New Orleans, no reservations 

Losing the gotta-do blues in my first trip to the Big Easy.

It should come as no surprise that upon my first visit to the Big Easy this May, I didn’t do as I was told. I was supposed to go to Café du Monde for beignets, but I didn’t. Nor did I go to Cochon Butcher, or party on Bourbon Street, or sip on a Hurricane.

And it was fabulous.

Liberated from work for a weekend, Mr. Doom and I blaze our own trail, free of “must-do’s” and “gotta-go’s.” Instead, we submit to the will of our host, my good friend Jones. As we pull up to his St. Charles Street apartment, Jones waves from his second-story balcony perch, sipping on a beer. Once we're inside, he hands us each an ice-cold lager from New Orleans’ Dixie Brewing Company.

After a few swigs, Jones says we’re having dinner at Coop’s Place (1109 Decatur St., 504-525-9053). The French Quarter dive bar/restaurant opened in 1983, offering good Cajun food and the surliest of bartenders, and catering to service industry folks with late-night hours. A short streetcar ride later, we’re seated at the bar inside Coop’s and ordering a round of Abita Amber ales.

I take note of the rules.

Bar Rules
1. Bartender is always right.
2. If bartender is wrong, see rule 1.

“What’s the specialty here?” I ask the bartender in earnest.

“Everything is special. What do you want?”

“One Cajun fried chicken and one jambalaya,” I answer quickly.

He sighs heavily and walks away.

Mr. Doom’s rabbit and sausage jambalaya comes with simmered tomatoes, boneless rabbit, smoked pork sausage, seasonings and rice. “Every forkful hit my stomach like a bite-sized fire bomb,” Mr. Doom said of the dish recently. “It was World War Nola and I loved every second of it.”

My heaping plate of Cajun fried chicken is seasoned in Coop’s own Bayou Blend of spices, fried to light and crispy perfection, and served with jambalaya and coleslaw.

All eat in silence, turning only to nod and moan, tipping our heads back in ecstasy.

We meet Jones’ friend Frenchy (a wickedly smart French lass) and continue to sip and swirl in and around Frenchmen Street.

Listening to me rave about my Cajun fried chicken dinner, Frenchy quips, “They say for the best Cajun fried chicken in New Orleans, go to Popeye’s.”

Onto the Spotted Cat Music Club (623 Frenchman St.) for some “knock-off Red Bull” and vodkas, and dancing to the gypsy jazz sounds of New Orleans’ Cottonmouth Kings.

A blurry taxi ride home to our deluxe inflatable mattress, and morning arrives all too quickly. Jones and Frenchy wake us up with cups of steamy black coffee and a huge grease-stained paper bag filled with beignets from the nearby New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company. It doesn’t have the ambience of Café du Monde, I’m sure, but when fried-dough and hot coffee are hand-delivered, don’t complain.

Jones has a plan in mind for the day, and that plan includes his favorite barbecue spot, the Joint. And a plan for barbecue is a plan I can always endorse. The four of us load up into the car for a driving tour of the city: Tulane University, Surrey’s Uptown (where it’s been decided we’re to have brunch the following day), and a pit stop at Le Boulangerie for mini baguettes (4600 Magazine St., 504-269-3777).

When we pull up at the Joint (701 Mazant St., 504-949-3232), a bright yellow hand-painted sign reading “the Joint…Always Smokin’” sends hearts and stomachs pitter-pattering. The décor is an antique-pickers’ paradise; patina-crusted signs and vintage trinkets abound.

Four combo platters of brisket, ribs, sausage, and smoked chicken follow, with overflowing bowls of mustard baked beans, collard greens, coleslaw, and of course, a slice of white bread.

Frenchy reveals she’s never tried collard greens. I fix the perfect bite, with just a drop of Crystal on top. She eats it and says, “Oh, so it just tastes like greens?”

Sigh.

The barbecue at the Joint is formidable (though I remain partial to my hometown spots); rib meat is crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside. The mustard sauce baked beans are a revelation. We waddle back to the car in a stupor.

From barbecue excess, we head toward the Ninth Ward, to the levee, to the place where Katrina ripped through a community leaving visible scars to this day.

Kids play basketball and soccer out front, parents sip beers and flip burgers on the grill. The new levee looms high at the end of the road. The modern and eco-friendly homes, many built by Brad Pitt, look surreal against the gritty landscape. One sage green house with contemporary angles sits next door to a house still in tatters with spray paint hieroglyphs reminding everyone of the storm.

Jones wants to take us to his favorite bookstore in town, Faulkner House Books (624 Pirate’s Alley, 504-524-2940). Not unlike Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, Pirate’s Alley requires some finesse and perhaps a little magic to find; if you walk by too quickly you’ll likely miss it. But along the narrow brick corridor is where you’ll find the Old Absinthe House (622 Pirates Alley), where we stop for a glass of beginner’s absinthe made by an elderly pirate matron.

Faulkner House Books is next door, with shelves of books surrounding the tiny room from floor to ceiling, complete with those sliding ladders from Beauty and the Beast. It’s like someone’s personal book collection, but everything is for sale and the shop owner can talk about each book.

Jones and I ask her to choose something for us. She hands me Jan-Phillip Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (which I highly recommend). Meanwhile, Mr. Doom finds himself a clever new hat from Goorin Brothers (709 Royal St., 504-523-4287).

Jones surprises us with tickets to see a favorite band, Bonobo, at the historic blues venue Tipitina’s. Still stuffed from lunch/dinner at the Joint, it’s decided dinner shall remain liquid. Jones takes us to meet friends before the show at the perfectly divey dive, Ms. Mae’s (4336 Magazine St., 504-218-8035).

“Tonight is the night to get weird,” Jones informs us, taking a hearty swig.

Someone passes out flyers around the bar for a food truck called “Skillet, for your face.”

At the show, we bop to Bonobo’s incredible live set and drink with new friends. Mr. Doom and I are starving, and luckily, Skillet is on the footpath home.

I order the skillet burger with bacon, cheddar cheese, onions, and a thick layer of hot pepper jelly. Mr. Doom falls into deep love with a bacon, lettuce and watermelon sandwich.

The next morning, Brunch at Surrey’s Uptown (4807 Magazine St., 504-895-5757) involves a very hot and very long hour-plus wait. Jones doesn't make it. I nurse the hangover with scrumptious Dilly bean-garnished Bloody Marys from Le Bon Temps Roule (4801 Magazine St., 504-895-8117), a darkened bar on the corner sporting several aging one-eyed or three-legged dogs. At Surrey’s I order more deeply-fried chicken and waffles, Frenchy gets pulled pork eggs benedict, and Mr. Doom noshes on shrimp and grits. With bellies full of greasy brunch and Bloody Marys, we bid Frenchy, Jones, and the Big Easy adieu.

A quote from the bathroom wall at Coop’s Place sums up the weekend: “We’re here to disappear, therefore let’s be as vivid and generous as we can.”

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