724 Iberville St., New Orleans, LA 70130
Web: Acme Oyster House
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"We took special note of what had happened to one famous New Orleans drink, the Hurricane, which has been transformed by Pat O'Brien's, the place that invented it."
The parallels mightn't be exact, but we see bits and pieces of Buffalo in New Orleans: in Buffalo's case, years of neglect and decline led to a slow corrosion of the city with some simultaneous growth in the suburbs, while New Orleans was recently hit by a brutal hurricane - Katrina - that humbled a city once nationally revered for its dining and entertainment options. Both places have been digging themselves out of holes; thanks to federal funding and a whole lot of local goodwill, New Orleans' resurrection is proceeding faster. Considerably faster. Our two-part article looking at some of the famous foods and restaurants in this city starts here; the second part on New Orleans sandwiches and sweets is available here.
It's impossible to visit New Orleans now without hearing about the Saints, the just-crowned Super Bowl champions whose unexpected victory united a city in need of something to cheer about. "Who Dat" t-shirts, songs, and banners are virtually everywhere - the airport, the airport shuttle to the hotel, the stores, the restaurants, and the bars - while the black and gold Saints jerseys are probably more popular than ever. Rap music heralding their victory competes with Zydeco on the city's streets, particularly in the French Quarter, an entertainment district that is home to or near many of New Orleans' bars, restaurants, and hotels. The French Quarter was largely spared the direct impact of the floodwaters that Katrina unleashed upon much of the rest of the city, but the indirect impact - families homeless, a massive disruption of essential services, and even the disinterment of bodies from New Orleans' historic and famous graveyards - sent shock waves through the population and the country that are yet to be fully settled. Conventions planned for the city were cancelled, businesses shuttered, and huge numbers of people displaced. Neighborhoods are now facing the sort of demolition and potential resurrection that Buffalo has only lately realized that it needs.
Yet so much is working properly these days in New Orleans that it's easy to see that the city will find its way forward again. In the mornings, cleanup crews literally soap and wash the streets, erasing all traces of the nighttime crowds and the mule-drawn carriages that take tourists through voodoo, celebrity, and historic locales. By 10:00am each day, the bars on legendarily debaucherous Bourbon Street begin to open again, offering frozen and freshly mixed drinks - including some brutally powerful ones - to steady crowds of tourists and locals. The Hand Grenade, a drink created in 1984, various 190-proof-Diesel-based orange beverages, and absinthe cocktails - the latter an ode to the city's French heritage and leanings - mingle with less potent local beers at too many bars and taverns for a visitor to count. Thanks to a local law permitting open containers so long as they're not glass bottles, it's possible to consume a single cup on the streets here and have a buzz for hours.
As Buffalonians and fans of authentic preparations of famous recipes, we took special note of what had happened to one famous New Orleans drink, the Hurricane, which has been so transformed by the place that invented it - the bar Pat O'Brien's - that there are now actually two such beverages in New Orleans: one made from a powdered sugary mix that tastes like red candy and rum, and the real, comparatively delicious original thing, made with orange and passion fruit juices. Pat O'Brien's now serves the artificial version; other bars make the original drink fresh. It's sort of like the Anchor Bar changing its recipe in order to mass-produce sauces for sale in supermarkets, but worse: imagine a chicken wing coated in Heinz ketchup and you'll have the general idea of how dissimilar the powdered mix version tastes.
If New Orleans' drinks have earned it a hard partying reputation, the city's food has made it something close to a seafood lover's paradise. Still diminished by Katrina, crawfish stocks these days are unimpressive enough that some restaurants aren't offering their traditional crawfish dishes any more - at least, for a while - meaning that the miniature lobsters have given way to oysters, shrimp, and fish at the city's restaurants. Grilled Redfish is popular enough locally to serve as the name of a restaurant; it was fantastic as an entree at the World Famous N'Awlins Cafe & Spice Emporium, where it sat beneath a generous ladeling of creamy Creole crawfish sauce and alongside a bed of parsley- and pepper-dusted rice. Alligator appears all over, sometimes unimpressively in the overcooked kabob form served at N'awlins, but elsewhere in a delicious sausage with gator rice plate served at Daisy Dukes, a dive bar off Canal Street.
The seafood star of the city these days, to our tastes, was the oyster. Though we loved the Absinthe Oyster Dome - a puff pastry atop a creamy absinthe and oyster soup, served at Commander's Palace, reputably New Orleans' best fine dining establishment - you needn't shell out big bucks for such a meal. The oysters served at the famous Acme Oyster House were so huge and exceptional we were equally wowed by the house special Chargrilled Oysters - literally and awesomely cooked on a grill with cheese inside - plus the raw ones shucked fresh, which were cold and sweet, with no trace of the briney salt that so often dominates them.
There are numerous other stories to share from this visit to New Orleans, including more details of the fancy 1-1-1 Soups dish at Commander's Palace - a three-soup sampler flight that every restaurant should offer - and the wonderful Mr. B's Barbecued Shrimp at Mr. B's Bistro, but we'll leave most of them for the captions of our massive New Orleans food and drink photo gallery. The second part of this article discusses famous New Orleans sandwiches and sweets, as well as dining disappointments and comparisons. Click through for the rest of the story.