Sunday, December 27, 2009

Down South...Day Twenty-Five...Thursday, December 24, 2009...Ace's Lunch "Crush"

I wake up in some kind of "steam bath"...maybe I'm at my health club and fell asleep. I flail about...trying to escape the suffocating heat.
I'm actually in bed at Mom's. She likes to keep the thermostat at 82 or so...and the heat is stifling. I bolt out of bed, throw on some clothes and dash out the front door...and, oh yes, I've checked the alarm system first. Outside, it's nice and cool...mid-60's, maybe...time for a smoke before making some coffee. It's 9:00AM or so, and I've slept almost eleven hours...but I'm still feeling "under the weather". You might think it's because of all of those oysters I've been eating. But I'm thinking that, based on the timing and the symptoms, the most likely "culprit" is that breakfast sandwich I had back in Fairhope.
Ace wants to take me to lunch today, and he's there promptly at 11:00. We head over to "Flashback Diner" of those 1950's "Malt Shop Replicas" that are so popular with us "boomers". The food is decent, but I don't have much of an appetite. I've left my car at Ace's, and he's driving us in his Cadillac.
After lunch, I ask Ace to stop at a Walgreen's so that I can pick up some Pepto Bismol and a few bottles of Gatorade. I throw these in Ace's back seat, and we head back to his place so I can get my car. When we get to Ace's, he stops in the street in front of his home and starts chatting with neighbors. I hop out, open the back door, and reach in to get my stuff. At this point, Ace decides to get moving and pushes down on the accelerator. Panicking, I shout, "Stop!", and push myself away from his Cadillac. Unfortunately, I forget to move my left foot, which Ace promptly runs over.
Like me, you may have wondered what it feels like to have your foot run over by a vehicle (in this case, a big heavy vehicle). Well...I can offer a few observations, based on my hurts like hell! Soon, I'm laying down in the street and Ace's neighbors are all over me...pulling off my shoe, cradling my head, offering words of comfort and support. Amazingly, nothing is hurts, it's swelling up, it's already turning black and could have been much worse.
I can walk on it...barely. So, after a few minutes, I'm up and hobbling off to my vehicle to run some errands.
Later, I return to Mom's and "ice down" the foot...swelling is not too bad and it's not as bruised as I thought.
That night we go out to dinner...the Jensen Beach Fish House in (where else?) Jensen Beach has a Maine lobster "special"...$21.95 for a pound and a half lobster with two "sides", so we're driving forty-five minutes for that. It's a miserable dining experience...we wait 30 minutes to order...thirty minutes after that, we're informed that they are out of 1 1/2 pounders, so we order 2 pounders...fifteen minutes later, they tell us they only have one two pounder left (I let Mom keep the lobster, and I opt for fried shrimp)...forty minutes after that, we get the "bad news"...Mom's lobster has come out "bad", so she'll have to order something else. She eats one or two of my shrimp (which are terrible...greasy, heavy breading, not much "shrimp"). The best thing at this point is to end an unpleasant experience as quickly as we pay our bill and "scoot".
Back at Mom's, I put my foot up and relax with a little TV...CNN, a Law & Order episode, a little sports. It's been a long (and painful) day...the sooner to bed, the better.
It's Christmas Eve at Mom's.

Down South...Day Twenty-Four...Wednesday, December 23, 2009...Tampa to Mom's...That Familiar Feeling of Uneasiness

