Monday, February 22, 2016

Cajun Taco, Or, A Quick Weekend

A friend who's had a hard year deserved a birthday present, and I had a need to go back to Louisiana and finish the food-buying trip I started in October on my way back from the Ponderosa Stomp. So on Friday morning I picked up a car from Hertz and we blasted off for Lafayette. I expected some great Cajun food -- and I wasn't disappointed -- and what I emphatically did not expect was great Mexican food. But I got some.

I always have trouble with lunch when driving to or from Louisiana, and have never had a decent solution to it. Once, I stopped at Al T's in Winnie, which advertises itself as a Cajun restaurant but is instead a mediocre something kind of restaurant, an insult to Cajuns. Other times I've stopped in Houston at non-memorable joints, or just taken along a bag of nuts and stopped for a soft drink to wash them down.

And every time I've done this, just as Houston is fading in the rear-view mirror, I've seen this little clutch of Mexican seafood restaurants and thought "One day..." Well, one day came on Friday. We both decided this was the time I try one of them, and drove down I-10 until the next exit. Then we backtracked a couple of miles and pulled into the incredibly crowded parking lot of Ostioneria Arandas Seafood. The name was familiar, but the food sure was different from what the taquerias of the same name offer in Austin. There was only one choice for me as soon as I saw the menu: Cocktél Vuelva a la Vida. Many years ago, I briefly lived in Santa Monica, California, and frequently ate at a place called Lucy's Mariscos, on the second story of a building at a crossroads featuring a used tire place, a barbequed goat place (which for some reason I never tried) and a vacant lot. I always got the calamares rellenos, squid stuffed with rice and green peas, toothpicked back together, and smothered in a wonderful ranchero sauce. I've been searching for them ever since, as I've been searching for Vuelva a la Vida, which is a shrimp, oyster, squid, and octopus cocktail, the seafood swimming in a spicy tomato-based sauce, well-cilantroed, with bits of avocado mixed in, which I invariably ordered as an appetizer. Arandas' version of this was sweeter than Lucy's, with less avocado and cilantro, but all of the seafood was perfection, including the squid and octopus, which were perfectly prepared. My friend got one of the daily lunch specials, fried shrimp and stuffed crab, which came with one of the weird things this place offers: fried rice. Yup, like in a Chinese restaurant, with shrimp and mung bean sprouts. (There is also eggroll on the menu). I snagged a takeout menu on the way out, and noticed that this Arandas was indeed the same as the Taqueria Arandas joints in Austin, and there was a phone number on the back to get information on franchising. I think if Arandas opened an Ostioneria in Austin they'd be mobbed, and we'd finally have a first-rate Mexican seafood joint. We already have El Catedral de Mariscos next to a La Quinta on I-35 around Oltorf, but it's mainly fried stuff, and not very good at all. Okay, that's my free get-rich tip for today.

* * *

Louisiana was as wonderful as ever. First night's meal was gumbo and crawfish etouffée for me at Prejean's, and some kind of catfish with hollandaise and crab for her. Prejean's is an institution on I-45 just outside of Lafayette, although I'm sorry I never tried their main competition, Prudhomme's, run by Paul Prudhomme's sister, who died a couple of years ago and was acclaimed as a far better cook than her brother. 

The next day, we headed straight for LeJeune's Sausage Kitchen in Eunice, because last time I was there I hadn't bought enough tasso, and the small piece I had bought went bad in the refrigerator. They're closed on Saturday and Sunday, but I begged Mrs. LeJeune -- no, I'm lying: she told me that if I could get there by 10, she'd open up for me. And she did, saying "You should have bought a box," which I did. I promise, therefore, to show up on a weekday when I run out, which I will, because there is no better sausage anywhere in Acadiana, as far as I've been able to discern. 

