Rough morning. Double vodka sodas may be less nourishing than previously imagined. Unsure if I should have eaten less fried chicken last night, or more. Only cure is more food. Fortunately, we have a pretty exciting lunch reservation today at Antoine's.
Antoine's is one of the truly iconic New Orleans restaurants. It's been run by the same family since 1840, and the bio on the menu boasts of introducing the world to a number of iconic Creole dishes. The restaurant has no less than fifteen dining rooms, and has served celebrities and dignitaries for generations. That's cool and all, but frankly, I'm here for absurdly cheap cocktails and a three course meal. I am not disappointed, greeted by an interior dimly lit to perfection and an affable server more than happy to keep the twenty-five cent lemon drops flowing. I'm feeling better already.
I bypass most of the menu and head straight for the lunch special. For $20.18, you get an appetizer, entree and dessert, which is quite the steal. I end up going for the charbroiled oysters with garlic, herbs, butter, olive oil and Romano cheese on them, followed by the shrimp, crawfish étouffée, and finally a pecan bread pudding. And I couldn't be happier with my choices. The grits are creamy, the seafood is plump and flavorful, lemon drops are only twenty-five cents if you happened to gloss over that the first time, and I somehow find room for the decadent bread pudding. But the oysters...oh my, the oysters. I could probably eat a truckload of those things, and I just sit there blabbing on after every bite about how incredibly delicious they are. I heretofore resolve to order similar oysters anywhere we see them on a menu for the rest of the trip. I am too distracted by eating my food to take many photos of it, though I do manage to capture one part of the experience in between gorgings, Sheila's exceptional grilled Louisiana drum entree.
The rest of the day is mainly exploration, consisting of soaking in the city during daylight hours with relative lucidity. We happen upon a brewery, and are able to sample some local beers in the warm sunshine. I suddenly realize that telling this story with a condensed timeline makes it seem like I have a problem.
We choose to eat dinner at Royal House, a nearby restaurant that offers some very satisfying seafood options. Though dinner is predictably tasty (spoiler: everything in New Orleans is. Everything), what stands out in my mind is the odd scenario that accompanies our seating. First we are seated downstairs in a corner, but Sheila and I inquire about a table on the second floor instead. Our host accommodates this, bringing us upstairs and asking if we want to sit inside or outside. We decide to sit outside and enjoy the view, and as the host leads Sheila out there I hit the restroom. When I return to the dining room, I am greeted by the sight of our host yelling at the man who would be our server, telling him in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and focus on his own job. The exact reason for this is a bit murky; Sheila had requested to move back inside after seeing how wobbly the table outside was, and perhaps the second relocation triggers some deeply repressed memories within our host's psyche, causing him to lash out in pain and confusion. Or perhaps he is just unprofessional. In any case, our server nervously apologizes, and we enjoy our meal, but the awkwardness of this sudden explosion of frustration casts a bit of a pall over it.
No matter. We must hustle back to the hotel room to lay around and watch WWE Monday Night RAW. After all, we just spent the previous day at WrestleMania...it wouldn't make much sense for us to ignore the immediate televised aftermath.
April 10, 2018
Having slept for the purposes of both rest and killing time until the next meal, I head to the next destination: Ruby Slipper, a popular breakfast joint promising an abundance of tempting Benedictions, omelets and so forth. At this meal I make not one, but two surprising decisions:
1. I stick with coffee, eschewing alcoholic beverages. I try to keep this on the down-low to avoid being run out of town.
2. I notice a meal option consisting of three different Benedicts, yet end up ordering the more sensible two Benedict option. I try to keep this on the down-low to avoid harming my reputation as a shameless glutton.
Both decisions pay off, as my cochon and shrimp Benedicts both hit the spot and fill me up just enough to satisfy me without causing me to adjust my belt or gait. Just as well, as our next destination is the New Orleans Zoo, to spend some time with Mother Nature's sister, Auntie Augmented Captivity. It's quite lovely, and we see animals ranging from the regal jaguar...
to adorable alpacas...
to...JESUS CHRIST WHAT THE HELL IS THAT HELP ME
(Ed. Note-Months after our trip, the jaguar escaped its pen and did some extremely jaguar things, including slaughtering several of those adorable alpacas. I don’t blame the jaguar, but I do find it strangely haunting to think about.)