It's only a four and a half hour drive from Ed and Molly's to Mom's so, this morning, I'm in no hurry. Molly's taken the day off, so I get treated to one of her terrific little breakfasts...some coffee...a little CNN...share the morning paper.
By 10:00AM, I'm packed up and on the road to Palm City...down I-275, then east on I-10 to I-75, then south to State route 60 east...across Florida from west to east.
I must admit that, for me, the drive to Mom's is always accompanied by a feeling of uneasiness...a vague feeling of "impending doom". Visits to Mom are always challenging...stressful.'s a beautiful day...sunny and in the 70's...traffic is light...and I'm rolling through farmland, small towns, phosphate mining operations, sugar cane fields...central Florida. About an hour from Palm City, I call Mom and let her know that I'll be getting to her place around problem. So now, the feelings of uneasiness are dissipating, and I'm actually feeling pretty good and optimistic. He, he he...not so fast.
The first hint of "trouble" comes when I arrive at the entrance gate to Mom's community. It's a locked gate, and Mom will have to "buzz me in". I punch in her code and the system dials her home answer. So...I call Mom on my cell phone...still no answer.
After about a half hour, a resident pulls in and opens the gate...and I slip in behind them. Arriving at Mom's house, I ring the doorbell several times...nobody home. So...I sit in the friends, read, listen to music. I try Mom's cell answer. The minutes tick sign of Mom. Around 5:00PM, I'm feeling kind of hungry, so I head out for some dinner. My favorite Cuban Restaurant in Stuart is out of business, so I head for another one north up to Jensen Beach. Soon, I enjoying a Cuban tamale, a beer, and a platter of "Vaca Frita" (literal translation..."fried cow"). Around 6:00PM, Mom finally calls wondering where I am and telling me to get right home because her boyfriend, Ace, is "chomping at the bit" to go out to dinner. So...I wolf down most of my food, take the rest in a box, and head back down to Mom's. She calls me twice along the way...Ace is getting "antsy" about dinner. Soon, I'm at Mom's and within a few minutes, she and Ace are out the door to dinner.
I'm enjoying a little "quiet time". I've asked Mom to make sure that the burglar alarm is disabled, so I think nothing about it as I open the front door to step outside for a little fresh air. As soon as I open the door, there's a piercing, shrieking wail...the burglar alarm!!! Panicking, I duck back inside and punch in the "security code" that I've always used in the doesn't work. So, by now, neighbors are coming out of their homes to see what all the racket is about. I'm standing in the driveway because it's too loud to stay inside. I call Mom, and she says it's not the burglar alarm, but the smoke alarm...wrong. Soon, a Sheriff's patrol car pulls up...I've already got my drivers license out and my hands up. They accept who I am, but they are NOT happy. Soon, the alarm cuts out and things are quiet once again. Mom and Ace come back from dinner early, and I'm feeling...well...stressed.
I'm still feeling a little "under the weather", and today's events have not to "cut my losses" and go to bed early. I mean...the worst has got to be behind me...right?

Down South...Day Twenty-Three...Tuesday, December 22, 2009...Tampa

I was more tired than I thought because I sleep in until after 9:00AM. Molly's left for work, so Ed and I have coffee and share the paper.
I have a small "to do" list...reorganize the Escape and leave some of my gear at Ed and Molly's, get to a Bank of America to check my balance, get to a Chase Bank for some cash, stop at a Border's Books for Internet access.
Ed's got errands as well, so, around 11:00AM or so, we both set out. Ed drops me off at Border's so I can pay some bills, do a few Blog entries, and catch up on email. By the time Ed gets back, my Internet work is done, so we then set off to various banks...this takes longer than expected as my Garmin sends us off in a few wrong directions. Then, it's a quick stop at Sam's Club for a few things before heading home.
I'm feeling a little under the weather today...woke up tired and achy. I'm hoping that I'm not coming down with a cold.
Molly's home from work early and we have a few glasses of wine before dinner. We shred some more of that pork shoulder, saute it with some onions, and make some pretty good tacos for dinner.
Again, we're all pretty it's another early night.

Down South...Day Twenty-Two...Monday, December 21, 2009...Fairhope to Tampa

I'm up fairly early this's a long drive to Tampa. Ron comes by the hotel around 8:00AM or so, and we have breakfast in the lobby...juice, cereal, yoghurt, breakfast sandwiches, coffee. Ron and I are still retelling old stories of our exploits during the Notre Dame area...still fun.
By 9:30AM, I'm on the road to Tampa. It's a fairly interesting drive, but it's a LONG way across the Panhandle on I-10 before hooking up with I-75. I get to Ed and Mollie's around 6:30PM, quickly unpack and relax with a Stoli on the rocks. Ed and Molly have cooked a pork shoulder, so we shred some of that up for BBQ sandwiches...good.
Molly's got to work tomorrow; I'm tired from the drive; and Ed's tired as it's an early night for all of us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Down South...Day Twenty-One...Sunday, December 20, 2009...Fairhope, Alabama

