Surviving the Big Easy: Mardi Gras

Check one off the bucket list. I finally made it to The City That Care Forgot to celebrate Mardi Gras. It’s a whole different ball game folks. New Orleans on steroids, as well as copious hand grenades and big ass beers. If you haven’t been, do it. Maybe not make it your first trip to The Crescent City though. It is a lot to take in, even for someone who has visited and survived many times. See my other posts about my favorite city in the world. Surviving the Big Easy and Surviving The Big Easy, Part 2. Where to begin. Obviously we had to run to Willa Jean immediately once we checked into the hotel for a frosé and some to-go pastries. Who needs coffee to start the day? Then off to The Quarter to begin the debauchery. Molly’s for a frozen Irish coffee. Harry’s Corner. Pat O’s for the sweet nectar of a Hurricane. Napolean House for an amazing muffuletta and a Pimm’s cup.  Josephine Estelle. You get the point. These are a few of my favorite things. On top it all, it’s only Thursday. It’s a marathon, not a sprint right? Have I mentioned I love it here? After regrouping at the hotel, you know, a shower and a change of clothes, it was off to to bar in the lobby to hang with Sara’s family and friends. I’ve heard lots of stories, so it was good to finally put faces to the names. Plus I was going to be spending a lot of time with the men since the women had a luncheon, as well as riding in Krewe of Iris in the parade. The men? Well we were left to our own devices. How much trouble could we get in right? Especially in New Orleans. So Friday we walked around drinking 3 for 1 beers. Many o’shitty domestics. The Cat’s Meow was a purrrfect place to spend a few hours on a balcony, observing the scenery that Bourbon Street can provide. I may or may not have seen a few scantily clad women exposing their assets. Yes I saw boobs for beads. When in Rome. A few however I wish I would have looked away. Tough life huh? So every year there is a different theme that Sara’s group dresses up for Mardi Gras. This year? Outer space. A Google search and many Amazon boxes later, I have a shiny silver suit, flashing LED lights wrapped around my arms, shades and a robot hat to top it off. You should have seen how many people wanted to take a picture of me as we walked around Friday night. Plus we all wore our costumes to a nice sit down dinner. Sorry not sorry. Robots use Sazeracs and a Vieux Carre or two for fuel apparently. Operation black out robot has commensed. The Carousel Bar, followed by a trip to the Erin Rose for my favorite window seat, tends to lead to a rusty, as well as hung over robot. Nothing like a little rest, a shower, and a Miller Lite first thing in the morning to make things better. Or at least manageable. As Sara and all the women were throwing beads off their float Saturday, the men and I walked the parade route on St. Charles. You think tailgaiting is crazy in North Carolina? It has nothing on Mardis Gras. We walked around with a cooler full of ice cold beer, meanwhile I saw hundreds of tents, many a keg, grills, bags of Popeye’s, shopping carts full of booze, broken champagne bottles everywhere, inflatable furniture, and an ironing board as a portable bar. All before noon. Yikes. Meanwhile I am wearing a purple tutu. And beads everywhere. Literally everywhere. I had a nice bead sunburn to boot. A pit stop for a bloody mary or two, followed by dozens of charbroiled oysters from Drago’s, does a body good. So does going back to the hotel room to lay down. After getting my third wind, Sara and I saw KISS on an Endymion float, had an amazing dinner at Compère Lapin and took in a burlesque show to end the night. Oh Mardi Gras. Another reason for me to fall in love with New Orleans again. It’s not just beads and breasts, dudes and daquiris. It’s friends and families getting together to reminisce and share stories of past Mardi Gras lore, celebrate the unusual sights and sounds of this quirky city, and to make new fuzzy memories. Cheers foodies!

