane Katrina.  It’s been almost six years since the hurricane hit New Orleans, Louisiana and while there are still signs of devastation present, the city is very much back on it’s feet.  I recently returned from a trip there and wanted to share some of the unique experiences I found.

New Orleans was founded May 17, 1718 by the French Mississippi Company.  The city’s location at the mouth of the Mississippi River made it an important port in the settling of America.  Its location made it ideal to send supplies to troops upstream during the various battles in the fight to settle the country.  New Orleans would officially become part of the United States after Napoleon sold the land in the Louisiana Purchase of 1801.

The city faced the first of its many tests at the final battle of the War of 1812 when the British sent 11,000 soldiers in an attempt to capture the city.  The Americans held on until heavy British casualties forced their army to flee.  However, both militaries were unaware that a treaty had already been signed weeks before, officially ending the war.

After the war, the population rose and so did traffic on the river and ports, with a large part of it being slave trade.  Americans, French, Creoles, Irish, Germans, and Africans all took up residence.  During the Civil War, the Union Army took control of the city early, sparing it much of the damage other southern cities sustained.

The city grew into a modern metropolis, with a skyline of high rise buildings, while still keeping its French and historic charm.  Most of the town was flooded after the man-made levees failed after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.  It wasn’t the hurricane that did the city in.  It was the poor engineering of the levees and the complete breakdown of local and federal government’s response and cleanup.

I landed in the Louis Armstrong International Airport.  A medium sized placed with a cool cobblestone food court with gas lamps.  One of the concourses, Concourse A, is permanently closed and is slated to become office space.  Another concourse, Concourse D is undergoing an expansion and the work is in full view from a taxiing plane.

One of the first places I got to dine was the Parkway Bakery and Tavern, which is famous for their Po’Boys.  A Po’Boy is basically a submarine or hero sandwich, served on a special long bun.  I went with the surf and turf, which was breaded shrimp, slow roasted roast beef, lettuce, tomatoes, pickle, mayonnaise, and served with roast beef gravy.  It was honestly one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.  This restaurant has quite the following in the area.  President Obama even paid the place a visit last August.

One thing I did notice while dining there was a strange line of Ziploc baggies hanging by strings on the back patio.  From what friends who live there told me, they apparently confuse flies line of sight and they stay away.  The Ziploc bags certainly seemed to work.  Try that trick next time you’re having a patio party!  They’re much better than those nasty fly stickers that get stuck to your face!

Driving through town, one thing I instantly noticed were the massive amounts of fleur-de -lis.  They’re freaking everywhere!  The symbol, which is French for flower, represents not only the city, but their professional sports teams (the Saints, the Hornets, and the Zephyrs).  They also have a roller derby team, a woman’s football team, and an AFL franchise.

Speaking of sports, many residents are very proud of Drew Brees and their Super-Bowl-winning Saints.  Saints banners, shirts, hats, and stickers are everywhere.  They didn’t care too much when I reminded them of all the rings my hometown (and real black and gold) Pittsburgh Steelers have!

For a great view of the city from the Mississippi, take the Algiers Ferry that departs right from the foot of downtown at Canal Street.  It’s free for pedestrians and $1 for cars (the toll is only charged on the West Bank side departing for downtown).   The ferry has been running since 1827 and offers spectacular views.  It runs twice an hour in each direction.  The West Bank is full of great little bars, restaurants, and cafes.  The ride and neighborhood are a very old throwback to the old time New Orleans.

One of my next stops was the famous Café du Monde.  The coffee shop has been in business at the same location since 1892.  Their can’t-miss item on the menu – the beignet.  It’s essentially deep fried dough, similar to a doughnut, and sprinkled with massive amounts of powdered sugar.  Friends who live there say the beignets with more air and fluff taste even better and for whatever reason, they’re right!  But seriously, the warm flaky pastry melts in your mouth!  The popular café is open 24 hours, so go during the off peak crowd times to get a table.

I finally made it over to the iconic Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.  The center of Mardi Gras and perhaps the party capital of the south.  The street is lined with eclectic bars, restaurants, and strip clubs.  There are dozens upon dozens of places to check out.  The Quarter is really a non-stop party, though some people do go a bit over the top.  While fairly calm during the day, the weekend evening crowd almost turns the experience into an overgrown fraternity party.  There is a strong police presence, so you’ll be fairly safe.  Just use common sense street smarts and keep an eye on your wallet and don’t wave around your cell phone.

Women do take their tops off exposing their boobs for party goers on the upper balconies to toss beads down to them.  This works great until you have a person well past their mid-life still acting like a sorority girl and with all the libations – out they come.  I’m sure there are a few Facebook pictures some hope their bosses will never see!

The street is quite congested with pedestrians and no traffic is allowed, except for certain cross streets.  Some of the clubs have lines to get in, while others have plenty of room.  I also found the neon signs on the street to be quite beautiful and something I hadn’t seen outside Las Vegas.

With all the different bars and clubs, some have concocted specialty drinks and these two novelties stick out most in my mind:

Hurricane – Pat O’Briens signature drink, which is a strong blend of vodka, grenadine, gin, rum, almond liquor, triple sec, grapefruit juice, and pineapple juice.  They are really good – but very strong.  Don’t be driving after one of these, but do make sure to take home your souvenir glass.  The center area of the bar/restaurant is a giant outdoor patio with a cool fountain, with torches, and a garden seating.