I get to sleep in this morning until 8:30AM or so. At 10:30, Ron comes to pick me up at the hotel. He has asked me to attend services with him at his local Church, Grace Fellowship. It's a small congregation of very friendly people...they're all interested in meeting me and hearing about my travels. The service itself is very pleasant...a mix of modern and traditional hymns and music. Even the sermon has some topical interest and a few very perceptive insights.
After Church, Ron and I drive over to the town of Spanish Fort for lunch. We're heading for a place, Felix's Fish Camp, that's supposed to be the best around. Soon, we're settled in...enjoying a few cold ones and looking over the menu. Ron goes for the seafood mixed grill, and I opt for the 50-50 fried shrimp/oyster platter. The food is pretty good...our bartender is cute, but friendly in a little "forced" way.
After lunch, Ron drives me down to look at the towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach...both very nice...right on the water. All along the way, Ron and I are regaling each other with old stories from our Notre Dame days...great fun.
Around 6:00PM or so, we head back to the town of Fairhope to enjoy cocktails and music at McSherry's Irish Pub.
I can't say enough good things about the town of Fairhope...everybody here is so friendly...the hotel staff, people on the street...everybody says's nice here.
And at McSherry''s an Irish Pub, so everybody is extra friendly. It's "open music" night, and there's a small group of musicians sitting around a table playing whatever they feel like. It's not loud...a flute or two, a banjo, a few guitars and violins...very nice.
By 9:00PM, Ron and I are both pretty Ron heads home, and I head back to the hotel for a good night's rest. I've got a long drive tomorrow from here to Tampa.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Down South...Day Twenty...Saturday, December 19, 2009...Easing Out of the Big Easy

Checkout time is not until 11:00AM, so I'm able to sleep in this morning and go about packing up at a leisurely pace. I'm also able to catch up on my emails and post another blog entry.
Soon, they're bringing the Escape around front, I'm loaded up...and on the road again. I wish that I had another day or two to spend here in New Orleans because there are so many things that I missed during my short visit...a streetcar ride out St. Charles Avenue...a walk along the river...a drive down Magazine Street. And the restaurants that I missed...the Upperline, Cafe du Monde, Bayona, Commander's Palace, Parasol's...I could go on and on.
But now, I'm on the more culinary adventures in New Orleans for me. But wait!...not so fast my doubting blog devotees...I've still got one last stop before I leave. A ten minute drive takes me deep into a residential neighborhood to the tiny little place called Domilises...the Temple of Po'Boys. Everybody in New Orleans has a favorite spot for Po'Boys, but Domilises is in everybody's top two or three. It looks so much like the surrounding homes that you would probably drive right by if you didn't know what you were looking for. It's around 11:30AM, and there is a line out the door and onto the I wait. After twenty minutes or so, I've at least made it in the door where I grab a number off the wall.
The line moves very slow, but that is part of what makes the Po'Boys here so good. When you finally place your order for a seafood Po'Boy, the seafood is breaded and cooked to order...right in front of you. They use bread from Leidenheimer's Bakery...the best, and your freshly-fried seafood goes on along with some shredded lettuce, mayo and a little cocktail sauce. I opt for the "half and half"..half fried shrimp and half fried oysters. It's almost 1:00PM by the time I finally get my sandwich, and I am really hungry. It's about as perfect a sandwich to be had anywhere...even better with a draft beer.
Now I'm really back on the road...slowly out of the city to I-10...then over the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain...a few more small towns in Louisiana before hitting the Alabama border.
Just outside Mobile, I hit another "wormhole" minute I'm rolling along on I-10 in Alabama, the next minute I'm on Michigan Avenue...but where on Michigan Avenue?...Chicago?...Dearborn? Before I can get my "bearings", I hit another wormhole that sends me back to I-10. I'm often asked what it's like to go through a wormhole...well...the best way to describe it is a long narrow tunnel full of lights and mirrors. It only lasts a few seconds, and I often feel a "prickly" sensation on my skin.
I'm on my way to Fairhope, Alabama to visit my old Notre Dame buddy, Ron Buttarazzi. During our time in the Graduate Business School there, Ron and I were the best of friends. We had such great many own, in no small part, the result of my generation's rather "experimental" approach to a certain controlled substance of the leafy kind.
One thing that we loved to do is get in the car and just particular particular destination. We'd take small roads through the farmland of Indiana and then into Michigan or Illinois. And, along the way, we'd stop whenever we saw something "interesting"...a bar...a restaurant...a gospel church service...a museum...a cemetery...a "Polka Club" (ah...the Polka Dot Lounge). We'd meet new people...experience new things...all great fun.
Around 4:00PM, I arrive in Fairhope and check in at the downtown Hampton Inn. When I tell the clerk that I've got a vehicle full of camping gear and ask her if it's safe here...she gives me a quizzical look and says..."Oh my, yes, I often have to walk home here late at night, and I don't give it a second thought".
And the people here...they're very friendly...people wave...people say hi" just feels comfortable here.
Ron meets me at the hotel around 5:00PM, and we head down the street to Tamara's Restaurant. A few Martinis later, and Ron and I are retelling all of our favorite stories...recounting all of our favorite's called great fun. We order a pound of the local gourmet shrimp, "Royal Reds" that are caught far off the coast in very deep waters...they're delicious. Then, a couple of big rib eyes for dinner...and a few glasses of wine.
While we eat, we're talking about the time at Notre Dame when we were both broke and really hungry. My father had given me a gas credit card for Gulf stations, and I discovered that it was accepted at Holiday Inns. So, Ron and I, broke and starving, headed over to the Holiday Inn in South Bend for dinner. We told the waitress that we wanted a steak dinner and a lobster dinner...she thought that we wanted the single "surf and turf" dinner...but no...we each wanted a whole steak dinner (with salad and baked potato) and a whole lobster dinner (with a second salad and baked potato). She thought we were nuts, and we probably were, but we ate every single thing on our multiple plates...and left full and contented after weeks of subsisting on nothing but crackers, cheese and dried beef.
By 9:00PM, we're done...Ron heads home, and I head back to my hotel. We're meeting again tomorrow morning, but this has been a good night...a very good night.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Supplemental Post...Friday, December 18, 2009...Friday Night on Bourbon Street

