San Diego is a quaint, not-so-little place.  Forever in the shadow of its bigger and more glamorous neighbor, Los Angeles, it constantly seeks to prove itself as more fun, more laid back, and just as worthy of a settlement for young adults and families as ever.  And it largely succeeds.  For those Californians that are not internet or entertainment industry-obsessed, San Diego is the perfect place to have a military, bioscience or technology career in a diverse seaside surfing town with globally influenced food, superb weather, and an active nightlife.

My first stop in San Diego this trip was Santana’s, the fast-mexican drive through with the drool-worthy carne asada fries.  Any time of day or night back in NYC, I crave this monstrosity at the mere mention of nachos or fries.  As such, I made it a priority.  You’ll see why here:

Photo: Carne Asada Fries

A pile of deliciousness

I can never usually finish.  But I certainly tried!

After a disappointing stay at the Bristol Hotel last year, I decided to upgrade and stay at Se San Diego.  Although it’s definitely not New York service (hurried snob that I am), I had a pleasant stay in a well appointed room and was totally worth it for the easy access to chef Anthony Calamari’s wonderful creations!

At my one big dinner at Suite and Tender, I went for the olive tapennade and the caprese salad w/white balsamic vinaigrette…  and ended up choosing the short ribs w/pecorino chive red potatoes and the steak au poivre with bacon-honey brussel sprouts over the mustard brined roast chicken (next time!).

A good dinner is like a good tumble in the sack…  it’ll put you right to sleep!  Needless to say, I slept like a baby.

I had the great pleasure of visiting San Diego the week of St. Patrick’s day this year, and thoroughly enjoyed the Gaslamp District’s festive attack of the holiday.  They do the same thing during Mardi Gras each year: close off the restaurant/bar streets, get a massive DJ act, and let the college kids go nuts.  What I didn’t do, however, is take any photos.  Because you’ve seen Spring Break before.  I was just trying to cut through the crowd and get back to my hotel unsplattered by green-tinted beer or puke.  But I did escape to a gayborhood bar to enjoy a few green-tinted cocktails and the slider sampler at Lei Lounge before retiring.

I’m a bit sad that I couldn’t get down to La Jolla to visit Nine-Ten during this trip…  As the food there was absolutely delightful!  One more reason to return…

Every. Monday.  New Orleans families serve red beans and rice for dinner.  Every family’s red beans is different, and everyone has a different method of cooking them.  Some people swear by soaking them overnight about 12 hours, “to get the gas out” or to cut down on cooking time.  Others add extra bay leaf for the same reason.  My family is in the latter camp, and this recipe takes about 2-2.5 hrs tops.  This is my grandma’s recipe; we rarely ever bothered to make our own.

In a vegetarian variation, I simply omit the meat and add extra seasoning to taste, everything else is largely the same.  Serves 8-12.

1/2 lb of smoked meat (optional, smoked turkey necks or legs OR slab bacon cut into cubes OR traditionally, ham or picklemeat)

1 lb dried red beans, washed/rinsed

1 large onion

1/2 bell pepper (optional, preferred in veggie)

1/2 pod of garlic, to taste

4-5 bay leaves

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 lb smoked sausage

salt and pepper to taste

1 heaping tsp of sugar

1. Cover the beans in a pot with about 5 inches of water, add smoked meat, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer.

2. Sautee finely chopped onions, garlic, and bell pepper in olive oil.  When onions are clear, add them to the simmering beans. Bring heat back up to a low boil for 15-20 minutes or so then reduce heat to a simmer again and cook for approximately 1 hour.  Stir occasionally to avoid sticking.

3. Add salt and pepper, bay leaves, and sugar to taste.

4. Slice smoke sausage into half-inch rounds, add to beans.  Simmer for another 20-30 minutes or until beans are thick and creamy.  The smoked sausage adds a strong extra meaty flavor to the beans…  some folks prefer to BBQ the sauasage and serve on the side…

Serve over your favorite rice (I prefer brown), with hot sauce to taste.  Some folks like to put a mayo or mustard dollop in the beans as a garnish (I think it’s because their parents really couldn’t cook that well).  I like mine plain and good, w/Tabasco and a slice of french bread.  They’re also extra delicious and creamy on the second day, after they’ve had a chance to cool, and great to freeze and reheat.