Sweet Home Chicago

Thanks to Capital City Bikefest I was given an entire weekend off and avoided the shitshow of Fayetteville St. Amazing right, especially for someone in the foodservice industry. You know what that means? On the road again foodies. This time Chicago. As an added bonus, Craig, one of my best friends from Hampden-Sydney, lives in the Windy City, so Sara and I had a place to stay and avoided paying an arm and a leg for a hotel. Now we could spend all our money on food and cocktails. One of the best things about flying? The airport bars of course. And the people watching in said bars.  However, flying out of RDU at 6 in the morning kind of derails that plan. Arriving in Chicago super early in the morning only means more time to explore. And walk. And walk. Did I mention we walked a lot? First up was the Lincoln Park Zoo. A quaint zoo right in the middle of the city that also happens to be free. I like free. After the zoo we made it down to Millennium Park to see the Cloud Gate (The Bean) and Crown Fountain with the rest of the tourists. Sometimes you gotta be one. It was really awesome though, seeing weird reflections of yourself, with the immense high rises of Chicago as the background. I think I took a million pictures and boomerangs. Sorry Instagram. At least there was no selfie stick involved. The Crown Fountain was pretty cool also, giant glass block towers with changing faces and a reflecting pool beneath. At this time I was getting a little thirsty, so obviously we had to go to the Billy Goat Tavern. We actually stumbled into one of the newer locations which happened to be very local friendly rather than full of tourists like us. Nothing like a good dive bar with a High Life in hand and the Cubs on the big screen. Next it was time to eat, and Chicago is definitely not short on options. We were thinking about The Purple Pig, but we luckily came across Eataly as we were maneuvering our way through the city. I’m glad we did, because I think I died and went to Italian heaven. Imagine two stories of just Italian meats, cheeses, wines, olive oils, etc etc. You get the picture. Dozen oysters? Yes please. Charcuterie? Totally. Buy a bottle of wine rather than a glass and you get complimentary bruschetta? Obviously. Just a little mid afternoon snack, we have been walking 500 miles. After a little nap time, we finally met up with Craig and ventured out again. When in Chicago you must deep dish. When in Rome. And not that Pizzeria Uno shit. Pequod’s is where it’s at. The caramelized crispy crust was out of bounds, flavortown city. Seriously though, it was great. I could only eat 1 1/2 slices before I was put into a meat induced coma. Totally worth it. Just don’t be in a rush to eat though, takes like 45 minutes to get the pizza. Just order a pitcher of beer and some garlic bread to tide you over. After our coma, the next day we took an architectural boat tour of Chicago. Definitely a must do in my opinion when the weather cooperates and it’s not freezing yet. Amazing views of all the beautiful skyscrapers and architecture that define Chicago. Later, after a few rooftop beverages at J. Parker hotel, dinner was Italian at Coco Pazzo. Awesome spot. Thanks Google search. Octopus, veal chop, and a lot of pasta. And the friendliest old Italian man who picked out our wine. Then the barhopping commenced. Pop’s, a champagne bar, was one of the highlights. Who doesn’t like bubbly cocktails? We ended the night at Dublin’s, well because they stay open until 4 AM. Sit at the bar if you can, otherwise you will be hounded to order food if you sit at a table. I’m not here for food buddy, just to get my drink on, ya dig? On the agenda the following day was the Art Institute of Chicago. Had to get a little culture on the trip. Plan on spending a few hours there, it’s huge. Room after room of art and sculpture, everything from ancient to modern, Byzantine to Warhol. Dinner, yes everything revolves food, was at Au Cheval, for super hipster burgers. And not just any burger, the best burger in America supposedly. And you don’t just walk in to Au Cheval and sit down. No sir. Want to order to go food? No sir. You gotta wait like the rest of us buddy. So we put our name on the list and were quoted a two hour wait. On a Sunday night. Rather than stand outside, we walked over to Bar Siena for pre-dinner snacks and cocktails. Plus the Bears were playing/losing. Two hours later we get the text to come back in 10 minutes or someone else is going to get our table. Needless to say we made it back quickly. It’s a small, dark space with weird and funky music playing. Hipster heaven. So I ordered the double burger, which is actually three patties. Melty cheese, a toasty bun, and sliced pickles round out the burger. Simple, yet heaven. And probably some of the best mashed potatoes and gravy I have ever had to boot. So what can I say about Chicago? A beautiful and lively city, super friendly people everywhere we went, great service, amazing food and drinks, awesome museums and gorgeous architecture. And Uber everywhere. It was great to catch up with an old friend as well. I don’t think I have laughed so much in a long, long time. Just reminiscing about old stories from college, all the dumb stuff we did, was worth the trip alone. As all three of us were sitting at dinner at Coco Pazzo, someone commented that you know you’re true friends when you can pick right up like nothing has changed, even though it has been years. That really hit home to me, that forming close bonds with people can be the hard part, but once you have them, they last forever. Cheers foodies!