Down South...Day Nineteen...Friday, December 18, 2009...More of the Big Easy

People here in New Orleans really love their Saints football team. The Saints are undefeated and, everywhere I go, people want to talk about football. It's a good example of how a winning sports team can unite and inspire a community. With the impact of Katrina still evident here, the Saints are a blessing for the city.
Tomorrow night, the Saints are playing the Cowboys here, and there has been a notable influx of Texans here in the French Quarter.
This morning, I've got a "plan". I'm going to head over to the restaurant, Galatoire's, around 10:30AM and get my name on the list for the 11:30AM lunch seating. My friend, Kammi, turned me on to Friday lunch at Galatoire's...and it's not just a meal, it's an "event". Every Friday, a regular group of New Orleans' finest descend on Galatoire's for a few hours of food and camaraderie...lots of hugs, table-hopping, champagne corks popping away.
Ah...but luck is not with me on this particular Friday. It turns out that all of the spots for the 11:30 seating were auctioned off in a charity benefit a few months ago...and there is nothing available until 2:00PM. So...I put my name in for 2:00, and slip over to Acme for a dozen on the half-shell...a little snack to tide me over until 2:00.
And I put those four "idle hours" to good use. I take some time to rearrange things in the Escape and add ice to the big food cooler. Back at the hotel, I knock off a few blog entries and catch up on my emails. My phone has gone dead because I have not charged the battery since I arrived in New Orleans on Tuesday night, so I get that charged up again.'s 2:00...time for lunch! Unfortunately, people have lingered over the early lunch, and I have to wait for an additional hour or so. The "silver lining" in all of this is that I am now REALLY hungry. At 310 or so, I finally get a table and my favorite waitress, Shannon. I always ask for Shannon because she is an anomaly in the World of high-end New Orleans dining. In a business where 99.9% of waiters are men, Shannon stands out...reaching her position has required much hard work and struggle.
I'm sipping on a cold martini as I look over the menu...fried oysters en brochette look good for an appetizer. And one of the many crab meat dishes are a good main course choice...I opt for the crab meat au gratin. Galatoire's has been in business for over 100 years and, like many classic restaurants, it's had it's share of ups and downs. Back in the late 70's and 80's, it had declined to the point of low mediocrity before a different group of family members took over with a commitment to the highest quality. Galatoire's has now regained it's reputation as one of the best, if not "the" best restaurant in the city. Today, it's still jammed with early diners, and the noise level (amplified by the high ceiling) is deafening.
My oysters are done absolutely perfectly...a simple preparation executed with precision. The crab meat dish is equally good...cream, cheesy, yet light enough to let the flavor of the crab take center stage. And I'm washing down all of this great food with several glasses of Trimbach Pinot Gris...the perfect wine match with both dishes. Better yet, I've got plenty of room for this case the "classic" bread pudding with bananas and caramel sauce...outstanding. I am now officially "stuffed".
When I step out again onto Bourbon Street, it's close to 5:00PM and they've blocked off the street which is starting to fill with revelers. No revelry for me however...I've got a late nap to catch.
I sleep until 8:30PM...then I'm up, showered and ready to go. During the three hours or so that I've been asleep, Bourbon Street has been overrun with people. I could stop by Acme for a snack or grab one of the infamous Lucky Dogs on the street, but I am just not hungry after that huge lunch. So...I just wander around Bourbon and it's side streets...people-watching...stopping for the occasional cocktail. It's a real feast for the eyes this Friday night on Bourbon Street.
Before I know it, it's after midnight...time for bed. I'll be up early tomorrow to pack, checkout, and get on the road to Mobile where I'll be meeting my old Notre Dame buddy, Ron Buttarazzi.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Down South...Day Eighteen...Thursday, December 17, 2009...Rainy New Orleans