When I was on a hunt for gumbo ingredients the other day (beef smoked sausage and possibly andouille sausage) in Harlem, I found myself in the C-town on 125th.  While for a long time that grocery was the only one for miles around aside from Fairway and a few exorbitantly priced organic markets… that doesn’t excuse the fact that in general, all C-towns in the city have a faint lingering odor of under-refrigerated meat and dairy products.  I braced myself and ran in, all the way to the back, where I knew the prepackaged Hillshire Farms sausage would be.

Once inside though, I was fascinated by the proliferation of “regular” groceries.  I’d insulated myself in a bubble of organic fresh fruits and veggies and sustainably packaged grains and granolas for so long, the sight of hundreds of boxes of Fruit Loops and other neon cereals startled me.  And then I remembered how much I *loved* Frosted Flakes as a kid, and grabbed a box.

So I quickly found the beef smoked sausage and allowed my eyes to peruse the shelf to see what other odd random “regular” groceries they had.  Hot sausage by the 5 lb box, but something about it was a little too neon red to pique my interest.  Then I found the beef bacon.  I found duck bacon at Fairway once before and it was a delightful experience, so I figured this would be tasty if not delicious.  Good god, was I wrong!

It was like salt cured beef with no smoke flavor…  All grease and stringy mush.  I threw it away.  Couldn’t eat it.

All that said, I would be willing to bet that if I got the beef bacon from Fairway, Whole Foods, or some other fancy organic market, or from a good local source it might be delicious.  No. 7 in Fort Greene taught me well that all prepared meats are NOT created equal!

But those fancy markets never had it.  Because beef bacon is… gauche.

I suffer, so you don’t have to.

Beef Bacon raw, w/packaging

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Beef Bacon in a pan

it turned out a disaster

I’ve been in Harlem in the same apartment for 4.5 years now…  right in the center of all the exciting new places that have recently opened (Bad Horse Pizza, Chocolat, Biergarten, 5 and Diamond), and close as well to the tried and true – and mostly delicious – places that have been here as long as I have or longer (Nectar Winebar, Billie’s Black, Melba’s, 67 Orange, etc.)

But my favorite place to eat in my neighborhood, day or night (because they stay open til 4am – yes, 4am – most nights), is Patisserie des Ambassades.  It’s a French-Senegalese bakery and grill, open 7am to 4am, an experience (like many things in Harlem) and one you can neither rush nor partake in if you’re in any particular hurry.  But everything, and I do mean everything because I’ve had just about everything except certain off the menu traditional dishes that I’ve been lax in ordering, is DELICIOUS.  Mouthwatering, omg-what-spice-is-that, make you wanna slap your mama delicious.  The omelets are divine (cremeuse my favorite) and only served on weekend brunch.  The lamb chops and lamb shank are particularly outstanding if they get good cuts in, and even if not they’re pretty good, and for about $14 you get enough to feed you for at least a meal plus decent leftovers.  The whole grilled tilapia has a tomato-onion relish on it that have tried and failed so many times to recreate.

Bread Counter at Patisserie des Ambassades

Bread Counter at Patisserie des Ambassades

They also have the best bread in Harlem, $2 for a long french loaf.  It usually sells out by dinner time every day.  The vast selection of well-appointed pastries, cheesecakes, tartes, cupcakes, tiramisus, and cake-lets will make you drool.  I’m also discovering a “VIP” prix fixe menu from their website that I’m pretty upset I never knew existed (it’s not handed out in the restaurant).

But most nights when I’m stumbling home from a night of carousing, I get a burger.  I know, tres Americain 🙁 but it’s just so damn good.  It’s a hearty thick patty sliced in half with a fried egg put between the two slices of meat, dressed with ketchup and their homemade spicy mayo, all on a perfect brioche bun.  Lettuce, tomato, and their sinus-searing homemade hot sauce optional.  I usually opt for all three.

Burger from Patisserie des Ambassades, Harlem NYC

Best damn burger in Harlem

Let it be said that I have only finished this entire burger once.  And that was after skipping a meal at some point in the 24 hours prior, possibly due to illness.

I will be revisiting the VIP menu here now that it’s outdoor-seating weather.  Stay tuned!