North Hills

Midtown? Nah. Old North Hills Mall. I miss you. Being a native of the City of Oaks, Andy’s Pizza and Scotty’s were an institution in Raleigh. The best pizza ever. What I wouldn’t do to have a simple pepperoni pie right now. Trophy? Doesn’t hold a candle. And how can you forget the famous Scotty dog and the best greasy burgers and fries?  Now all North Hills is high dollar chains, ITB soccer moms in SUV’s that take up two spaces, and a plethora of Starbucks. No thanks. The dining page of the Visit North Hills website says “From high end to fast casual, classic to cutting-edge, North Hills has it all.” Nothing says cutting edge more than Bonefish Grill and The Cowfish. The only reason I go to North Hills is for Target and Sur La Table. And maybe Total Wine. Again, chain city. Lord knows, I’ve spent enough time working and playing in North Hills, I did work at Vivace and Starbucks. Don’t hold it against me. Yeah, hard to picture me as a barista isn’t it? Lots of eye rolling at complicated orders. You want soy and no foam? Nope. That’s why I chose back of the house. Spent many o’ late night at Midtown, and countless Saturdays day drinking at Fox & Hound. Hey, my options were limited back then. We had the ‘ol Hibernian before it ‘burned’ down and the Creekside Ale House. You know, pre-hipster downtown Raleigh. Old North Hills mall was a dump, don’t get me wrong. We used to rush there on our lunch break from Broughton to grab a slice or two and buy cheap sunglasses from The Dollar Tree. Then maybe look at cd’s from Blockbuster Music. Free Jersey Mike’s because we had a friend who worked there also. (Thanks Jessie) Yeah, I had no life as a teenager. Now? North Hills is all shiny, new, and pretentious. Expensive condos and mixed use development. Gone is the Winn-Dixie. Enter a two story Teeter. Give the ITB’ers what they want, Beach Music on Thursday, expensive steaks, and pricey boutiques. Working on a Thursday was a nightmare. Drunktown as it’s finest. I get it though, it’s good for Raleigh. Cameron Village part deux. But it kind of feels a little Charlotte-ish to me though. Forgive me for being sentimental though, old North Hills Mall was part of my childhood. Lots of great memories. It shaped me to be the pessimist I am today. Cheers foodies!

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KO at OT

Bucket list. Finally made it to The Office Tavern with AB and McGuzzles. (You know who you are). And what a sight it was. I definitely felt like I was in Carolina Beach at Loretta’s, or the Surfside Bar as it’s also called. You know it’s going to be a good day when you walk into a dive bar on a Sunday and the entire staff, as well as every bar fly, know the people you are accompanying. Not sure what it says about me. Or the company I keep. Anyway, the OT is priceless. Neon signs. Elvis lamps. Pool tables. Fish tank. Cash only. No liquor. Cheap beer. Friendly bartenders. $2 Bud Light aluminum cans on a Sunday. Half way through the day, and quite a few aluminum cans later, a fight happened to break out in the parking lot. A fist fight fight between two older gentlemen, who were also brothers. And one of them happened to be carrying a crutch. And well, he used that crutch to his advantage. It was like the Jerry Springer show broke out on Glenwood South. We had a front row seat to two rednecks beating each other up with fists and crutches flailing. Highly entertaining. Bloody faces ensued. Good thing I was 5 or 6 deep in the metal cans. Cue the jukebox. Anything to calm the situation. Red Solo Cup? Yes. Alabama? Yes. Drive By Truckers? Totally. Even after all the tomfoolery, it still felt like your neighborhood dive bar, just add the assault. I’ll be back to the OT, with their cheap beer (they have the Champagne for 2 dollaz) and for their scenery. The bartenders were salt of the earth, as well as all the regulars. Definitely welcomed with open arms. Great hardworking people who need a place to relax, blow off some steam, and talk about golf and politics. All within dark confines and comfortable bar stools. Don’t we all need that?

