Vietnam Veterans of America
New Orleanians joke that to get to the South you have to travel north of I-10. The city is an anomaly: in the South but not of the South, more Catholic (or pagan) than Baptist, as much Caribbean (or Mediterranean) as American.
Almost everything here needs explaining, even how we orient ourselves. Because of the curve in the Mississippi River that makes us the Crescent City, from certain vantages we look to its West Bank for the sunrise. North Rampart is east of South Rampart. Since standard directions aren’t reliable, we use our own: Lake Pontchartrain is on one side of the city; the Mississippi River on the other. Riverside and lakeside, Uptown and Downtown, as the river flows.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF JAZZ
Buddy Bolden, arguably the first jazzman, played at the Funky Butt, a music hall named for his song that begs his listeners to “open up that window and let that bad air out.” But “funky” also has come to mean music played by groups such as the Funky Meters, heavy with syncopation and a strong backbeat. Full of soul, it’s the kind of music you gotta dance to.
The birthplace of jazz, New Orleans has not always preserved its jazz landmarks. Storyville—the official red-light district where Louis Armstrong, just a kid, sold buckets of coal so he could listen to jazz greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Joe “King” Oliver—was long ago bulldozed for a housing project. Satchmo’s birthplace on Jane Alley was lost in the sixties. But other sites still stand, not least the Eagle Saloon, one of the holiest of places in jazz history.
After long neglect, it is finally being rescued. All the jazz greats played there. It was on that corner, South Rampart and Perdido, that a twelve year old was nabbed for firing a weapon on New Year’s Eve (a local custom) and sent to The Colored Waifs’ Home. There, Louis Armstrong learned to play the cornet from Professor Peter Davis, and the future of world culture shifted.
Nearby, on Julia Street in the Arts District, the painter and Renaissance man George Schmidt holds court, discoursing in his crusty uptown accent about all things New Orleans: history, politics, preservation, food, art, and music. He is the founder of the New Leviathan Foxtrot Orchestra that plays aevery Jazz Fest in late spring.
Where to hear music now? Well, for many years Frenchmen Street in the Marigny District below (downriver from) the French Quarter with its lineup of, well, funky bars was the place to go. Now tourists have inundated it. If you don’t mind a crowd, try d.b.a., Café Negril, or the Spotted Cat. You’ll find music blasting through the doors so intensely you may decide to enjoy it on the banquette (that’s New Awyuns for sidewalk).
For straight-ahead jazz, it’s hard to beat Snug Harbor. Wynton’s dad, Ellis Marsalis, plays every Friday. Best to reserve and go early to shows at 8:00 and 10:00.
Want something a bit more out-there musically and geographically? Maple Leaf on Oak Street in the Riverbend District, where the prodigious pianist James Booker once had a regular gig, is worth the journey. You might catch a brass band such as the Hot 8 or the Soul Rebels. Tipitina’s is a mecca for New Orleans funk, but is not always open. The new hipster scene is closer, near Elysian Fields and St. Claude: Sweet Lorraine’s, the Hi-Ho Lounge, or Café Istanbul. Whatever your musical taste, be sure to check www.offbeat.com for daily listings.
WHERE TO EAT
Coming to New Orleans, you may indeed have food on your mind. Near Maple Leaf, a short cab ride, you can get a late-night snack at the Camelia Grill. It’s famous for omelets, waffles, chocolate freezes with or without ice cream, and for the old-school wait staff. Lines may be long.
Despite its well-earned reputation, New Orleans has as many bad restaurants as any touristy city. Many New Orleanians have deserted the famed restaurants that once put us on the culinary map. My mother once fussed at a local food writer for giving Antoine’s “five stars if you have a waiter who’s served your family for generations, and two stars if you don’t. At Ruth’s Chris,” she added (she founded it), “you don’t need to know anyone to get a great steak.”
Arnaud’s is another one to skip, though its French 75 Bar is a very civilized place to water before or after dinner. On the way in, sneak a peek at Arnaud’s gorgeous, window-filled front room, the best dish in the house.