Have you ever danced in the streets until 6:00 AM on the third day of a 72 hour binge of sleepless excess?  Have you ever gorged to the point of nausea, walked it down for a few hours and then – impossibly – eaten and drank again?  Have you ever spent days reposing in bed, postponing every thought of responsibility and care while you lazily nibble a lover’s affections?  Pushed the limits of your physical and emotional ability to feel and reveled in the frailty of the overextended nerve ending?

The dank humidity hanging from the lush gardens of New Orleans creates a mystical aura of slow, confident calm…  invincibility at times.  It is a place where time slips away unnoticed because you can see, hear and taste each minute in the bud of a magnolia flower, the cadence of a marching band, the juices of a crawfish head.  Subsequently there is a sense of detachment, in the moment, from the consequences of one’s actions that can be gleefully entertaining at best, and woefully tragic at worst.

While growing up as a local, there was always a mysterious allure to the nighttime that called for me even as my staunchly religious family resisted most of the secular traditions the city reveled in.  My great-grandfather was a jazz musician, a trumpet or trombone player if I remember correctly, and was perpetually partially-employed.  Great-grandmother was a shrew of a woman who never held her tongue and lashed with both words and physical objects, turning to religion as a respite from the hardships which came from a “sinful” life of pursuing a career in art or music.  While my grandmother and her brother were mostly obedient and pursued stable careers in teaching and public service, my grand-aunt took up the family mantle and plunged headlong into nightlife entertainment.

Listen: LaVergne Smith – Stormy Weather

My grand-aunt LaVergne Smith – the New Orleans Nightingale – was a celebrated pianist and songstress on Bourbon Street for many years, for whom my grandmother sewed costumes and in general disapproved of her lifestyle choices.  She recorded a number of albums with Savoy Records in the 50s and enjoyed a successful career until it was largely derailed by alcoholism and abusive relationships.  I never got a chance to meet her as she passed away shortly after I was born due to complications from years of alcohol abuse.  However, I was told that she held me once before she died…  and I’m sure that she imparted into me not only a fever for showbusiness that took me years to shake as well as an affinity for “the sauce”, but a curiosity for all of the things that the nighttime streets of NOLA could offer up.

And so, after spending my adolescence training to become a professional dancer and safely ensconced in a religious bubble of spiritual pursuit, even to the point of preparing for ordination, I moved onto campus at university and plunged headlong myself into challenging my own spiritual, emotional, and physical boundaries as I attempted to navigate my identity as a young adult.  I shaved my head, “lost my mind” many times over (abandoning a pre-ND biochemistry major for Dance and Women’s Studies), and indulged in experiences that challenged every notion I had of what was right and proper.  Eventually I became involved in nightlife promotion and made a career of going out, throwing parties, and the wasting of brain cells until such a point when I cried out for divine intervention, because the fruitless frenzy I’d whipped my life into had begun to take its toll.  That’s when Hurricane Katrina happened, and snapped everything back into perspective.

Moving to New York, I was exposed to a level of purpose and responsibility that I’d never known, and it was invigorating.  This is a place of limitless possibility, if only you can get through the first year without being “thrown off the horse”.  It was at this point in time that my entrepreneurial thirsts were rekindled, and managed to find gainful – a.k.a. salaried with benefits – employment while attending evening classes to get my MBA.  The luck of my opportunity was that I was able to work in marketing and business development for a hospitality technology company, meaning that I was able to get paid to research and stalk the owners of the hottest new restaurants and bars in NYC in hopes of selling them very expensive software before they opened the doors.  Not only was I getting paid to eat and drink my way through the city, but I was also developing an encyclopedic knowledge of where to eat and party in NYC.  After 3.5 years there, I’ve moved on to various and sundry things that are still unfolding in the most exciting ways, but my personal obsession with restaurants and nightlife persists in a way that has led me to writing this blog.

All that said, I’m 28 years old, skipping along on my merry way around the Capitol of the World, having the time of my life…  tag along!

Having lived in New Orleans all my life, it was shameful that 2010 marked the first Essence Music Festival that I’d ever attended.  To add insult to injury, I know many people who work for or at the Festival, some for many years, but had always taken the typical stance of a local to any sort of convention that originated from outside New Orleans, which was apathy.  (My family even avoided Carnival in many ways, but that is another post for another time…)

So Friday was all about recuperating from my hangover enough to party at EMF that night for the first time, as I had 10th row seats to see my longtime childhood idol, Janet Jackson.  I had one extra ticket, and decided it would be fun if I brought my little cousin, Desmond (15) who had never been to a concert before in his young life!  But first, I had to refuel and make some rounds…  So off to Zara’s Grocery I went for an oyster po-boy!