I gave Mash and Lauter (and Busy Bee) a second? third? chance. What a mistake that was. How can you be out of half of your entire menu? No mussels? Check. No charcuterie? Check. No bread plate? Check. The tiniest cheese plate ever? Check. Terrible. It’s not like it was late either. It’s half your menu bro.  Last time we went to Busy Bee we walked out after 10 minutes. Why you ask? Service. Always service. We’re here to spend money. Please pay attention to me. Your loss. Gave you plenty of chances. Enough ranting for one night. On a side note, congrats to Gallo Pelón. Best bar in downtown. Check it out. Britt and Marshall are amazing. Cheers foodies!

 

 

 

 

 

Landmark

I love Landmark. Before there was Ruby Deluxe, Person Street, Circa, insert another hipster bar, we had the original downtown Raleigh hangout. It’s dark and loud with an amazing quaint patio. Lots of good fuzzy memories out there, especially my last night at Poole’s. It has gotten to the point now that I walk in and the bartender has a bottle of Tanqueray in hand. Yikes, maybe I need to go somewhere new? The only question I always get is, it’s soda right? Anyway, the best thing about walking into Landmark, especially if you work in the service industry, is there is a 100% chance that you will know someone. It really goes a long way, especially on the weekends working downtown. When I leave Garland, I have no desire to go to Fayettnam St. or Glenwood South, they are both disaster areas. I want to go somewhere that has a cocktail and dream waiting for me. (Yes I like the movie Cocktail, sue me). So I have three home bars in Raleigh: Player’s Retreat, Landmark, and Paddy O’Beers. But the best thing about all three? The bartenders. People who share your common interests, can relate to you having a shitty night at work, and generally appreciate good food and good alcohol.  I’m not just another face when I walk into the bar, I’m Norm. I’m a friend. So I had a terrible experience at Landmark one night when I walked in stone sober (yes it’s possible) and some guy accused me of stealing his fleece jacket. I had walked into Landmark with that same coat millions of times and was obviously caught off guard. He was like “that’s my coat.” I tried to ignore the persistent drunk asshole. I walked away multiple times, but he was belligerent, as were all his friends. I felt super uncomfortable in otherwise what was a safe place to me. Cops got called eventually, and thankfully that I was a regular, I was defended by the doorman and as well as all the bartenders. As it turned out, the drunk douchebag left his coat on one of the bar stools. What an idiot. If I hadn’t known most of the staff from Landmark it could have been a lot worse. Especially once you add RPD’s finest. So now every time I walk into Landmark I get, “that’s my coat.” Long story short, it’s nice to have a familiar face or two on the other side of the bar, it goes a long way. Tip your bartenders. Cheers foodies!

