Fourth Day: Thursday, March 18th Friday, Mar 19 2010 

Work continued at a pretty brisk pace, although you could see the energy level diminishing bit-by-bit. Long work days and late nights will do that. I know.

I rejoined my group in Treme where we continued to work on the front trim. Painstaking work that was somewhat frustrating for the students. However, Julia had strategies for quickly painting over mistakes here and there and finished product was much more satisfying that they thought possible. She was pulled off to supervise another group, so we were given the very real privilege of being trusted to work alone.

For lunch we made a run into the Quarter for muffalettas from the Central Grocery on Decatur Street. I’m always entranced by the deli counter and specialty-stocked shelves. And we were lucky enough to snag a space right in front so that I was able to get out of the car and enjoy it. We sat on the front porch, soaking in the sun and the olive-relish infused mortadella, prosciutto, and mozzarella on slightly crisp, sesame seed Italian loaves. Unfortunately, afer all that, we had to get back to work.

actually packed up and moved our operation over Broad Street into Gentilly. There we very efficiently put two coats of exterior paint on one side and primed the front porch, porch ceiling, and front gable. We broke off a bit early so the group could make their way up Gentilly for snowballs. I stayed behind to help Julia with the tools and all the groups gathered at St. Ray’s for the volunteer appreciation dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.

While waiting on the front step of the Bruxelles Street house, an elderly woman from down the street paid me a visit. She was upset that a crew had power-washed her house a week before and no Operation Helping Hands had returned to paint. I told her that I was a volunteer, but she insisted on waiting for Julia to return. While we waited on the stoop, I asked her about her experiences in the wake of Katrina. Like the previous homeowner, her house did not take on flood water; however, the roof gave way and she received considerable interior water damage. She evacuated to her son’s home near Lafayette where she waited, and waited for utilities to return to her neighborhood. In the meantime, Hurricane Rita struck west of New Orleans and she was once again plunged into darkness. She ended up returning to New Orleans in January 2006, only the third resident in her block to do so. And she still had to wait for the lights to be turned on. The resilience and stubborn sense of home that these people possess never ceases to amaze me. And beyond everything else, that is the thing that will keep this City going.

After showering and an inordinate time spent trying to get all of the paint off, I headed out in the Bywater neighborhood to meet my friend Burt and his friend Jeannie at Vaughan’s. Kermit Ruffins was not there for his normal Thursday evening, but we stayed nonetheless to soak up Vaughan’s radical unpretentiousness. Backed by Kermit’s Barbecue Swingers, the front men included trombonist Corey Henry of the Rebirth Brass Band. They were extraordinary musicians and showed a lot of musical range. However, it was not what we came to see and, after one set and a bowl of free red beans and rice, we parted ways with Vaughan’s. I stopped by the Spotted Cat for a short while, but fatigue set in and I headed back to the West Bank.

Over the next hour or so, students started filtering back, van by van. One group went for zydeco night at the Rock and Bowl. The others explored the ferry and streetcar system; and I gather with some challenges. However, I was too tired to wait up and here about it. I suspect I’ll get an earful today!


Diners, Drive-ins and Dives Wednesday, Feb 10 2010 

I like good food, but I find that good food is not always found in the fanciest restaurants at the highest prices. And New Orleans is the poster child for fine eating at inexpensive, out-of-the way places. I discovered this years ago, when we ventured to Austin Leslie’s Chez Helene. Unpretentious food in a plain setting at a reasonable price. To this day, a memorable dining experience.

New Orleans has it’s share of celebrity chefs, trendy venues, and tradition-bound restaurants where patrons pay others to wait in line for them. But those are not the places I frequent.

No, I’m not talking McDonald’s or Subway, but locally owned places, with well-prepared, traditional food. The places where you’ll sit next to a group of elevator repairmen. Where servers might offer you a draft beer if you’ve waited in line too long. Places where you consider it lax service if the waitress fails to call you “baby” at least three times.

I do not consider myself an expert; I’d have to visit New Orleans more than once a year, which would be just fine with me, by the way. But over the past five years, I have acquired a list of places that I return to again and again.  And they are:

  • Mena’s Palace, in the French Quarter, on Chartres at Iberville. Friendly, inexpensive lunch counter for hearty breakfasts and fabulous lunch specials. Attentive waitresses, frequented largely by locals, it is a New Orleans experience waiting to happen. Favorites: fried chicken plate, red beans and rice, and fried oysters. I have to eat there at least once when I’m in New Orleans.
  • Rocky and Carlo’s Restaurant on St. Bernard Highway in Chalmette, LA. A wonderful melange of Creole, Italian, and fried seafood. Clean, moderately priced, with an overtly friendly staff and clientele. it’s like eating at home without having to bother with the dishes.
  • Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. OK, this is right up there with Cafe du Monde as a tourist spot, but it is a singular experience. As someone for whom food and cooking is close to being a religious vocation, the vibe of this century-old Italian grocery cuts to the bone. Add to that, muffalettas on incredible Italian loaves and cold beer out of the cooler; it doesn’t get much better.
  • Domilise’s Po-Boys, Uptown on Annunciation Street. A nondescript frame building in which the most fabulous po-Boys in New Orleans are prepared. It features a wide range of sandwiches, but for me it is impossible not to gravitate toward fried seafood po-boys, fried and made to order, fully dressed. While many locals go with a Barq’s as an accompaniment; it’s an Abita Amber for me. Check out the autographed photos of the Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning behind the bar.
  • Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street in Faubourg-Marigny. Maybe not the best-known Afro-Creole restaurant in New Orleans, but for a music lover, it’s location, location, location.  And, reasonably priced entrees coupled with friendly, attentive service. Favorite’s: fried okra, fried catfish, and vegetarian sides, i.e. prepared without meat. And when you’re finished, you are only steps away from the music on “The Street.”
  • Wild card. OK, there has to be one fast food alternative, found most everywhere and consistently good. For me, it’s Popeye’s Fried Chicken. Seldom a first choice, but never a last resort, it is real fried chicken with passable sides. The meal of choice when on the go.

Every year, I find at least one new thing, but for the time being, these are the kind of places you’ll find me at mealtime.