We drifted into Eunice and looked around, checked out the Prairie Cajun museum (one of the six Jean Lafitte historical sites run by the National Parks Service) just behind the Liberty Theater, got a very good coffee at a small coffee shop, and then drove up to Mamou, where I took a sort of wrong turn -- the idea had been to go back to 190 and head east -- and saw that we'd stumbled on TBoy's, allegedly the home of the world's best boudin. Well, no longer allegedly: although my diabetes is the sort that goes nuts if I'm in the same room with a cooked grain of rice, I said to hell with it and bought a boudin ball, which is, to one way of thinking, a stupid idea when you could have a link, and, to my way of thinking, the only way I could check out TBoy's brag without causing a problem. Now that Johnson's Grocery in Eunice is extinct, this has to be the state of the art, and no MSG that I could detect -- and I detect it real good, I'm afraid, as I discovered when falling for the hype of the various places around Scott that people had recommended. 

We drove around trying to get back to 190, but with a whole afternoon to do it in and a glorious afternoon at that, getting lost in the back roads of the prairies, cruising past the flooded rice fields with the crawfish traps out, seeing beautiful old houses and the clouds floating above the fields, was hardly a hardship. And yes, we found 190, since we'd come almost to Opelousas, so I turned west and soon came upon a photo op I hadn't responded to last time. This place was apparently last known as the Southern Club, and that may have always been its name, but it's in poor shape and the last remaining big dance-hall around these parts that I know of. 

A real fixer-upper

But apparently they get their mail elsewhere

Further down the road Marc Savoy is still doing business (although a guy who wandered into the Jean Lafitte place was complaining that his hand-made accordions are now selling for $2300 -- and there's a waiting list -- which didn't seem too onerous to me), but he'd had his Saturday morning jam session and the place was locked up. There was a sign in typical grumpy Marc fashion saying that the jam session was for older musicians and youngsters were not welcome to jam, his way of saying that it was for traditional Cajun music only, and which, like a lot of what Marc says, could have been phrased in a, shall we say, kinder fashion. I'm not chastizing him, though, not for a second. He's been a bulwark while a culture rebuilt itself after the anti-French movement in the 1950s, and he's entitled. 

When we got to the outskirts of Eunice, I U-turned and we headed back towards Opelousas, as I searched for the location of the now-vanished Richard's Club near Lawtell, and in the process didn't stop to figure out a building which had a sign saying it was the Zydeco Hall of Fame, although I think it's probably a performance venue rather than a museum. Another one for next time. We did not stop in Opelousas for a fried chicken salad at the Palace, but headed straight for a hidden gem back towards Lafayette, Grand Couteau. I love this lost-in-time village, whose main street now has a bunch of tourist-oriented businesses, but running parallel to it is a short street lined with houses that mostly date to the 1840s, traditional architecture and Spanish moss-chinked walls intact (except for the one at the end of the street, which has an 1840 plaque on it and needs rescue tout de suite). We tried to top the afternoon off with a visit to Vermilionville, a collection of traditional Cajun structures from all over Acadiana, but it closes at 4, and as usual Google Maps was no help whatever, getting us there late, so we sat by the side of Vermilion Bayou and watched the costumed tour guides leave. 

Dinner that night was, of course, boiled crawfish at Hawk's, especially since my friend said she didn't see what was so great about boiled crawfish. Really? Oh, come with me, cher... My radar has really been good lately, and although I'd copied down instructions from their website, none of the route numbers matched. I did have their phone number, though, so I knew we could call if we got lost. But no, there were the hard-to-see signs directing us to the middle of nowhere (a more apt description for where the place is than "sorta near Rayne, but not really") and just as we pulled up, a departing gentleman offered us his parking spot. A short wait later, another Texan knew what was so great about boiled crawfish. That wasn't hard. 