When I wake up around 8:30AM or so, it's another dull, grey, overcast day. I can see a light "drizzle" falling on the pavement outside.
Make coffee, shower, dress...then make a few blog entries, a few telephone a little CNN.
For lunch, I'm heading over to a place called's billed as "an Alsatian-style Brasserie" by New Orleans' current restaurant "kingpin", John Besh. I ate here a few years ago with m friend, Kammi, and one of her LSU classmates. The classmate's "significant other", Sef, was then the sous-chef at, we had a great lunch there. Sef is now cooking at another restaurant, but I'm heading back to Luke anyway.
It's a fifteen or twenty minute walk from my hotel, and the "drizzle" is now rain as I get to Luke.
Soon, I'm sitting at the bar and having a pleasant conversation with my bartender, Amber. As I'm perusing the menu, I see that Luke is now serving their own fried pig ear salad, so that's a "must order". But first, a refreshing absinthe frappe made with with "Lucid"...that's the real thing with the full compliment of wormwood providing 100% of the body's daily requirement for the chemical, Thujone.
Pretty soon, my salad arrives and, for a moment, I am somewhat stunned. Because, the trip from the kitchen to the bar...some gal, some female paragon of New Orleans society, has managed to drop her fancy silk purse in my salad!!! Amber is busy with another customer, so I flag down a waiter and explain the situation. He looks at me, then at my salad, then back at me and back at the salad. He then very patiently explains that what I think is a silk purse is, in fact, one of the crispy pig feel like a dumb tourist.
The salad, by the way, is good...damn good with a few glasses of French Cotes-du-Rhone. I'm having trouble deciding on an entree, so I ask Amber for a recommendation..."get the stuffed shrimp, they're my favorite". Amber does not steer me wrong here..the shrimp are extra-jumbo beauties stuffed with seasoned crab meat, rolled in Panko breadcrumbs and flash-fried...served with a little pitcher of warm blood orange hollandaise sauce...outstanding! Amazingly, I've still got a little room for dessert after all that, so I order the Alsatian "kuchen" with caramel sauce and diced quince...sublime. I'm also having a very nice conversation with Amber...going to college, loves to travel, loves to drive. She's cute and sharp as a tack.
After lunch, I stop back in at Gordon Biersch for a few more glasses of that great Pilsener. From Gordon Biersch, I decide to walk through the huge Harrah's Casino across the street. I put a single dollar in the first slot machine that I see...and bet it all on one pull. I win $50.00, immediately cash out and head for the door.
Now I just feel like walking...back up Canal, way up on Bourbon, back on Royal Street (pronounced "rawl" down here). There's all sorts of little shops along the way, particularly along Royal, and it's a nice way to kill an afternoon.
Soon, it's my favorite time of the day...nap time!! I sleep like a rock from 4:00PM or so until 7:00PM.
At 8:00PM, I'm out doing a little bar-hopping on Bourbon and Royal Streets...rain or not. The French Quarter is definitely not the cheapest place in town for a cocktail...figure $6.00 or so for a beer, $9.00 or more for a mix drink. Of course, for around $4.00, you can get two of those "Everclear-marinated" cherries...if, that is, you're feeling lucky. By 10;30PM or so, I'm actually feeling a little hungry...nothing big, just a snack to take the edge off. So...I head over to Acme Oyster House for two dozen on the half-shell and six charbroiled oysters...they're good, but they really load on the butter and cheese...sometimes "less is more".
After my snack, I head over to the Montleone Hotel's Carousel Bar for a nightcap. My favorite bartender, Parker, is off tonight, so I limit myself to one Milk Punch" made with Maker's Mark.
The rain is rally pouring now, so I figure it's time to "call it a night" and head off for bed.

