French Quarter Fest

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I hadn’t been in New Orleans for French Quarter Fest for several years. Since I’d be pedicabbing during the big weekend days, I went Thursday as a spectator. The weather was absolutely perfect, as it was all weekend. 

I’ve seen FQF called both America’s biggest free music festival, and the South’s biggest free music fest. Whatever the appropriate superlative, it’s an impressive setup. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the country almost completely closed to vehicular traffic, with music and food overflowing from nearly every street. My personal favorite area is the riverfront, where the breeze from the Mississippi and open space provides a less cramped feeling than down in the Quarter. (Speaking of the Mississippi, the previous weekend I had given a ride to a couple from Alaska. When I mentioned they should check out the riverfront, they were surprised to learn a river was nearby. “What river is that?”, they asked. “Uh…the Mississippi,” I replied, stunned. These people were members of their local school board and had no idea one of the world’s great rivers flows through New Orleans. Highly disturbing.) I really enjoyed sipping an ice-cold beer while listening to great music and watching ocean-going shipping vessels steam up or downriver. 

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Of course, Jackson Square was gorgeous.

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Since it is the first day of FQF, Thursday is known as the local’s day. The crowds were completely manageable, with short food lines and plenty of space in front of the stages. Seeing the car-free roads was pretty sweet.

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Come Friday, when I had to work, this completely changed. With Decatur closed at St. Louis due to the Bienville Stage, getting from one side of the Quarter to the other became almost impossible. Passengers had a hard time understanding why, but the usual 10-block ride from the French Market to Canal Street turned into a 15-20 block odyssey up to Dauphine and through appalling traffic. 

Come evening, attempting to use Royal, Bourbon or Chartres was similar to what I imagine navigating a zombie apocalypse would be like. (Although these pedestrians were fortunately less aggressive than the undead.) People ignored the sidewalks and strolled along six abreast, taking up the entire road. Sometimes people would look back, register that you were in a pedicab coming up behind them, and simply continue sauntering along at a snail’s pace. It was a giant game of Frogger, and I badly wanted to run people over.At least the money was good.

Unsurprisingly I heard multiple complaints about FQF being too crowded for its own good, and apparently attendance records were broken. It will be interesting to see if some sort of limit is placed on the fest in the future, as there is a finite number of people that can be crammed into the Quarter. For now I’m just happy Decatur is back normal operating procedures.

Children at a school outside of Hanoi, Vietnam

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam. April, 2013

The Asian Enclave

Across the river in Gretna, along Behrman Highway, there is a strip mall unlike any other in New Orleans. There are Asian salons and travel agencies, and a phone shop called VN Communications with signs out front advertising money transfers and phone calls to Vietnam (in Vietnamese.) Several restaurants are in the area as well, including Panda King. There are two entrances: one for the normal Panda King, home to an all-you-can-eat buffet; and Panda King Fine Dining, where the push-cart dim sum brunch is offered from 10:30-3 every Saturday and Sunday.

I developed a minor dim sum addiction in Saigon, and I hadn’t had any since returning to the U.S. last fall. Yesterday I made it out to Panda King to gorge.

A number of tables were filled with white people, but the vast majority of customers were Asian, which is always a good sign. The service was quick, with carts bearing all sorts of delicacies appearing almost as soon as you sit down. The options are many, and it’s hard to decide what to take and what to pass on.

Spring rolls, stir-fry bok choy, fish balls, fried crab claws, and noodle dishes were among the first selections. Several kinds of dumplings are available, including crab, shrimp, BBQ pork, and fried taro, a personal favorite.

By the time the dessert cart came by I was about to explode, but I made room for one last egg tart before waddling out. I shall certainly return to do further damage in the near future.

A few doors down from Panda King is the gigantic Hong Kong Market, which I had heard good things about from multiple people. Apparently many of the city’s chefs shop for ingredients here, since much of the produce is fresher than the usual grocery stores. 

After walking inside I felt like I was back in Asia, the main difference being people don’t cut in line at the checkout. The produce section presented a kaleidoscopic selection of fruits and veggies, many of which I’ve never seen in the U.S., and the names were displayed in Vietnamese and English.

The market also had live fish, strange cuts of meat, giant sacks of rice, funny signs, a counter where you could buy whole Peking ducks and suckling pigs, and the shitty sweets like Koala’s March cookies that fill every convenience store in Saigon. 

Both Panda King and the Hong Kong Market are worth the drive if you’re looking for unique food that isn’t available elsewhere in town.