Zara’s Little Giant Supermarket has been on Prytania St. for at least 30 years, if not longer…  It’s a neighborhood, family-owned deli and grocery that I can’t remember ever actually buying groceries at, but who needs to cook when the deli counter there serves up the most delicious sandwiches you’ve ever had?!  This bread, this flaky, crusty, slightly chewy yet always soft bread that will turn rock hard when stale (yet perfect for breadcrumbs and bread pudding)…  this is what French bread is.  Throw on some perfectly bite sized oysters fried to golden perfection, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and hot sauce…  and this is what a true New Orleans po-boy is.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I enjoy “bourgoisie” versions of the po-boy both here and in NYC often, but there’s nothing like the real thing…

Oyster Po-Boy from Zara's Little Giant Supermarket, New Orleans, LA

Oyster Po-Boy from Zara's Little Giant Supermarket

Later, I snacked at the festival.  Don’t eat at the Superdome!  Stick to things that come in bottles, and save your appetite for grub elsewhere.  But here are some great shots of Janet for your viewing enjoyment!  I choked and tried to cover my little cousin’s eyes during the “Discipline” segment.

You’ll also be glad to know that I’ve gotten a much better cameraphone since then!

My second day back, my dear friend Crystal Kile insisted that she bring me to a new restaurant that had recently opened in New Orleans, Boucherie.  Traditionally, a boucherie is a cajun pig roast held in communities where everyone would contribute dishes made possible by their seasonal stores and in turn, everyone would take home food to eat.  Families took turn hosting and providing the pig so that everyone in the community would have enough to eat through the winter.  It’s this spirit of community and generosity that Chef Nathanial Zimet intends to instill in Boucherie.

Before opening the restaurant, Zimet made a local splash with the Que Crawl, a K&B purple food truck renowned for its late night barbecue and fried grits.  Crystal would message me photos of the fried grits and swore that the next time I came down she would take me to the truck.  By the time I finally made it back to NOLA, we had an even better option!

Boucherie is located at 8115 Jeannette Street, on a quaint and mostly residential block off of Carrollton Avenue in a small restaurant row.  My first off-campus college apartment was up the street on Carrollton Avenue at Spruce Street, and we used to walk up the street to the same block to eat falafel at the Lebanon Cafe which is now called Cafe Garanada or to eat Thai food at the Basil Leaf.  One of the few Jamaican restaurants in the city occupied Boucherie’s space long before Katrina, but I’m not sure what happened to the place after.  Some parts of Carrollton Avenue used to flood badly even on a regular rainy day, so maybe there was damage, maybe there wasn’t.  It was a street by street thing.  I digress.

We walked into Boucherie and encountered local students, lunching businessmen, and familiar shades of purple reminiscent of the old Jamaican spot that was.  Whisked to a cozy corner table near the entrance, we were immediately greeted by miso spoons full of cold summer squash soup…  creamy (but not milky) with a vinegary twang.  I don’t even like squash and I was an instant convert.

After being flabbergasted by the options on the menu, I ordered a glass of Poema Cava and settled on the mussels w/grit cracker (yes, deep fried grits on top of mussels in a light worcestershire reduction – can I give these kinds of secrets away?) and then the roast beef po-boy (thin shaved, deliciously juicy beef on a pistolette).  We also split the parmesan fries (drizzled in garlic butter, the newest local food trend), and the chilled peach au poivre soup (w/sherry/balsamic red onions – divine!).  Crystal ordered the pepper stuffed with pimento cheese topped with roasted squash chips, and then for dessert we ordered the Krispy Kreme bread pudding and the bacon brownie.

All that, and the bill was just $70.  I left with the sincere conviction of having eaten one of the best meals of my life.

And that was only lunch!

The other stop I’d been dying to make, one that I often reminisce about while in New York, was to eat at Taqueria Corona.  Good tacos are hard to come by both in New Orleans and New York, and I dreamed of the homey familiarity of Taqueria Corona often.  Although I’ve heard that there have been some enterprising latinos moving into the New Orleans area post-Katrina that have opened up spots, I needed to experience the original on my reunion tour.