Down South...Day Seventeen...Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I was able to sleep in this morning...a real luxury of late. I like my room here at the Holiday Inn. My room is large, and I'm only two minutes from Bourbon Street...two and a half from Acme Oyster House.
Before I can even think about lunch, I've got a little maintenance to do. With all that heavy rain the last two days (and night), I'm figuring that I've water in the storage containers on my cargo carrier...that's got to can not have a wet tent. So...I have them bring the Escape over and start unpacking. I was right, I've got at least two inches of water. My trusty "sham wow" makes short work of that, and I pull out the tent to take to my room and dry.
It's laundry time, and I've got a decision to make...I can take it to the local laundromat and do it myself or have them do it. On the walk up Bourbon Street to the "Washing Well Laundyteria", I make my decision...who wants to sit around doing laundry in New Orleans? It'll be ready for me in about three hours.
Now I set off for, I'm going to see, not that Dago...not Rocky Balboa's nemesis from "Rocky IV". No, this is Drago's Seafood restaurant...home of New Orleans' original char-grilled oysters. It's a nice fifteen minute walk there down Bourbon Street, then down Canal past the casinos to the Hilton. Along the way, I stop for a quick Bloody Mary at the Old Absinthe House. And then, I'm sitting at the bar at Drago's sipping on a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. I order a dozen oysters on the half-shell followed by a dozen of the char-grilled...and they're rally good. I miss the little piece of shrimp that they put on at Gilhooley's, but the rest...the butter, the herbs, the cheese are all just right. For dessert, I head back up Canal Street to the Palace Cafe and finish off an order of Bananas Foster...then a stop at a place called Gordon Biersch which brews a mean Czech-style Pilsener. After a few of those, it's time to pick up my laundry...with a brief stop at the Absinthe Museum where I pick up an antique Absinthe spoon and a two-spout water dispenser for Absinthe.
By now, it's after 3:00PM and time for my daily nap...another of life's great luxuries.
I sleep until just after I'm up, shower, and dress for dinner. I'm going to a place called Cochon where I dined a few years ago with my friend Kammi from Shreveport. I'm hungry, but I can't handle a large meal, so I just order a few appetizers...a crab and artichoke dish and a mushroom salad with fried lemon. They're both good, but I'm disappointed because the "Crispy Pig Ear Salad" is no longer on the menu...bummer. For dessert, I have a great root beer float made with draft Abita root beer and the house vanilla ice cream. I also get two generous shots of some "boutique moonshine"...CatDaddy from North Carolina. Cochon flavors it with a nutmeg infusion, and it's good...good and really strong.
After dinner, I head back to the French Quarter to visit my new favorite local bar. I call it the "Rainbow Sports Bar"...because it's decorated with lots of multi-colored rainbow flags and, although they don't seem to have any sports on TV, it's all guys. People are friendly...they even offer a fashion tip. It seems that I've been wearing my diamond ("aka "the Rock") in the wrong ear. See, you're never to old to learn something new. They're serving $1.50 Miller High Life drafts which is really cheap for the French Quarter. So I down a few of those before heading back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.


"It's a disenchanted...restless...insecure generation. Constantly searching kicks"

-DJ Johann

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Down South...Day Sixteen...Tuesday, December 15, 2009...Easing Into the "Big Easy"