By the time we return to the hotel, my heart rate has dropped to its normal slow, heavy thud, and a new quandary is upon us: what shall we have for dinner? Fortunately, the answer seems simple. We're in an oyster kind of mood. And as luck would have it, we happen to be within walking distance of a restaurant that has the word "oyster" in the name. Kismet!
ACME Oyster House delivers what we want. And what we want, if you've already forgotten the previous paragraph, is oysters. Raw oysters, oyster shooters, some more of those charbroiled oysters with garlic and cheese and whatnot...you might think we would be oystered out by now, but ACME's oysterosity has seduced us and like Miley Cyrus, we both can't and won't stop.
...wait, that's seriously the reference I'm going with? I think it might be time for bed.
April 11, 2018
It's a big day for us. We have several activities planned, which means some semblance of a schedule must be maintained. Ugh. Responsibility is usually something best avoided on vacation. On the other hand: swamp tour! We board a tour bus outside the hotel for a journey beyond the urban areas that have constituted the environs of our trip thus far.
The specter of Hurricane Katrina reemerges on the bus tour, as we take a somber look at some structures and even entire neighborhoods that were devastated during the disaster and have never quite recovered. The city is so lively and vibrant that one has a hard time picturing the widespread devastation it suffered mere years ago. The ramshackle debris our tour guide points out serves as a reminder that the scars the tragedy left behind still linger.
We officially exit New Orleans proper for our swamp tour, visiting a completely new environment. Prior to this, my experience with swamps has been limited to the following:
It’s a lovely day out on the bayou, with mild weather, a gently flowing current and plenty of alligators about. We learn all sorts of things about the spectacle of alligator mating, as well as their apparent fondness for hot dogs. We see half-sunken wreckage, displaced after the infamous hurricane. We hold a small turtle.
At one point we find ourselves surrounded by wild pigs, grunting, uncouth brutes with no compunctions against putting their slimy hooves on the boat railing and demanding sustenance. Our guide mentions that the animals are an invasive species that have multiplied so quickly that, even being heavily hunted, the species is out of control. The swamp has effectively become a festering breeding ground for swine run amok. JUST LIKE WASHINGTON D.C., AMIRITE? Between the groves of trees surrounding us, the water's whispered burbling and the squeals of wild pigs, you'd be forgiven for having Deliverance flashbacks.
Famished after our swamp sojourn, I decide to sample a local snack and picked up a couple bags of Chee-Wees in the gift shop. Chee-Wees are produced in Louisiana and are ostensibly a healthier, baked version of Chee-tos, which of course means they are substantially less tasty than the original. Still good, though. My favorite thing about them is the mascot on the package, who resembles the dollar store toy aisle version of Chuck E. Cheese.
After nightfall, we embark upon the Haunted New Orleans pub crawl, confident that it shall provide an abundance of opportunities for spirit-related puns. I met our guide, Randy, a few years ago at my sister’s wedding, and remember him as a funny, charismatic gentlemen. My memories prove accurate as he gives us a spirited tour of local haunts, accompanied by some refreshing beverages. There’s nothing quite like quaffing boysenberry craft cocktail while listening to a story about a prostitute committing suicide. Perhaps my favorite part of the tour is our visit to The Dungeon, a location where photography is banned and the décor is reminiscent of the Haunted Castle at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The bartendress insults my masculinity for sipping a shot and the verbal abuse just feels right. Our brief voyage into the spirit realm concludes at an absinthe bar, with wormwood-infused dreams to follow.
April 12, 2018
[Notes illegible, save for the following]
Definitely should have eaten dinner last night.
April 13, 2018
Our last full day begins with a trip to Cafe Du Monde for their famous beignets. On the way there, I am hustled out of some money by a shoe-shining huckster who goes from friendly to somewhat menacing when I balk at his proposed price. Full disclosure: I at first go along with the hustle knowing what I am getting into and embracing what I feel will be some quaint down-home swindling, but I still experience sticker shock. At least Sheila snaps a photo to forever preserve my disdain at succumbing to a grifter.
