I arrived at a place that was just south of the French Quarter, in a large parking lot by the river; about half an hour before sun rose. I happened to arrive on a very cold day; with partially cloudy skies, and was treated to the sun rising and bringing some warmth to complement the crisp, windy, cold air.
After doing a quick lodging check, I learned that I had arrived during a busy week, and that almost all the lodging south of $175 per night was taken. Luckily I was able to find a triplet room at the AAE Bourbon House (hostel) down in the Lower Garden District, about 2 miles south of my current location. Two hours later, I checked in, and slept like a log through the day and night. I checked out the next day, which was the Thanksgiving holiday (Thursday the 28th).
I decided to try one of the "Guest Houses" that dot the Lower Garden District - these establishments stand in between a hostel and a motel / hotel in terms of local pricing; while providing a more personable and "comfy" feeling that is a bit more authentic to the local Louisiana flavor. All of the guest houses that had a website were extremely personable - owner stories, non-corporatist wording; pictures of varying qualities. I chose the St. Charles Guest House. House of the Rising Sun had an amusing name; and was a very tempting choice; but I decided against it as it was outside my operating budget - especially since none of these places favored 1-night stays.
I spent 6 nights at St. Charles. I arrived on Thanksgiving Day, and Jason was staffing the front desk that day. He invited me to share a Thanksgiving Meal with him as he had a 14 pound turkey on a bed of stuffing; and green bean casserole cooking. Gratefully accepted! I also met another staffer, Monica, a parent of a 12 year old son, who took the time to speak with me and give me a 6 minute rundown of the layout of NOLA. We ended up partaking in the meal in the common room and watching the Dallas football game; after some initial troubleshooting with TV signal (turns out the TV tuner died, we used a backup TV). A French couple came in briefly and shared a great bottle of French wine; and another staffer from Finland - Paul also came in briefly to collect the goods in his metal mixing bowl. Football isn't exactly my cup of tea, but I was very appreciative to celebrate the meal with another soul. We talked for quite a while and he filled me in on the city as the locals see it. My stay there was for six days - until my funds ran out.
So, New Orleans (the locals call it NOLA for short) sits at the tip of the "boot" that the state of Louisiana is sort of shaped like, right above the marshland that leads into the Gulf of Mexico; and below Lake Pontchartrain. Within the NOLA area, there are two big areas - the city proper; and "Westbank". The Mississippi River divides these two parts, and despite the name, Westbank is EAST and SOUTH of the city. The reason for the naming is that despite what it looks on the surface, Westbank does indeed sit on land that is physically connected to land that is on the west side of the Mississippi River. The river takes a east then south route through that area of Louisiana, and NOLA proper is on the northern side, where Westbank is on the southern side. This whole area is divided into parishes; and in NOLA proper, like other cities, you have districts. NOLA proper holds the urbanized and "party side" that it is famous for; and Westbank and the other parishes is mostly industry and suburbia.
Jason told me his story - basically he is an executive chef by trade during the DOT COM boom; and after that, has been working different jobs, some in his trade, some out of his trade in different parts of the USA since then. He came to NOLA and has been there for 4 years now - NOLA offers him community warmth and support despite the lure of better jobs elsewhere; and he is relatively close to his family in Austin, TX. He also tells me that the main industry here is Tourism, and that all the jobs here are in support of this industry - so here rears the head of a beast becoming more common - the face of the beast that all visitors and the affluent see; and the supportive structure beneath and behind that works tirelessly behind the scenes to support the face.
Jason is right about the community warmth - especially on the supportive side - the local community. You can even see it in the driving traffic patterns - the flow is slow and easy going; but if you lag when it is your time to advance or turn; you will get a gentle but firm reminder / prompt to take your advancement. Nobody cuts in line in front of you; and cutting lanes as well as other aggressive behavior is not as common as in other cities. Hospitality and geniality is strong here, and has a warm flavor to it. The food here is fantastic; although to date, I only had a small sampling of it, and haven't gotten to the stuff NOLA is famous for - boudin, gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya, real southern fried chicken, red beans and rice, etc.
What cuisine I have had so far is the following:
Lilly's Cafe - Vietnamese cuisine - quality of seafood and fresh vegetables is unreal, I had a selection of items and many Banh Mi - vietnamese po-boy sandwiches. They are not afraid to break Viet tradition - Strawberries and avocado slices in their spring rolls?! Sign me up!
Stein's Market & Deli - hipster oriented, slightly Jewish style, deli sandwiches mixed with Louisiana flair and a fair bit of attitude mixed into the whole thing. Their meats, cheeses, and bread are top shelf quality - some in-house, some imported from famous handcrafted deli brands. They raised their eyebrows when I ordered my italian hoagie with double meat - about 1.3 pounds of meat - quite excellent and extremely rich in flavor. It isn't New Jersey style, but has its own strong merits!
Charcoal's Burger Bar - self explanatory, gourmet / foodie oriented, had an astonishing selection of meats (antelope, elk, bison, venison anyone??); cheeses, toppings, and bread - the ordering process had two different routes - pre-made, or go-all-out-technical-detailed build your own monstrosity-franken-burger. I ended up making such an uber-monstrosity that all the staff took pictures of and bemoaned the absence of their social media guy. You bet I snapped a picture of it too!
Magazine Po-Boy - Po-Boy sandwiches, which is a roll filled with items; the style that shapes our idea of roll sandwiches today. The bread is simply quite excellent with a really nice crusty layer that breaks easily and with a crunch; and the inside is airy and perfectly doughy so it feels like biting into a soft cloud; and served HOT. I had a muffuletta style po-boy; which is a sandwich whose filling is a meat; topped with a steamed and chopped mix of carrots, broccoli, other vegetables, and olives. It has a very distinct flavor to the sandwich. Normally muffulettas are served in very large bun with the same name - muffaletta bun, that can be as big as 10 inches centimeters and liberally covered in sesame seeds, on BOTH sides. The bun itself is the same kind of crusty, soft, doughy, airy unbleached white flour bread. I ordered mine with double meat, and like Stein's - that came out to about 1.2ish pound of ham. Okay, NOLA - generous with the meats, duly noted for future reference!
Corner Muse - cozy coffee shop with a very amiable and welcoming host that serves some EXCELLENT coffee; and some nice sandwiches to boot. It is right next to an elementary school, so I was a little surprised that so many kids hang out here and drink copious amounts of fancy coffee here after school! Awesome kid-friendly atomosphere - minus the hipster, elite elements.
Slice! Pizzeria NOLA - Gotta have pizza in this city to continue the theme of sampling the best pizza the city has to offer. Slice certainly delivered on this front. I had the Sportsman's Paradise, which is a pizza topped with ingredients NOLA is known for - including seafood! I about fell off my barstool when I sampled the first slice. They make everything from scratch, no imports, except at the ingredients level. I witnessed the dough tossing, and unlike most pizza places I have been to, the crust hold a significant amount of flavor - enough that the pizza sauce actually serves as a flavor buffer between the crust and toppings. The toppings are extremely flavorful, fresh, and has a healthy, wholesome taste and feeling as you sample. The diversity between toppings is icing on this cake.
More to come on the next entry! What did I do after funds ran out?!