Growing up in New Orleans, Mardi Gras festivities were just a way of life. It wasn’t until I ventured out of the Crescent City that I realized the whole world doesn’t take off from work, dress in funny outfits or treasure coconuts and strings of beads. It was a rude awakening and a real loss of innocence, but I learned quickly that New Orleanians are a special breed.
Since reaching cocktail-age, my Mardi Gras day would always begin with a Bloody Mary in hand, and starting Uptown, I’d make my way to the Garden District to find out where the Buzzards (a local Mardi Gras marching club) were lining up at 5am to parade their marching band. I might run into another group, the Half Fast Walking Club, with legendary founder Pete Fountain playing the clarinet as he led the march to Parasol’s, a famous bar and local corner spot in the Irish Channel neighborhood, for a Roast Beef Po-Boy and cold one, preferably Abita Amber. It’s conveniently right off the parade route where there’s constant celebration, and near where the first parade sets out: Zulu, one of the oldest organizations that marches on Mardi Gras, is an all black group that throws the most coveted and treasured of all Mardi Gras items off its floats – the Zulu coconut. You may have heard folks on the streets of St. Claude and Dumaine chanting the song, “Down in New Orleans where the Blues were born…” belting out “Mardi Gras Mambo!” That’s Zulu. Right after, rolls the king of all parades: Rex. That’s where you’ll find the King of Carnival, a man representing high society and honored for his philanthropic contributions to the city, rolling regally along with his court. You want to be front-and-center with your dancing shoes on to catch the best music belted out by a parade that rides behind the King’s float, the St. Augustine Marching Band. When the morning gets started that early and there’s been no breakfast, find comfort food in funky digs at Slim Goodies Diner – but remember, it’s cash-only.
If you want to get off the parade route in-and-around the Garden District, head towards the river and stop in at Mahoney’s for a “Peacemaker,” a Po-Boy that’s half-shrimp, half-oyster, and make sure you ask for it “dressed” – meaning with lettuce, tomato, pickles, hot sauce, ‘mynez’, ketchup and hot sauce. A new addition on the side, instead of Zapp’s potato chips, is thinly sliced fried onion rings. You’ll want not one but two baskets, trust me. And if Mahoney’s is packed, you can head to Guy’s Po-Boys for the Fried Catfish. When you need to get a beer on the run, two classic Uptown neighborhood dives are Henry’s Uptown Bar and Le Bon Temps Rouler.
If you want to get off the parade route in-and-around the Garden District, head towards the river and stop in at Mahoney’s for a “Peacemaker,” a Po-Boy that’s half-shrimp, half-oyster, and make sure you ask for it “dressed” – meaning with lettuce, tomato, pickles, hot sauce, ‘mynez’, ketchup and hot sauce.
Then back to “da Avenue,” as we say, that’s St. Charles Avenue, where the streetcar rolls, and where my go-to parade-route fare and ritual stop with all my friends is Popeye’s for Fried Chicken and Mashed Potatoes and Gravy. This could be breakfast, lunch or dinner: it’s open all day! Remember, this is the only city where you can drink from open containers on public streets, which comes in handy on this day, when you might trade your chicken thigh for a beer from one of the revelers who line up along the streetcar tracks, among row after row of ladders and tents staked out for spectators of every parade throughout the day. If you’re not into staying in place, St. Charles has a plethora of bars where you can grab a cocktail or a beer. Fat Harry’s was the place we never got carded, and where I have fond memories of hanging with the college kids playing pool or video games. Then, a name after my own heart is Bayou Bar, the classic spot in the Pontchartrain Hotel. Two more cool underground secrets deserving some attention are just steps off the Avenue: Crêpes a la Cart, on the uptown side of Louisiana Street, is a food truck serving up sweet and savory crêpes. And my wife experienced this speak-easy style supper group called Mosquito Club, which’ll be doing a pop-up at the butcher shop Cleaver & Co., offering breakfast, lunch and Cajun classics. These gals sound like they’re from the bayou, and you’ll be getting that whole authentic experience in a bowl!
Make your way Downtown or to the Quarter, and you’ll have some more crafty-style options to check out, like Tivoli & Lee, the whiskey-centric bar at Lee Circle where over the past year or so I’ve met my cousin many a time. And I’d be remiss to not mention Bellocq in the Warehouse District, where the proprietors of the great Uptown bar, Cure, really know what to mix and how to stir when it comes to spirits. Then you have my buddy, chef Donald Link, whose Cochon Butchery serves the best meats in the city on great breads. Being on foot, it’s nice to have the option of food trucks. Diva Dawg may not scream “Ignatius Reilly” from Confederacy of Dunces, but it does taste pretty damn good.
I try to skip the French Quarter unless I can get there early on for a proper Sazerac or that customary Mardi Gras drink, the Milk Punch, whose healthy dose of milk will soak up the alcohol to come. The only place for this is the newly renovated Brennan’s, on Royal Street, where you’re in the heart of the Quarter, not on boob-watching Bourbon Street. For a different taste of debauchery, head to the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Anne for the annual Bourbon Street Awards, where drag queens strut in elaborate costumes they’ve worked on all year. When I lived in the far end of the Quarter, my place was right around the corner from Port-of-Call, where the bartenders are mean and the Monsoons are high-octane. The saving grace there is the cheeseburger, which is still, to this day, the best burger I have ever had, anywhere.
Another great spectacle for early risers are the Mardi Gras Indians. With their origins in the 19th century, the Mardi Gras Indians make intricate beaded costumes to evoke the styles of the Native American ceremonial wear. If time permits, head over to Backstreet Culture and Heritage Museum to get the skinny on their history. This is a rare opportunity, as they only parade twice a year and this is one of those times. Also, if you can, find the Skeleton and Bone Krewes. Dressed in skeleton garb, they wander the streets banging garbage cans and drums to scare away evil spirits and sound the last-minute call to eat up and drink up before the austerity of Lent. Lest there be any doubt, your last bite should be the customary confection of the season, The King Cake, with its purple, green and gold icing and the plastic baby trinket inside. I had contests with my childhood swim team to see who could eat the cake the fastest and find the baby first.
To those of us from New Orleans, it’s the simple things like a Mardi Gras parade or a King Cake from McKenzie’s that really make life so special, and that we love to share with those of y’all taking an interest in our local customs. The greatest thing, for me, is that we can bring the tradition back to Washington, DC. I’m gearing up now for our annual Bayou Gras Block Party at Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery on Capitol Hill. We’ll be cooking up all the Mardi Gras favorites: muff-a-lottas, gumbo, and, of course, our BB King Cakes! Come on now! Bring your friends, your family, and your Mardi Gras spirit.
Happy Fat Tuesday everyone!
Chef/Owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery of Washington, DC and Arlington, Virginia