* * *

We had to get back to Texas, though, so I pulled the car out of the parking lot and pointed us down I-10. And wouldn't you know it, just as we were both thinking it was time to get lunch, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Houston and saw the Bank of America building that was the signal to turn off for Arandas. However, we both agreed that finding one of the other seafood restaurants might be fun, so we drove past Arandas and pulled up at Tepatitlán, which also said they offered seafood. It was a much smaller offering, though, and the campechana, their version of Vuelva a la Vida, only featured shrimp and oysters, so we settled on the dish after which the restaurant is named, a plate of beef and chicken fajitas and three shrimp, also grilled. This was the right decision: I've rarely had beef fajitas that well prepared, the chicken was also fine, and only the shrimp -- which, let's face it, don't hold up well to this treatment -- was so-so. We'd accidentally asked for corn tortillas (flour are more traditional), and that was another discovery: thick, meaty, flavorful tortillas made in-house, some of the best I'd ever had. And two people splitting the order for one was perfect for lunch.  This strip in Houston is a very happy discovery. I'll gladly stop there next time. 

Ostioneria Arandas Seafoods, 10601 I-10 East Freeway, Houston, tel (713) 673-5522. 

Tepatitlán, 10337 I-10 East Freeway, Houston, tel (713) 676-0758. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Go East, Part Three and Last

Obviously, with being under the weather much of my first week here and in Boston for part of the second, I had to make up for some lost time if I was going to be a good tourist. So after ascertaining on Sunday that the streets were going to clear up some, I figured I was smart enough not to try for any museums on Monday and so instead wandered around Brooklyn some more. This time I headed for DUMBO, which seemed to be down the hill, and looked around. There was another view of the Statue of Liberty, another hunk of downtown Manhattan, and a couple of old buildings I found myself wondering about.

Now an ice-cream shop, which used to be what?
I walked the streets, noticing the rampaging gentrification and idly musing about how the vibe reminded me of SoHo in the late '80s. There was St. Anne's Warehouse, which is now a theater, and I vaguely recall a Lou Reed connection, like that was where he put on one of his latter-day multimedia pieces. There was the looming hulk of the Manhattan Bridge, not nearly as charming as its neighbor, Roebling's more famous bridge.

Brooklyn offers a yellow YO in the distance
There were some pizzerias, a very popular restaurant whose motto was "You don't cook; we do," which I didn't go in, and a big used bookstore. A lot of it, to be honest, was too industrial to be interesting, and the snow hadn't been cleared as much as it had been up the hilll, so it was a kind of a slog. Old-timey and new seemed at a precarious standoff.

Looming at one frontier of the neighborhood was the Eagle Warehouse building, which I couldn't get a decent shot of because of the sun. It's a lovely building, and the plaque on it says it was erected by a famous architect on the site of the Brooklyn Eagle, the newspaper Walt Whitman edited, after it had gone out of business. (Walt's also got a plaque on the building). No longer a warehouse, it's now apartments.

A dragon, not an eagle. See? You can't trust the media!
And across the street is a nice old bank, one of the first cast iron buildings in Brooklyn, which is now a pizzeria.

But the one thing it was, was wet and cold, so I mounted the hill -- turns out I'd taken a way long way around -- and contented myself with having made the discovery. There's every indication that this part of town would be far more charming in the summertime. 

The next day I set off for the Brooklyn Museum to see the Coney Island show. I didn't dawdle around the house, I didn't waste half the afternoon reading the Web, I found the direct subway line to the museum, got on the train, got off at the right stop, mounted the stairs and there was the museum in front of me. My adventures with unknown public transportation generally aren't so successful, and I felt good that I didn't have to turn around, switch trains, or anything. I did, however, have to return, because the Brooklyn Museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday. So I wasted the other half of the afternoon reading the Web. 

