New Orleans is a place I had long dreamed of visiting, so imagine my excitement when one of my good friends from high school decided to have her engagement party there, giving me and D the perfect excuse to jet down for a long weekend.
The city is beautiful, rivaling only San Francisco for my favorite architecture in the United States, and the food is everything you have heard of. Highlights included fried alligator with a spicy aioli, southern fried chicken, and an adorable wine & cheese bar in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. Below are my recommendations for food & activities.
Where We Ate
Cochon. This is what appears to be one of the most-Yelp-reviewed restaurants in New Orleans and from our research, it seemed we needed a reservation, which we secured via Open Table. We showed up for the last seating on the night we arrived, at 10pm.
Our experience was mixed. The food, while delicious, was partially ruined by the rushed service. For a relatively expensive dinner (around $70 for two people, which included drinks but we split an entree), we felt we were being pushed out. The server brought our appetizer out with our entree and the whole experience felt disorganized.
That said, I still recommend eating here for the food. The best thing we ate was the fried alligator with chili garlic mayonnaise -- possibly one the best dishes we had in New Orleans.
We split the Louisiana cochon, which is basically a giant pile of pulled pork, and was delicious as well. The mac & cheese made a satisfying side.
Overall, I would make the effort to stop by. But try to book a table earlier in the night and hopefully you won't feel as rushed along as we did.
Cochon Butcher. This is Cochon's sister restaurant, just down the street, much more informal, and a much better experience. It has a walk-up counter where you order and self-seating, and the food was equally if not more delicious than Cochon. I recommend the duck pastrami sliders; the cubano that D had was also very good. Most of the menu consists of sandwiches along with various sides and a few dinner entree options. Sandwiches are around $10-12, sides range from around $2-9.
Willa Mae's. Expect a long line! We waited almost an hour to get in here, but it was well worth it. Some of the more famous fried chicken in New Orleans. Very casual, and very southern. The menu is basically limited to several variations on fried chicken, traditionally southern sides like fried okra and mashed potatoes, and coffee, iced tea and lemonade. Surprisingly, the best side we had was the green beans. Mac & cheese was also good, skip the red beans & rice. Three pieces of fried chicken with one side, $15.
Hansen's Sno Bliz. A 'snowball' is the New Orleans version of a shaved ice, and perhaps the most famous and long-standing is Hansen's, located in the upscale Magazine Street area of the city. If the line at Willa Mae's was long, this line was almost unbearable -- New Orleans is a laid-back and slow-moving city as a whole and Hansen's takes it to the extreme. We waited over an hour for a snow cone in the wilting heat, which may be part of their ploy to make the reward sweeter.
I highly recommend the satsuma flavor -- very tart and bright. Multiple Yelp reviews suggested mixing satsuma with vanilla bean, which I did, much to my regret. The vanilla bean is almost unbearably sweet.
Bacchanal Wine. If you have one romantic outing in New Orleans, make it here. Though decidedly not what one conjures up when they imagine southern soul food, this was one of my favorite stops. It's an adorable wine & cheese shop on the outskirts of the Bywater that has outdoor seating to consume your selections as a group or a couple (under gas lamps to fend off the chill). Besides the cute concept, the food was amazing and reasonably priced. The patatas bravas, grilled steak, and pasta dish we had were all excellent. Highly recommended.
Cafe du Monde. Classic New Orleans. Obviously, if you are in the city, you have to stop by here. I expected a tourist trap and was pleasantly surprised -- I actually loved the beignets. Their main location on Decatur Street is open 24 hours a day, so it's a perfect place for a late night post-dinner snack.
Pagoda Cafe. This breakfast taco spot is a little out of the way of where the typical tourist stays. Our AirBnB was in Mid-City, so it was a short walk for us. Great breakfast tacos with a spicy green sauce for $3 each, as well as an array of pastries, sandwiches, and coffee drinks.
Ray's on the Ave. This was likely the most "authentic," untouristy places we visited, and the lack of online reviews reflected that. Some of the best people-watching we had in the city, this place is loud, casual, and cheap. Fried shrimp, red beans & rice, and cheap beer were highlights.
What We Did
City Park. NOLA's answer to Central Park, except it contains lots of turtles, oak trees, and (supposedly) alligators. We only had an hour or so to walk around this 1300 acre park, but it was beautiful.
Garden District/Magazine Street. The Garden District is full of fancy mansions, including the homes of several celebrities. It also contains one of New Orleans' most famous restaurants, Commander's Palace, which we sadly did not get a chance to eat at. Stop by Lafayette Cemetery, which, unlike many cemeteries in the city, does not require a tour guide to see.
Faubourg Marigny. One of my favorite neighborhoods, defined by brightly-colored Creole cottages and through which runs Frenchman Street, home to multiple jazz clubs and bars. Lots of areas of New Orleans have beautiful houses, but I was especially drawn to this area bordering the French Quarter and the Bywater.
Where We Stayed
AirBnB (Bayou St. John Guesthouse). We stayed in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, in an adorable guesthouse that straddled the border between a somewhat sketchy area and a streets filled with fancy upscale houses. We were a bit of a drive from the tourist center (French Quarter), but Uber was easy to get if not quite as cheap as it is in SF. Overall, I am glad we stayed out of the city center and in a more residential area.
Overall, New Orleans was a great, funky, laid-back city with delicious food -- I can see why it's one of the top destinations in the U.S. My first visit to the South -- and I hope to be back!