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Big and Easy

[whitespace] The dining --from po' boys to beignets--is divine in New Orleans

By Janet Blaser

I NEVER THOUGHT I'd find a place that would make me think--and think hard--about moving away from Santa Cruz. But after two weeks in New Orleans, I'm still not ready to be here. Is it the food, the music, the history or the people? Or maybe that warm, sultry weather, day and night? I'm not sure, but when you put all of it together it sure spells H-O-M-E to me. The production work I was doing in N'awlins kept me busy a good 12 or more hours a day, leaving precious little time for fine dining. So bear with me if I don't tell y'all about Copeland's or Commander's Palace or the Sunday Gospel Brunch at the Praline Connection. I knew they were there, I heard the call, but alas, I could not answer. Next trip, cher.

Instead, I raced around town when I could, looking for that unlikely combination of authentic local (i.e. Cajun, Creole) food that was easy to come by. So many of the well-known spots in this city are jam-packed with tourists every day of the week. K-Paul's (Chef Paul Prudhomme's restaurant) has lines down the sidewalk all the time. Mulate's was a real find, located in the Warehouse District near the RiverWalk. It reminded me of Zachary's downtown--full of local flavor and color, and live Cajun bands, to boot.

I will admit I had a hard time with the fabled N'awlins po' boy sandwiches because of the fluffy white torpedo rolls traditionally used. It took a soft shell crab po' boy at Mother's Restaurant (www.mothersrestaurant.com) to convince me that the tender, white bread served a purpose, providing a simple base to house fillings that needed nothing more to highlight their own natural deliciousness. In fact, anything with more texture or flavor would have been detrimental to the natural goodness of the lightly breaded and deep-fried crab. These are served with a whole crab per sandwich, with legs and claws sticking out askew from the cushy roll, escaping between bites to either horrify or delight the diner.

New Orleans is not all about seafood, though--if you've got a sweet tooth, it'll be more than satisfied here. I happened onto Laura's Candies (www.laurascandies.com) at 600 Conti St. in the French Quarter, where they've been handmaking fine chocolates and Creole pralines since 1913. Still housed in the original building, the place entices visitors with a candy counter offering perhaps 20 varieties of soft or crisp pralines, truffles and chocolates. Being a dark chocoholic, Mississippi Mud was my favorite, although I'd have to say every variety of praline I tasted was exquisite. Around the corner in Exchange Alley, next to the house where Edgar Degas lived with his sister, is the only strictly vegetarian restaurant in the city. While not necessarily representative of traditional New Orleans cuisine, the Old Dog New Trick Cafe (www.olddognewtrick.com) served an important purpose in my two-week adventure. After a series of grueling 14- and 18-hour days, and too much rich food, the cafe's menu of whole grains, organic greens and vegetarian proteins helped my tired body balance and refresh itself. A handful of tables straddle the cobblestone sidewalk in front, and you can watch the world go by while enjoying a Jamaican Red Stripe beer--a perfect accompaniment for the sultry New Orleans weather.

Last but not least, no trip to New Orleans would be complete without at least one visit to the historic Cafe du Monde. This is the place (and has been since 1862) to get cafe au lait and hot beignets, deep-fried crispy doughnut squares heaped high with powdered sugar that ends up everywhere--lap, table, face, floor. You'll learn, as I did, to remember to wear a beignet-eating outfit (white on top) when going out for a late-night snack. Most of the seating is outdoors under an awning--there must be 70 tables, all surrounded by rings of powdered sugar. Artists, musicians, palm readers and occult practitioners of all kinds line the sidewalks around the square offering their services, making for an unparalleled people-watching experience. Mule-drawn carriages trot past merrily, oak trees tower overhead, the chicory coffee smells heavenly, and it's hard to imagine life could get any better. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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From the September 8-15, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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