One of my fondest memories of Taqueria Corona was of my mother and stepfather (mechanical engineers) on the day their small company lost its biggest contract, which is the day Harrah’s casino filed bankruptcy (circa 1992).  It was summertime because I was out of school and helping out around the office, filing papers and whatnot.  There were rumors around of a possible bankruptcy, but my mother kept working until she heard from the horse’s mouth…  on the front page of the newspaper that morning.  So at 11:00 AM they closed the office and the entire staff drove over to Taqueria Corona and got plastered on margaritas.  We stayed, ate, (they) drank, laughed, and cried until they were drunk and then sober again, some 6 hours later.  I spent many more tense moments there over the years, joyfully abandoning my sorrows over the steak tacos and Cuervo Gold margaritas.

So I ordered a la carte everything I missed most: a ribeye taco, a chicken taco, and a beef flauta.

Then went over to Maison on Frenchmen to dance it off a bit with dear friends before I collapsed at 3:00 AM.  Can you believe I actually asked if the kitchen was still open there?  I wanted to try their fries.  They’d just stopped serving.

Although I arrived too early to hit the drive-through daquiri stand on the way from the airport, I did stop to take out my first meal back home from New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Co.: a half-shrimp/half-oyster po-boy.  My tastebuds tingled with delight as I realized my battered wedge fries were brushed with garlic butter, a recent development from what I could remember.

Half Shrimp, Half Oyster Po-Boy from New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co.

the Before

What remained of the po-boy after I got to it.

the After

But the highlight of this particular po-boy experience was (and always is in a positive po-boy experience): the bread.  A true po-boy is not on a baguette, nor a hero, and god forbid a wrap, pita, or some other sorry excuse for a bread.  A true po-boy sandwich is only made with crusty, flaky, soft and chewy French bread, made with the kind of water that makes it snap like an eggier portuguese roll but has the dry flakiness of a water cracker.  Is it even possible?  New Orleans French bread is the only bread like it in the world.

My hosts, spectacular foodies, home chefs, and longtime friends Paul & Chris greeted me with homemade cold-brewed iced coffee spiked w/Amarula that I’d brought them from South Africa a year earlier.  Among friends and family, I always get a kick out of enjoying the presents I gift.  At any rate, after that colossal po-boy I napped and tried to prepare my stomach for the evening’s main event, the event I’d been drooling and dreaming about for years by then…  dinner at Drago’s.

Drago's (Downtown, Riverfront Hilton, NOLA)

"Single best bite of food in America"

Drago’s is a sublime seafood restaurant opened in 1969 by the Cvitanovich family, of Croatian heritage.  One of the most beautiful aspects of New Orleans is its diverse heritage, in that it is a true melting pot – over generations of “settlement” – of African, French, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Creole, and American Indian cultures.  You’re likely to find colorful people from cultures flung all across the globe in every corner of the metropolitan area.  And although you may not be able to share in or even agree with each others’ religious or political beliefs, you can always revel together in praise of a sublime meal or a rousing song.  This is the glue that holds the community of New Orleans together, the fuel that fires the passion of resiliency and holds so many rapt in the sway of the city’s charm.

Drago’s is home to what has been voted “the best single bite of food in New Orleans”: the chargrilled oyster.  Oysters in the half shell are lined up on a hot grill until they stew in their own juices, seasoned with little more than butter, lemon, and breadcrumbs, maybe a bit of parmesan but I’ve never asked.  The first time I had one, a single tear slid down my cheek as the flavors played around my mouth, then I ate 11 more.  These beauties are served with the finest in French bread for dipping into the juices that usually pool in the plate below the shells.  Between the three of us, Paul, Chris and I ate 2 dozen as a first course.

We followed up with the lobster (stuffed with seafood dressing), crabcakes, and shrimp Ruth, an interesting mix between chargrilled tomatoes and breaded shrimp.  To drink, we split a bottle of Riesling and I had an Abita Purple Haze for good measure.  I trekked back home full and happy, ready to face the next day of…  eating!

Drago's Chargrilled Oysters on the half shell w/french bread

"Best single bite of food in New Orleans"

Stuffed Lobster, Crabcakes, Shrimp Ruth

the other stuff, delicious too!


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