Determined, however, to make something of the day, I decided to take myself out to dinner. I'd passed a very interesting-looking joint called Henry's End on my way back from DUMBO. It appeared to be kind of old-school (no fancy stuff, some classic dishes) and kind of new-school (well-chosen ingredients, interesting preparations). I wound up going there three times, and having great meals each time. The first night I had the duckling with wild mushrooms, which was phenomenal (and plentiful), the second, a special of a kind of breaded chicken breast roulade stuffed with mushrooms and blue cheese napped with a beige sauce that might well have had cognac in it, and the third time their take on veal piccata. The first night there was almost nobody there, except for a lively table of four, one of whom looked very familiar -- is Marshall Brickman still alive? The second time was on Friday, and the place was packed. I got into a conversation with the couple at the next table, both of whom were Brooklyn natives, and I said that I'd been wandering the area and liked a lot of what I'd seen and that I might be interested in moving there, whereupon the woman, in classic New York style, said "I'm glad to hear that," and produced a card, saying "I happen to be a real estate broker!" Okay, Emily, you'll be my first call. And my last meal there was my last dinner in town, and I couldn't think of anywhere else I'd rather go. As befits a high-end neighborhood, it's a neighborhood joint, but kind of high-end, and has been there since 1973. If you must spread the word, use some discretion who you spread it to. 

The next day, I had a meeting with my agent to get a sense of what will happen when on the road to Nov. 1, publication day for my book. I was determined to get some authentic New York pizza into me, but he had to stay on Manhattan because he had appointments later, and almost apologetically he chose Lombardi's, in SoHo, which claims to have been serving pizza since 1905. If that's true, then they may well be America's oldest surviving pizzeria. Whether they're the first American pizzeria is an argument I don't really want to get into, but my reference book says that both Totonno's in Coney Island and John's on Bleecker Street were started by former Lombardi's employees. I can state from empiric evidence, though, that they know how to make a pie. 

After we had our talk and parted ways, I decided that it was warm enough to walk to the new Whitney Museum to see what the foofaraw about the Frank Stella show was about. Next to the Picasso sculpture show at MOMA, this was the big show in town, and I guess the weather had scared off the tourists, because there was no problem getting in. The Whitney still has some of those iconic works from the '20s on that they're famous for, but I have a real problem with the highly-interpretive labels, which are annoying. If you read anything but the name and title of the work, you're forced into someone's idea of what's going on. I'd like some bare-bones stuff: who the artist is, the circumstances in which the art was made, stuff like that. I'll make up my mind what's happening. There may have been more of this in the Stella show, but the big statements from him that are in each of the rooms are jut so down-to-earth and sensible that you have to just laugh at the art historians tying themselves in knots. There's a short dialog in which an interviewer asks Stella if those pieces that escape the wall are paintings. He says of course they are. A sculpture is just a painting that came off the wall and stands there.  I found myself taking no notes as I walked around, lost in wonder at this guy's ability to reinvent himself and plunge into whatever new idea takes his fancy: he's 80 this year, and is currently working with CAD software and 3-D printing, which, after you've taken in all the stuff here, is no surprise whatever. 

I took a much better picture, but somehow it's lost. This doesn't really get the scale as much, sorry.
Stella's remarkable Moby-Dick series, his work with all manner of materials and colors, his progression from a kid in his 20s making rigorously thought-out black paintings to things that leap off the wall, from geometry to seeming anarchy, it's all here. I compared the show to being on drugs: you don't really know what to say while it's happening, and it stays with you for a long time. Unfortunately, it's not staying at the Whitney much longer, and closes on Feb. 7. If you're in the vicinity, it's well worth your time. (EDIT: Hey, Texans just got lucky! This show moves to the Ft. Worth Contemporary Art Museum from April 17 to Sept. 18. I'll go see it again, that's for sure!)

The next day I went to a museum pretty much around the corner from where I was staying, the New York City Transit Museum. I had two goals in mind: one, to see the museum, of course, and two, to see if I could get one of those dime-sized tokens with the Y cut out of the middle that my dad used to bring home and toss into his change drawer. They fascinated me as a kid, although of course now it's all done with a magnetic strip on a Metro Card. The museum is in a closed-off part of the Court Street station, into which representative subway cars from all eras of the city's history, starting in 1905, are parked. It's got all the old turnstiles, all the old ads, a long section on the building of the lines (several sandhogs digging the tunnels under the river were involved in blowouts that shot them into the air -- and many of them lived) emphasizing that it was a job that'd take anyone, so that blacks and recent Irish and Italian immigrants could get jobs. You do, however, have to be a serious nerd to linger over the old rolling stock, but I saw what I came for and hit the gift shop, where I found that there were no loose tokens, but stuff made out of them, so I bought a key holder whose padlock-shaped base has one of those little tokens embedded in it. I wasn't pleased that the stock description next to the bar code said "key holder w/antique token." Antique my ass!