Hand Grenade – Tropical Isle is a chain that has a couple of locations known for their island themed interior and their signature drink, hand grenades.  Not, the explosive devices used in war, but their signature novelty drink served in a flashy yellow container.  The potent mix is a closely guarded secret, but some websites report it is a mixture of gin, grain alcohol, melon liquor, rum, vodka, and their secret syrup mix.  Again, you don’t want to be getting behind the wheel after this place.

Another of the cool places I loved was the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, still in the French Quarter.  The bar is actually a spinning merry-go-round that slowly rotates.  It takes about 30 minutes for a full rotation, so you shouldn’t be getting sick.  The bar only seats about a dozen people and it can be a bit difficult to get a seat.  Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this and applaud their original idea!

Another favorite was Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, also on Bourbon Street.  It’s a run down dive bar that only recently installed electricity.  The dark, back area is only lit with candles, but you can belly up to the piano, where players crank out the tunes every night.  A truly unique atmosphere.

Besides the large number of strip clubs lining the street you can find a fine collection of restaurants.  I got to experience real seafood gumbo and jambalaya.  One thing I can say about this trip, the food is beyond good.  They definitely know how to cook down there and you’re a fool if you walk away hungry.

I learned that when ordering a soft drink with your meal, everything in town is referred to as a “Coke.”  Whether you want a glass of Coca-Cola, Ginger Ale, or water, it’s not a soda or pop, it’s a “Coke.”

After leaving the French Quarter, we spent some time at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino.  Not a bad place.   It’s about as big as most other Harrah’s/Caesar’s properties and offers the latest slot machines and games.  They also introduced an automated drink ordering system.  While you’re playing your slot machine, touch the screen, and scroll through the menu to order your comp drink.  There were hundreds of combinations available – some that I never heard of.  Even if you want a bottle of water, you have to order it this way.  I did get some good play for my money, and while I didn’t win big, I was able to last a good while.  The odds weren’t as good as Vegas or Atlantic City, but it was worth the visit.

I also got to experience the Treasure Chest Casino, which is a non-sailing riverboat located not too far from the airport in Kenner, LA.  It’s a full three deck casino ship and they really pack the machines in there.

After the heavy night of partying, your options of getting home besides driving (don’t be stupid, don’t drink and drive) is a taxi or street car.  For $1.75, we took one of the restored red street cars for a truly vintage ride.  You can either purchase your card at a stop, or pay at the door kiosk upon entering the car.  The lines do a good job of covering most of the city and there are numerous stops.  Ridership is up and the city is currently installing another new line.  Our route had maybe a dozen stops.  Once the line got out of downtown, the car really moved.  It wasn’t long before we were home and it was truly a great way to see the city at night!  Why the major cities got rid of these for buses, I’ll never know.  Street cars are truly like taking a ride back in time!

Around every corner there seemed to be another farmer’s market selling fresh seafood, an antique store, or specialty restaurant.

I have to also point out that the people living and working there were some of the friendliest ever!  There is something to be said about true southern hospitality.  I had lots of random waiters and servers strike up a conversation.  I also had to get used to the slower pace of life there.  People do not seem to be in any hurry for anything.  But, when you’re on vacation – who really cares?

If you look closely at the buildings and road signs, you can still see evidence of the flooding from Katrina (or “the hurricane” as the locals call it.)  Some of the signs and underpasses still bear faint brown water marks.

While the city has made massive strides in either bulldozing or elevating the damaged buildings, there are still quite a few abandoned lots around.  Down the street from where my friends live is a shuttered shopping plaza and a hospital that are being torn down.  The former Six Flags amusement park is still closed and tied up in a legal nightmare.  I’ve also heard stories of how after the flooding went away, insurance companies dropped the ball and didn’t pay back many of the residents flood insurance claims.

Some of the houses still bear their spray paint X marks that FEMA used to indicate which flooded properties had been searched.  The top part of the X was the date searched, the right was what was found inside, the left was who searched, and the bottom was the number of bodies inside.  Some residents have purposely kept theirs as a memento and a striking badge of honor.

So, those were some of the highlights of my trip — quite a few that I hope you get the chance to experience as well.  In terms of cost for food, drink, and entertainment – the city is truly affordable.  It’s definitely cheaper than a trip to New York and I am already planning on making another trip back!

I also want to thank my friends Josh and Amy for inviting me down.  I made a promise a long time ago to go and I’m glad that I did!

THE 411

What: New Orleans, Louisiana

Population: 1,235,650 as of the 2010 census

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: Absolutely a great place to take a vacation.  Your dollar will go far, here.  Now, there are five star restaurants where you can shell out hundreds for a meal, but there is no need with all the great local dining options available.  I probably ate a ton of shrimp and never had a bad meal.  (Expect for one side of potato salad, but that’s because it was overloaded with egg – and I’m not a fan of eggs.)

You definitely need to try a Po’Boy and those beignets are a can’t miss.  Just remember that the French Quarter and Bourbon Street get a bit rowdy at night, so keep the kids away – it is NOT for them.  Most of the other attractions are family friendly.

The only negative was that most of the bars and restaurants still allow smoking.  Living in New York, I’ve gotten away from that and it was a bit offensive and overpowering at times.  But, sitting on the numerous outdoor patios and dining areas mostly solved that problem.  That was really the only big negative I could find.

The street navigation system is fairly easy and just about everything is within close reach.  Just keep an eye out for what neighborhood you’re in.  There are a few areas of town that can be a bit rough and there are issues with gangs, drugs, and crime in the lower class neighborhoods.  I will honestly say, I didn’t see anything like that and didn’t witness any problems.

Also, I left out one important stop of my visit – Hansen’s Sno-Bliz.  Next month, look for my blogumn all about their Southern dessert that The Today Show’s Williard Scott helped put on the map!