Incongruously located on Bourbon Street, the elegant Creole Galatoire’s is still a local favorite, though loud and hard to get in. Men need a jacket. They do not take reservations. The mirrored dining room downstairs is the place you’ll find locals having a grand often boisterous time, but you can now reserve in the new dining rooms upstairs. Brennan’s—long a tourist trap—has benefited from changing hands: Exec ChefSlade Rushing is killing it.
Beyond those well-known names, the list of our truly great restos boggles the mind. On the high end: Herbsaint, Restaurant August, Gautreau, Pêche, Coquette, La Petite Grocery. Mid-range: Domenica, Cochon, Boucherie, Patois.
But a great culinary city’s true test is whether it’s as serious about its low-end cuisine as its high. No one takes sandwiches to the heights we do. Forget Mother’s Po’boys on Poydras. Cochon Butcher (behind Cochon) makes simple fare with a complexity as rich in Cajun touches as its namesake next door. Parkway Tavern near Bayou St. John attracts long lines. Or take a ride uptown to Domilise’s, one of the few remaining neighborhood joints, founded around 1918. The half oyster/half shrimp “loaf” (po’boy) on light-as-air Leidenheimer Bakery’s French bread will carry you to dinner. I get the shrimp.
Not Domilise’s, but many of these restaurants are recent. The way I explain our post-Katrina culinary renaissance is that when you realize that something can be snatched from you overnight, as we did, you recommit yourself to those parts you most love. This insight coincided with the farm-to-table movement. So, young New Orleans chefs are cooking great food with better ingredients than their legendary precursors ever had. Bon appétit!
The Crescent City has one of the largest Viet Kieu populations in America. Many came from Vung Tau, the fishing village near Saigon also known by its French colonial name, Cap Saint-Jacques. Maybe it’s that deep French influence that makes our Vietnamese restos as good as I’ve found anywhere stateside. (And authentic: while in Vietnam I felt I was eating at Kim Son, my favorite here). Favorites differ. For me it’s the salt-baked shrimp and bun at Kim Son, a quick jaunt by taxi over the river. Nine Roses is a little further, and Tan Dinh a bit further still.
The west bank is where the Vietnamese Buddhists settled. The Catholics moved to the East where Dong Phuong has great Vietnamese pancakes (Banh xeo) and pho, but it’s a long taxi ride.
But you don’t have to travel far for pho. It’s everywhere. Ba Chi is uptown near Tulane and Lilly’s Café on Magazine is very good and closer. Near City Park, Mo Pho is doing a Vietnamese fusion cuisine that will knock your jungle bootsoff.
THE ETHNIC CHECKERBOARD
Ethnicities and neighborhoods are typical of the New Orleans checkerboard. Accents tell the tale. The frequently satirized Irish Channel or “Y’at” dialect accent—from “Where you at?” meaning “How are you?”—was influenced by Irish immigrants and sounds more Brooklyn than Southern.
Just lakeside of Magazine Street, the Garden District gentry the Irish once served never say “Y’at,” except in jest, and never say “New Orlins.” They say “New Awe-yuns.” No one says “New Orleens,” unless they’re wondering “what it means….”
“Gentry.” Yes, we do share the South’s love of bloodlines. For almost a century, colonial New Orleans was stratified by parentage, a society of exclusion shaped by the aristocratic traditions of France and Spain. Canal Street—said to be the widest in America—separated the animosities between the French Quarter and the American Sector that resulted from the huge influx of Americans after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
New Orleans medians are still called “neutral grounds” after the Canal Street no man’s land that separated rival domains. The French and Spanish colonials looked down on the Kaintucks because all that interested them was making money; the Americans looked down on the French Quarter colonials because they cared more about savoir vivre. I guess the colonial spirit won out in this city of three-hour lunches and three weeks of annual carnival parades.