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Mexi-can’t

I’m always looking for late night food options besides the usual suspects Player’s Retreat, Calavela, Mo Joe’s, etc. So when I found out Virgil’s Original Taqueria was opening and would serve until 2 am seven days I week I got excited. Plus who doesn’t like tacos and Tecate? However, after hearing about some of my fellow service industry friends experiences at Virgil’s I was a little leary and apprehensive; but I figured we would give it a shot anyhow. On Sunday around 10 pm we arrived to a pretty empty restaurant, maybe a handful of other people. We opted to sit at a high-top table rather than the bar. Maybe a mistake. We ordered a couple of cocktails and waited. And waited. And waited. I could see them completed and just glistening on the bar, staring at me, practically calling my name, “please drink me.” I was about to get them myself but eventually the bartender grabbed them, not our server,  and walked around the bar and dropped them off. It’s not like she was busy, there was practically no one in there. Strike one. The “flash fried” tortilla chips, as well as the salsa and guacamole,  are all a la carte on the menu, so if you want all three it’s 10 bucks. No thanks. I’d rather go eat bottomless chips and salsa at El Rodeo. Plus, the same”flash fried” tortilla chips  were just basking under the warmth of the heat lamp the entire time we were there. Plus the guys in the kitchen were ultra-hipster. I’m at a taco place, not The Stanbury ya know? Grinds my gears. So to start we got the Mexican fries, hand-cut and topped with mole, onions, cilantro, sesame seeds, and queso fresco. Well they arrived minus the queso fresco. The bits with the mole were tasty, but without the cheese they were really no bueno. In my best Gordon Ramsay voice, they were dry and bland. Next we opted to sample the tacos, so we decided on the fried avocado, chorizo con papas, and carnitas. Of the three, the fried avocado was the best. Slices of creamy fried avocado with cabbage, cilantro, onions and lime crema were really good. The carnitas were okay, just needed a lot of salt and hot sauce. The chorizo tasted as if it has been charred or burnt.  Oh well. I’ll overlook service sometimes if the food is great, but in this case neither was outstanding. Just middle of the road. For my money, I’d much rather go to Chubby’s Tacos for the relleno, spicy chicken tinga, and the barbacoa. I’ll give Virgil’s another shot because they are open so late,  plus they have Pacifico tall boys; but I’m in no rush to get back. If only Raleigh had better late night food options. Maybe Guy Fieri can open up a dive on Glenwood South. Cheers foodies!

 

Chain-ease

So it was Monday night and all I wanted was decent Chinese food. And by decent I mean no Shanghai Express. That’s reserved for 2 AM when nothing else is open. Plus who doesn’t like egg rolls, fried dumplings and General Tso’s after a few beverages? Not anyone I associate with. As much as Raleigh’s food scene has improved over the years, still no great Chinese food. Peace China? Red Dragon? Ehhh. Not terrible by any means, but not good enough to keep me coming back. David’s Noodle Bar is tasty, but I miss his old place, Mandarin House in Cameron Village. I remember going there as a kid with my dad, eating wonton soup, thinking it was cool to drink hot tea out of those little teapots they would leave on the table so you could pour your own. Plus my dad would always get the special fried rice with the Chinese sausage. He still talks about that fried rice today. So whats’s a guy to do? Visit P.F. Chang’s obviously. Nothing says authentic Chinese food more than a chain at the mall. Plus as many of you have read before I have an affinity for visiting chain restaurants.  See Chain Reaction or I Did Not Eat Olive It. So being inside PF Chang’s you do feel like you are at the mall because it’s big and shiny, full of giant statues of horses and samurai, and a whole lot of gringos. A Chang’s Mai Tai and lettuce wraps seemed like a great way to start the meal. Tiki drinks are all the rage now, so i figured why not. I was actually expecting it to be super sweet because most of the cocktails  I have ordered at chains have been overly sugary and fake tasting. This Mai Tai, not too bad my friends. I think it contained real juice. After eating the lettuce wraps at Bida Manda a hundred times, I have been spoiled in the world of lettuce wraps. There is something about their crispy rice and crunchy peanuts that makes me order is every single time.  The PF Chang’s version although flavorful,  pales in comparison. They used watery iceberg lettuce which I love for my wedge salad, but not for wraps. Shit. Now I want to go to Bida Manda. So for an entree, I got the Dali Chicken, a favorite of mine from the last time was at Chang’s, maybe 10 years ago? Yeah, it’s been a while. Sauteed chicken with potatoes, scallions, and red chiles. As my better half put it, tasted kinda like Chinese buffalo sauce. Spicy and filling, what else could I ask for.  The verdict? A fruity cocktail and some spicy chicken later, I satisfied my craving for Chinese food. Would I have liked to spend my money at a local establishment? Of course, but sometimes a visit to a chain is all you need. It’s like the Saturday morning trip to Bojangle’s or the late night Taco Bell visit. There is something soothing about the sweet tea and seasoned fries, or the crunchy taco with fire sauce. You hate yourself later, but at the time it’s all you need. Until the next chain, cheers foodies!