It was nice enough to keep wandering, so I told myself I'd head to Caputo's, the Italian place that makes its own mozzarella, to see if they had salt-cured anchovies. It was a long walk, especially after the museum, but I got there and found that a can of the same anchovies I have here would cost the same as ordering them from Amazon, which I'd rather not do. Also, with my radically decreased consumption of pasta and pizza at home, I'm not going through them as fast as I used to. I passed and started wandering again. I needed some lunch, but what? I saw a place that called itself a "Jersey pork butcher," that offered Italian delicatessen, and walked in. It was a place a friend of mine has mentioned often, notable by its ridiculous names for sandwiches. I forget what they called an eggplant parmagian sandwich, but that was just what I wanted. It was still hot when I got to the apartment, too! 

The next couple of days involved some business stuff, some maintenance (I had to do my laundry), and planning the last few days in Brooklyn. Along the way, I found a nice unpretentious sort of northern Italian joint, Rucola, which was an invigoratingly long way from the apartment, meaning I was burning up those carbohydrates as I walked to and from there. Dean Street has some very old wooden houses on it, although the restaurant's in a brownstone. The roast chicken turned out to be a masterpiece, and I recommend it. 

On Saturday, I wanted to get a pair of shoes, specific shoes I'd seen advertised and thought might be something I could wear in more formal situations, since my shoemaker of choice seems to be Nike, not always the right choice. My New York radar seemed to be working great: I found the shoes and started walking until I hit Union Square, where it occurred to me to call my friend Mike, with whom I'd gone on a wander in Brooklyn the week before. He had just sat down with his girlfriend to have lunch at the White Horse Tavern, so I just started walking. That's not a section of town I'm familiar with from childhood, but somehow I managed to walk straight there passing a couple of things I'd never seen before, including a house with a plaque honoring Charles Ives, who'd lived there, and a tiny triangular plot of land with some very old gravestones in it, which turned out to belong to an ancient Portugese synagogue. Amazing. At the White Horse, the three of us sat around talking and when they were finished with lunch, we set out walking downtown on Hudson Street, which soon turned into terra incognita for me. We walked and walked, with Mike expatiating on some of the history we were passing, which was increasingly being hemmed in by these huge buildings that I'd seen from Brooklyn, new buildings I had no names for. There was also a condo in TriBeCa which I'd seen ads for, one of those buildings being built for the oligarchs and .01 percenters. It looked like a stack of glass blocks poised to fall over, easily one of the ugliest buildings on an increasingly uglifying island. Eventually we reached Battery Park, although it was too dark to see anything there, and thoughts turned to where I could have dinner. In that general vicinity -- Mike works down there, so he knew the area well -- there are a couple of protected blocks of very old houses, including Fraunces Tavern, where Washington bid farewell to his troops after the Revolution, and, much later, some Puerto Rican nationalists blew the hell out of one of the rooms. The place turned out to be huge inside. The museum was closed, but the various bars -- there's a beer-specialist room, a virtual museum of whiskey, and several dining rooms -- were open. We had a beer -- mine was a stout, actually -- while making up our minds what to do next, and it turned out that the whole bar/restaurant thing had gone broke and been rescued by a craft brewer from Ireland called Porter House, whose stout I was drinking (there was an oyster stout on the menu, but it wasn't in yet). Eventually a live band started playing and drove us out into the street, where we wandered looking for a restaurant without any luck. We wound up in the Fraunces again, and all had a beef pot pie that was very nice, although maybe a bit heavy on the thyme. But it was value for money, and not what you expect from a place that has definite tourist-trap vibes around it. I'd go there again. We wandered a little more and I saw the U.S. Stock Exchange, heavily armored now against bombs, and the Federal Building with its huge statue of Washington, since it's where he took the oath of President. 