That impulse to exclude didn’t stop with the French. The Pickwick Club, founded in 1857, is a social club whose Anglo-American membership has, since the mid-19th century, manned the old-line Mardi Gras krewes such as Rex and Comus—the groups that create the parades, costumes, and floats. In 1874, Pickwickians led the White League militia to the Battle of Liberty Place that overwhelmed the metropolitan police and struck the blow that led to Reconstruction’s end and to Jim Crow’s birth.
In 1936, my great-grandfather Sam, a pawnbroker known on South Rampart as Money-Bags Fertel, wanted to play pinochle at the Pickwick, whose clubhouse on Canal he owned. Denied membership as a Jew, he refused the Pickwick a new lease. In 1991 some krewes, challenged by the City Council to admit blacks and Jews, chose to withdraw from public parading.
Our city is bedeviled by ingrained hierarchies. In 2010 the Times-Picayune noted that an old-line krewe had chosen a “relative newcomer” as King of Carnival: an Uptown pillar of the community who had lived here for a mere thirty-seven years.
Nor is prejudice the province of whites alone. The black Creoles of New Orleans, many descended from the colonial aristocracy and their enslaved people or the free women of color they took as concubines, embraced some of the same biases. Not that long ago black Creole clubs such as the Autocrat still tendered a “paper bag test”—anyone darker than a paper bag was turned away.
Yet slaves, under French and Spanish colonial law, fared better than those in English colonies. Allowed to congregate on Sundays, they held markets, danced to native drums, and sang their call-and-response chants from which jazz emerged. Congo Square, in the heart of Tremé, the downtown neighborhood across from the French Quarter, was the center of their social and spiritual world. Now called Louis Armstrong Park, Congo Square is the ur-birthplace of jazz. Tremé was the first African-American neighborhood in America.
If you’re interested in jazz history or rhythm and blues, be sure to download A Closer Walk, a free walking tour app from our great New Orleans-centric WWOZ.
Near Congo Square, don’t miss the utterly funky Backstreet Museum where Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are celebrated. Both African vestiges, the Mardi Gras Indians make elaborate beaded and feathered suits and parade on three seperate days: Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night, and what they call “Super Sunday” later in March or April. Second Line parades by the Social Aid Clubs take place every Sunday (check schedules at www.neworleansonline.com).
Once forbidden to use masks, African Americans protested by dressing as Native Americans at least since the 1880s. Aside from the Back Street Museum, the best quick study of the Mardi Gras Indian culture is surely the music they’ve produced over the years, from Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles or the more sophisticated Donald Harrison, Chief of the Guardians of the Flame. But the first Indian album is still the best, Wild Tchoupitoulas with “Big Chief” Jolly and The Meters.
If you have kids in tow, they will love those Sunday Second Lines and may still be dancing to syncopated rhythms when you get home. They will also enjoy Audubon Zoo or Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
But the “true” New Orleans is not on Bourbon Street. There you will mostly find drunken frat boys, bad music, and T-shirt shops.
Having indulged your ears and taste buds, it’s time to delight your eyes. After Congo Square, the lower French Quarter offers quiet, residential eye candy wherever you look. On lower Chartres Street, the Ursuline Convent dates from 1752, the oldest surviving French colonial building and the oldest structure in the Mississippi River Valley.
Nearby, wrought- and cast-iron railings line the balconies—we call them galleries—adding shade to sidewalks and outdoor space to second and third floors. The vernacular architecture of the French Quarter is in fact largely Spanish. When Spain controlled the city (1763-1800), two fires swept away the French colonial plantation-like homes. The Spanish replaced them with the townhouses you see today. Madame John’s Legacy, now owned by the Louisiana State Museum, is one of the few to survive the 1794 fire. It’s worth a visit.
You’ll find more eye candy in the mansions of the famed Garden District, and also in the more modest gingerbread shotguns in neighborhoods such as Bywater and the Irish Channel, which are now being gentrified.
Whatever you find (beyond Bourbon) is certain to be unique. Well, maybe Bourbon, too.
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