Here’s some of my recollections from our second day, in the fabulous Crescent City, New Orleans.
Café Du Monde
You’ve got to wake up early in the morning if you want to beat the masses that head to Café Du Monde on any given day. I mean really early! Café Du Monde, located in New Orleans’ French Market, which of course is in the French Quarter, is open 24 hours a day. That’s pretty impressive, considering that mostly serve beignets and coffee!
How can a café survive with such a limited menu? You only need to sample their beignets and chicory coffee to understand. Simplicity is divine, especially when the simple things are done right!
Everything you might want is within walking distance, in the French Quarter. Every stroll unveils interesting shops and eateries. All sorts of shops, restaurants and hotels can be found on nearly every street. I was expecting a tourist trap but I was surprised to see a pleasant balance of locals and tourists on the streets and in the stores.
The Market Café
Dining al fresco might be the best way to enjoy the New Orleans experience. The sights, the music and the aroma of New Orleans is a treat for the senses. The Market Café has some indoor dining but most of the seating is outdoors, on the covered patio that wraps around the building.
We stopped by for an early lunch and I’m glad we arrived before noon. We waited about twenty minutes to be seated. By the time we finished our meal, the line was doubled and I imaged that people waited for nearly an hour, to be seated.
The menu at the Market Café is moderately priced and the food and service was worth every penny.
I had a difficult time deciding what to try, because I wanted to try everything! I opted for small cups of Gumbo, Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, and Red Beans and Rice. All four bowls were rich and delicious but the shrimp creole was outstanding. Based on the color and velvety thickness of the sauce, I would call it etoufee, either way, it was full of flavor and very satisfying.
As we walked back to our hotel, we came across a Mexican restaurant. I stopped to look at the menu and I thought it might be a good place to visit for dinner. After our rest, I visited the bar at our hotel. Patrick’s Bar Vin showcased several types of wine and the proprietor, Patrick, was chatting with some of the regular customers. I went to the bar to check out the beers, on tap. Among the regular, expected variety I noticed two Belgium beers, Le Chouffe and Chimay. I tried one of each and was impressed with the Chimay. Each pint cost about $9.00, so I sipped them thoughtfully. While I was there, I struck up a conversation with the bartender and, during the conversation, I learned that he was from Honduras so, naturally, I had to talk about my Tex-Mex roots and I eventually asked him about the Mexican restaurant that I had seen on my way back to the hotel. He said that the restaurant was overpriced and the menu was all over the place, which made him feel that the restaurant lacked focus. He said that if I wanted authentic Mexican cuisine, I should go to Cuñada, which was only a few blocks away from the hotel. He said that Cuñada was a family owned business, and served authentic Oaxacan food. I took his advice and was glad I did!
Cuñada – Conti Street
For a split second, I thought, “Why am I going to a Mexican restaurant in the New Orleans French Quarter?” I regained my senses and remembered that great Mexican food can be found just about anywhere in U.S., and, more importantly, New Orleans has such a diverse mixture of cultures. It’s what makes New Orleans, New Orleans. African-American, Spanish and French influences are woven together, like a beautiful tapestry.
I felt at home during our visit to Cuñada. The aroma of beans and spices filled the air as we walked inside. The simple décor and the busy staff members made me think that their emphasis was on the quality of the food. That proved to be true.
The brilliant colors that might have been missing from the restaurant décor, so popular with Mexican restaurants, were found in the plates of food they served.
We started with queso fundido, which translates to “melted cheese”. It is a dip served with crisp or soft corn tortillas.
This version included five types of melting cheese, Chihuahua, Oaxaca, queso blanco, Monterrey Jack, and asadero queso frescal. Pork chorizo was added, as well as roasted poblano chiles and cilantro. The different kinds of cheese were not mixed together, before baking on the cast iron skillet, which gave the dish a nice variety of textures and flavors. That quality made this a standout version of queso fundido!
My wife ordered enchiladas rojas. The cucumber, radishes, pickled onions and avocado was a feast for the eyes and the rich red sauce had an earthy tone, with just a little heat from the chilis.
I ordered fish tacos, prepared two ways. One was a beer battered fish taco and the other was pan fried. Both were accompanied by all of the colorful vegetables. I was glad to see that they prepared the rice in the classic, Oaxacan fashion. Corn, peas, carrots and a pinch of cilantro turns rice into something special.
It was the simple bean soup that won my heart. The beans look so innocent, surrounded by all of the colorful food but those beans were outstanding! The bean broth was full of mild flavors. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the flavors, trying to piece together the different spices that went into the soup.
It wasn’t until we got up to leave that I realized what was in the soup that made me feel so good. There, hanging from the vent hoods, over the grill, were several bunches of epazote. That’s the mark of authentic Oaxacan cuisine!
I’m usually not shy about asking to take a trip back to the kitchen in a restaurant, but this galley styled kitchen was tight and the cooks and staff were dancing deftly around each other, hard at work. Not a good time to assert myself, I thought. At the heart of the kitchen was the person I knew would be there. Grandma. Grandma was laying out a round of fresh corn tortillas on the grill and she looked tired. I shouted loud enough for her to hear, “Tengo much gusto! Gracias!”, which basically means, “I so happy, thank you”. She raised her head to look at me and seemed bewildered. I gave her a wink and we left.