My last destination on this trip was that Coney Island show at the Brooklyn Museum, and I'd left it until Sunday, a day when it might have been mobbed. I'd never been to this museum before, and I have to say it impressed me. They're changing a lot of stuff around, and a lot of it is closed, but I got to see a very good show of stuff from their African collection, which is very impressive, a collection of feminist art, the centerpiece of which is Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, and a collection of historic interiors which includes two early Brooklyn houses in their entirety. But the Coney Island show blew my mind. 

The smiling face of the Steeplechase

According to the wall caption, Coney Island's heyday was the first half of the 20th Century, and some of the graphics support that. I would wager that today's children would be more scared than enticed by the Steeplechase's grinning trademark, and a number of film excerpts, too, show it when it was a place to meet girls (the theme of several films) and engage in a day of innocent fun. There was also the boardwalk and beach, for perhaps less innocent fun, although Weegee's famous picture of the beach crowd during a heatwave (he got on a tall ladder and had them all face his way) shows that privacy might have been a bit hard to achieve on some days. And there was a kind of desperation to the fun, which I think comes out in the numerous Reginald Marsh paintings of the place, and is very explicit in Henry Koerner's scary oils. (Red Grooms, who I hear is Bob Dylan's favorite painter, has a couple of pieces in this show, too, including a multilayered reconstruction of Weegee's photo on glass). The show digs into the sociology and the response by fine art and fine art photography to this massive collection of rides, fortune tellers, taffy-sellers, and dance pavilions. This, for instance, is from the teens:

Iconic Islanders
I didn't know that Mae West grew up in Coney Island, where her father was a prizefighter, nor that Jimmy Durante started as a piano-player in a cabaret that offered drag shows to a racially-integrated audience. But horror and fun mixed closer together than they'd dare do in this time of trigger warnings and helicopter parents. This was another icon:

Hello, boys and girls!
The fact that age has had its way with this demon just adds to the icky affect of its cyclopean gaze. 

And then, around the end, where the amusement park was in stark decay and only minority kids were hanging around the ruins (and, some of them, making art), came a wonderful surprise: an installation about Coney Island by a remarkable graffiti artist who briefly worked in my neighborhood in Berlin, and whose new pieces always gave me a thrill when I'd encounter one: Swoon. 

Swoony, baby!

It's kind of hard to depict this, since it's her usual paper work, some of it X-acto cut, some charcoaled, all of it in 3-D and standing up. It binds the past and present of Coney Island together, and is a great end for the show. You've got a little more time with this one: it closes March 13. Go.

Which is what I had to do next: go. Monday saw me cleaning up the apartment, packing, running into the city to celebrate, a couple of weeks late, National Hot Pastrami Sandwich Day at Ben's, a new place to me (it started on Long Island, apparently), with a friend who works at the New York Times.

I had been gone three weeks, and really needed to get back to Texas. I mentioned in an e-mail to my agent that I had to go home but on some level didn't want to and he replied that I wanted to go home but was wishing that home were somewhere else. And he nailed it: very probably, moving back to Austin was the only thing I could have done in October 2013, given my circumstances. While I'm not even sure that moving back to the U.S. was a smart thing to do, I'm very sure that Austin, while it'll do for now, isn't the place for me any more. Walking the streets of Brooklyn was somehow soothing: my family has a long history in the Northeast, and that's where, eventually, I should probably be. It won't be now -- I hope there's a second volume of the book in the future -- but I suspect it'll happen. Brooklyn, the Hudson Valley, maybe even somewhere in New England or (perish the thought) New Jersey. But this trip shook me, and in a good way. I have a lot to do in the coming months, but now I have this to think about.

To be continued in the months to come.
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