Cafe Du Monde is a very odd place. The massive line outside is apparently almost entirely for suckers, as it wraps around the building to culminate in a to-go window, whereas you can just walk in and seat yourself without a wait as long as a table is available. No one seems to know this outside of locals and people who read Yelp ahead of time, which is fine by me. After overpaying to have diluted Palmolive sprayed on my sneakers, I desperately need to feel some form of smug intellectual superiority, and this fits the bill.
Our server whizzes by our table with only the slightest of pauses to take our drink order, then returns with both beverages and beignets, despite our not even having a chance to order the latter yet. Either she's telepathic, in which case she seems to be setting her sights a bit low, or everyone always orders the same thing. Ultimately, the point is moot, as the coffee and beignets are excellent. We finish up, hopped up on caffeine and powdered sugar, and head over to Jackson Park for an amble before shifting our focus to a matter of great import: lunch.
Our lunch plans for the day involve meeting up with Randy, our haunted pub crawl guide. We call a Lyft to take us to the designated restaurant.
“Where are you two from?” the driver asks Sheila and me.
“California. San Jose, specifically,” I reply.
“Oh yeah? What brings you out here? The French Quarter festival?”
“No, actually, we came out to see WrestleMania.”
“WrestleMania?” queries the driver. “And you’re still here?”
We are shortly thereafter introduced to boiled crawfish, one of the final boxes we need to tick off on our figurative NOLA meal to-do list. The crustaceous mound we receive looks like too much food at first glance, but I am more than happy to devour each spicy ersatz lobster baby nugget until only a pile of decimated shell fragments remains. My fingernails shall retain a unique scent and appearance for hours to come, despite numerous hand-washings.
We decide to walk off our meal in the nearby Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. This lovely and serene area is home to numerous fascinating pieces of art, including this bust of Rodin that looks like the cover to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark...
...and my most heinous nightmare in tangible form: a giant metal spider.
We stroll around, taking in our surroundings as the end of our trip looms. Some particularly feisty geese attack us when we inadvertently violate their personal space. Ominous gray clouds move in, hastening evening’s descent, though fortunately we detect not a drop of rain. As we head back to the hotel, our new Lyft driver asks us what we’re in town for.
“We came out to see WrestleMania!”
“And you’re still here?”
Our final night on the town consists of one last pass around the French Quarter. We finally have some gumbo (the last must-try food on our list), which is predictably fantastic. At a dive bar I try out some Malört, a liquor I have heard about at length courtesy of the online Old School Magic: The Gathering community but never actually seen until today. When the bartender asks me, "Are you sure you want to drink that?" after I place my order, a cold chill runs down my spine. And with good reason. Basically, Malört tastes like someone managed to distill all the bitterness that has fermented in my soul over the span of thirty-six years of endless disappointment into a single shot glass worth of beverage. All things considered, I've tasted worse.
Souvenirs are purchased, copious amounts of Abita are imbibed, one last effort is made to sear the general vibe of my surroundings into my long-term memory. Lovely, ornate architecture and spectral flickering lamps are offset by shrill screams of frivolity and the occasional whiff of vomit. Honestly, in many ways, Disneyland pretty much nailed it.
Ultimately, the need to pack forces us to flee the Quarter’s temptations, but a compromise is made. There will be one more go-‘round with Willie’s, to end things the way they started: with ludicrously potent daiquiris and fried chicken. The meal of kings and colonels, Sanders and otherwise. Still, there’s no time to lollygag, so we get everything to go and hustle back to the hotel.
A boisterous fellow accompanying us in the elevator up to our room detects the fragrance of fried poultry and rhapsodizes about his favorite local options.
“I used to live out here,” he says. “Now every time I come back in town, the first thing I do is get some fried chicken.”
“Oh yeah?” I say. “Where do you go to get it? Willie’s?”
“Nah man,” he says, shaking his head, “Willie’s used to be the shit, but they kinda fell off. Now it’s all about Brother’s! You gotta get your fried chicken from Brother’s!” At this point, he notices the logo on our grease-spotted paper sacks and unconvincingly appends his previous statement. “Oh, uh, but Willie’s is cool, though. I mean, you know, they’re coming back, lately.”
April 14, 2018
If you enjoy Joey Marsilio's travel writing, buying one or more copies of his novel Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior will help finance his future trips/writing material. If not, well...he's about to get started on his Halloween stuff for the year.