Our time in Tampa whizzed by too quickly. The sun graces us with heat and a squinting smile every day and we returned the favor with exposed limbs and excessive lounging at the pool. I had not a single remarkable meal in that fair city, but left with sweaty memories of an evening spent spiraling down the rabbit-hole that is Ybor City.
Ybor is the old Cuban part of town, if you’re unfamiliar, take a stroll. It’s charming, filled with shops, and a bit touristy. On a day-trip to find a woven straw hat (success!) a castmate and I noted all the clubs lined up along the strip. We vowed to come back after a show, we needed to dance.
Our adventure began at a cat-themed, thumping, industrial club, whose clientele were mostly under 21 and dressed like tramps. We wore wrist bands demarcating our age, flashing them like neon scars to scare off the jittery youth.
We left that silly club within the hour and fled a few blocks north to a partially hidden stone building called Castle. What awaited us within we could never have guessed. Larry and I approached the door, paid our paltry $5 entrance fee (NYC, take heed), then ascended paisley patterned stairs surrounded by chess-board wall paper. When we crested the staircase, we stood at the mouth of a glowing dance floor, lit partially by three overhead screens looping a sepia-toned silent horror film.
The dance floor was filled with grown-up versions of high school archetypes: The greasy haired boys in wide-legged jeans, the pale girls in corsetry, costumes and makeup; alter-egos flaring. Castle is a goth-club, and if you ever pass through Tampa you’d be a fool to skip it. The night was as baffling as it was exhilarating, the DJ spinning Korn, John Maus, Depeche Mode and The Cure.
Tampa, thank you for the dance.
New Orleans, you’re a wicked mistress.
I was nervous about my week in New Orleans. Before I arrived I had amassed a list of restaurant suggestions so lengthy I’d need a month to accomplish such eating. Nevermind, I set my eyes on the map and planned out my 7-day descent into gluttony. Upon landing I was immediately whisked away from my hotel by my dear friend Caroline to a standby in the French Quarter, Felix’s, where I ate 6 raw oysters and a bowl of gumbo. To be honest, the platter of chipped ice presented half a dozen bloated, utterly flavorless oysters and the gumbo was so aggressively salted it could only have been served to a tourist, but it was an authentic New Orleans experience and needed to be checked off the list.
Caroline was determined to give me an insider’s look at New Orleans so she drove me to a club, Mimi’s in the Marigny, which has a bouncing second floor on Monday and Wednesday nights. We ascended stairs to the sounds of classic French guitar jazz, muted nylon strings, an upright bass, a singer in a tight pencil skirt at a microphone tuned through ancient equipment to send sound waves from another generation over the dance floor. Caroline is an excellent swing dancer and she pulled me into the most charming world I’ve visited in ages. Everyone was bouncing, many of the couples were moving with such carefree precision it was impossible to look away. Caroline insisted that we dance together, and, while swing is not my forte, we had a wonderful time.
The next few days found me repeatedly at Lüke’s happy hour (50-cent oysters), a fine bistro in John Besh’s empire. To accompany my oysters, one night I ordered a braised pork shank with choucroute and another night hoarded a jar of rabbit and chicken liver pate to myself while the table watched in awe of my spoon-filled obsession. All of Besh’s places have fantastic mid-afternoon specials, hit the bar between 3-6 if you can.
I ate pork cheeks and wood fired oysters at Cochon (determined to ingest the delicate sea creature in every form possible) and had my most memorable meals at Maurepas. Maurepas prides itself on locally sourced everything and it shows. My first night there I dipped my toe in the ocean of their delights, some roasted beets, bubbling brussels, an arugula salad with chicken skin and grilled flounder. On my second trip I took three compatriots, less for their company than their stomachs. With extra bodies in tow, I could feel no shame in ordering nearly the entire menu for sampling.
We began with their cocktails, concoctions so foreign I had to survey their anatomy twice. Rye, caraway, lime and house-made bitters in one. Cachaca, Arrak, curry and lime in another. We sipped and passed, too eager to try each flavor to care about cooties. With the support of the table we ordered the beets, a roasted carrot salad, braised collards, grilled broccoli, and grits whose texture approached the mouthfeel of a marshmallow. We were stunned.
As our entrees arrived we were delighted to find the bar makes their own ginger beer. A round was ordered for the table and as the sparkling glasses arrived our eyebrows lifted in mutual astonishment. A sip took me straight to the root, to the rhizome, of the drink. It tasted of such fresh ginger we could not stop our eyes from widening with every drink.
When we had finished the meal I looked around the table to find a sea of clean plates. The white square dish that once held our beets was smeared in their blood and flecked with the bright green oil of a fresh parsley dressing. It was, perhaps, the prettiest massacre I’ve ever seen.
My heartfelt thanks go to the staff of Maurepas who treated us like family every time we walked in the door. Should you find yourself in New Orleans, make a point of eating there (at least once). My wallet is significantly thinned after this week of gluttony, but my tastebuds will repay the debt threefold for what I’ve tasted in New Orleans. Next up: two weeks in Ft. Lauderdale on the beach, a perfectly cucumbersome way to detox.
I’ll let A.J. Liebling finish this post for me, his sentiments ring true decades later:
“If the first requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite, the second is to put in your apprenticeship as a feeder when you have enough money to pay the check but not enough to produce indifference of the total.”