Vacation ’12, part 2A: New Orleans.

The second big trip of this year’s summer break was to New Orleans, courtesy of a grant from the feds. Said grant covered a chartered bus there and back, three nights on the fourteenth floor of a Hilton, three free dinners, an envelope full of cash to pay for breakfasts and lunches, and a bunch of tours of historical sites.

First, the food: it was disappointing. It wasn’t bad, but it was nothing spectacular. The night we arrived, we were on our own for dinner. We went to some seafood place near the restaurant, and for my first taste of genuine New Orleanian food, I ordered what I expected to be a far, far better bowl of jambalaya than I have ever eaten.

Expecting authentic jambalaya to be pretty spicy, I ordered it mild. But the waiter said the mild was really plain, so I went with medium and kept my fingers crossed. The food came… and it barely qualified as spicy. Their medium was what I’d expected their mild to be. It worked out for me, because I could eat it, but it wasn’t any better or worse than jambalaya I’ve eaten anywhere else.

In fairness to this particular seafood place, I wasn’t expecting weapons-grade jambalaya. But I expected a taste that you just plain can’t get anywhere other than New Orleans. Kinda like a deep dish pizza tastes better-and-different in Chicago than it does anywhere else. Same for thin-crust pizza in New York, or seafood in the Chesapeake, or sweet tea in the Old South, and so on. But here I sat in a French Quarter restaurant eating something I could just as easily have eaten in Jacksonville. It was underwhelming.

That was the first night. Dinner every other night was covered by the grant. The best of those freebies was a buffet on a steamboat: some fried fish, grilled chicken, pork and beef briskets, penne regate in a decent sauce… good stuff. Nothing that screamed “local,” but it was good enough.

The other freebie meals sucked. The tour guide picked a pair of restaurants that subscribe to the theory that drowning meat in sauce or armoring meat in inch-think deep-fried batter counts as “making it taste reeeeal good-like.” I figured it was still food, and it was still free, so I ate it, but most of the rest of the crew just drowned their disappointment in booze. It’s possible that the entrées were mediocre and the service sub-par because we were paying the large group rate and getting the limited menu, in which case we might’ve been better off canceling the group dinners and having a slightly larger per diem.

Maybe it was just a bad choice of restaurants. “They” say we just went to the wrong places for dinner. Could be; I’m told Emeril’s got a few restaurants there, and I’m told Emeril’s a chef or something. But there was a big, bright side to the culinary experience: the sandwiches.

At lunch every day, I ordered a sandwich, and those things were huge. The first time I opened a lunch menu and saw a $10 sandwich listed, I thought it was because the area was touristy and it was a big city. Nope. It’s because the sandwiches were as big as the damn plates. They were big enough to take leftovers back to the hotel room. They were big enough to split a single sandwich between two people, both of whom would have leftovers. I had a couple Italian club sandwiches and a roast beef. The muffulettas looked good though I didn’t have any, and a soda shop offered a $4 peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which was intriguing. However, I’m pretty certain that unless the grapes were flown in from Italy and the peanuts were grown by George Washington Carver himself, it wasn’t worth four bucks.

I’ll have to go back one day, and find some better places to eat. For now, the kindest thing I can say about culinary New Orleans is: you can probably get the same sandwiches elsewhere, but you probably can’t get that much good sandwich for your dollar elsewhere.