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I have been to New Orleans umpteen times, each time with a totally different experience.  I suspect here in lies the secret of the town we endearingly call The Big Easy.  New Orleans, means many different things:  the Jazz Festival, Mardi Gras, an anniversary, a fun get away.  This time it was to celebrate my sister’s 40th birthday.  This post should be titled: the Seesters hit the Big Easy — the seesters, all five of us and a seester-in-law, had a fine time.  Once you read this post, you’ll see what we really did.  We really ATE and ate well.  If you want to eat well, New Orleans is an easy flight from Nashville.

Our first stop was a famous place on the north side of Lake Ponchartrain called Middendorfs. Middendorfs is a quintessential American dive and its specialty is fried thin catfish.  We waited about 20 minutes to get in and were then served HUGE platters of thin catfish and mugs of chilled Dixie beer.   OK, I have never had thin catfish, but as I asked about the process of “thinning it” I found out that long knife toting elves in the kitchen literally cut paper-thin slices from HUGE catfish.  The end result is deeeelicious.  This is worth the 20 miles out of your way drive.

Jacques-Imos Cafe is located in uptown NO and (again) looks like a dump from the outside (notice a theme?).  Once inside, it was a rockin’ find as plates of crayfish etouffee and gumbo raced by accompanied by exotic drinks for all.  We were escorted next door to another dump-like building and feasted on maux choux ( a Cajun version of succotash with zip), and a fried eggplant shell filled with seafood delights in a lemon cream sauce (calories don’t count on vacation).  Yum.  The owner of this popular joint,  Jacques Leonardi, is a character.  If you want your own private dining experience, the car in front of the restaurant is available.  I’m serious – check it out below.  I give Jacques-Imos a sincere thumbs up.

your own private dining car at Jacques-Imos

By Saturday lunch, my jeans were tight and the idea of yet another fried anything made me queasy.  So with complete reluctance,  I headed into another dive called Domilises. This hole in the wall has about 10 tables with an exposed kitchen and the fryers going full-tilt-boogie.  Huge loaves of the famous Leidenheimer French bread were housed in baskets on the floor!  Not sure how that passes health code…   After ordering my morning coffee and a cold Dixie beer – placed together before me – I sank my teeth into the BEST and most INCREDIBLE shrimp po’ boy I have ever had.  Another crowd favorite of Domilises is their thin roast beef sandwich with gravy.  I think it was inspired by the Rex himself.

Cafe’ Du Monde.  Everybody goes to Cafe’ Du Monde while in New Orleans.   But navigating Cafe Du Monde on a busy weekend morning takes some skills.   So, here’s my skills lesson: what you do is walk around back and wave a $5 bill at the cute man in the white hat.  He will hurry up, take your order and in less than 5 minutes, hand you a bag of piping hot beignets and cup of  ‘jo.  There are any number of places to sit and savor the delicacies of Cafe’ Du Monde.

The best pralines in New Orleans can be found at Southern Candy Makers.  Owned by the Tomkins Family, it was voted the best in the US by Bon Appetit magazine.  You can order online at www. southerncandymakers.com.

Herbsaint. How could I go to New Orleans without the sage advice of foodie, Julia Reed, creative director of Taigan and enthusiastic resident of the city?  Julia immediately emailed me her list of fave restaurants.  Herbsaint topped the list.  If it is good enough for Laura Bush (yes, Julia hosted Laura) then,  it is good enough for me.

Chef Donald Link of Herbsaint

We ordered every appetizer imaginable and then our entrees.  Plates of duck confit, dark roux gumbo, and mussels in broth arrived and yes, the food was divine.  Dropping Julia’s name (hey, I wanted  a good table and waiter) gets you primo treatment. You can read more about Julia in the StyleBlueprint interview. My sister Annie rangled the Coconut Cream Pie recipe from Herbsaint.   It’s to die for!   Herbsaint won the 2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef.

In the next couple of weeks, I will write part II:  Where to shop, where to stay and where to play.

To sister Sarah, Happy 40th!  Bon Appetit and de Reve’ la Vie.

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