I'm up early again...just at daybreak. Looking out my hotel room window, I can see that it is still raining. Last night, when I went to bed, I made another "executive decision"...instead of spending a night in Baton Rouge, I'm going to press right on to New Orleans. I call my hotel in New Orleans, and they agree to add Tuesday to my stay at a very reasonable'm in.
Meanwhile, down in the hotel lobby, it looks like the set of the TV show, "Cops". There are four police cruisers parked out in front, and the lobby is crawling with patrolmen. Somebody can't pay their bill and won't leave their room...not exactly a smart move. I go back to my room to pack up and, by the time I return to check out, the situation has been way or the other.
Now I'm on the road for a short trip to the town of Henderson for lunch at a nice seafood restaurant, Robin's. Robin's, however, is no longer open for lunch, so I have to switch to "Plan B". A little farther down the road is Pat's Seafood...the place where I ate my very first crawfish some twenty-five years or so ago. Pretty soon, I'm sitting at the bar chatting up the owner/manager and his wife with stories of my previous visits there. I put myself completely in their hands..."just bring me whatever is good". A cup of crawfish bisque...excellent, a platter of fried crawfish and fried oysters...also excellent. And, finally, a big piece of pecan pie...I'm so full I can hardly walk.
I'm joined at lunch by a cute gal, Tracy. She works on behalf of the Gulf fishing fleet to lobby the various gulf states to modernize their rules and regulations to improve sustainability and profitability. It sounds like a fun job that allows her to travel to little fishing hamlets all over the gulf...and dine at some great little spots along the way.
Where there's fish, there's usually cats...and, on my way out, there's a furry little guy sleeping on top of the owner's vehicle. Then...I'm back on the road...still raining. It's slow going, and I don't make it to my hotel in New Orleans until after 6:00PM. At precisely 6:20PM, I am parked in my favorite seat at Acme Oyster House enjoying the first of three dozen on the half-shell served by my favorite "shucker", Norman. Norman and I go back twenty years or so, and he always recognizes me as soon as I walk in. The "twenty" that I slip him each time probably helps with the recognition factor. A dozen "charbroiled" oysters, and I'm stuffed again.
To work off that dinner, I walk up and down Bourbon Street...drunken kids, street-walkers, street-hustlers, meth addicts, farm couples from Iowa, men and women in business suits, t-girls...they're all part of the "culture" of the French Quarter...there's nothing like it anywhere else in this country. I stop in to a few of my favorite spots for a few beers...soon, it's close to midnight. Time for bed...I've only got three more days/nights here...and there are a LOT of dining stops to make.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Down South...Day Fifteen...Monday, December 14, 2009...Out of Texas

It's another foggy day in Galveston. Walking over to the hotel office to get coffee this morning, I can barely see across the parking lot.
By 10:30AM or so, I'm packed up, checked out and on the road. I'm heading for the town of Winnie, Texas for lunch at Al-T's Cajun Food and Steakhouse for lunch...this place was mentioned in the Saveur Magazine's "Texas issue" as another hidden "gem".
In order to cut sixty miles or so off of the trip, I take the Ferry from Galveston to the Bolivar Peninsula...a fun twenty-minute boat ride across part of Galveston Bay. The fog prevents me from seeing very much, but a boat ride is always fun...and this one is free.
The Bolivar Peninsula looks like it was recently "carpet-bombed"...Hurricane Ida has done a LOT of damage here. Demolished homes, collapsed businesses, piles of rubble and uprooted trees scatter a barren landscape.
Around noon, I'm sitting down for lunch at Al-T's...and it's as good as promised. I order a plate of batter-fried Boudain (dirty rice stuffed in a sausage casing), a cup of smokey rich chicken and sausage gumbo, and a bowl of crawfish etoufee...along with a beer. Everything is excellent...including the coconut pie for dessert...and all for under $20.00. Full, happy and satisfied, I get back on the road...destination: Lafayette, Louisiana...about 150 miles.
Within minutes of leaving Winnie, the rain starts...really, really heavy rain, and it is relentless. It rains so hard that water starts leaking inside the Escape from the sunroof...a first for that. Cars, semis, and a few motor homes have skidded off the highway into deep water-filled ditches...State Troopers block several water-covered exits off of I-10. Pretty soon, my speed is down to 30mph...the expected two-hour drive turns into a tiring four and a half-hour "crawl".
Around 5:30PM, it's getting pretty dark as I finally reach Lafayette. My plan is to stay in Lafayette and drive ten miles or so to Henderson, LA for dinner at Robin's...a great Cajun restaurant where I last ate some twenty years ago. Finding a hotel next to a friendly tavern proves takes me over an hour to finally find a Holiday Inn Express strategically located next to a Chili's.
By now, I'm so drained by the day's drive that I decide to eat close to the hotel and defer Robin's until lunch tomorrow. A local chain Mexican restaurant, Posado's, is close by, but the "vibe" is not 6:20PM, it's completely empty...except for me. I limit myself to a Margarita before heading back across the street to Chili's...a few beers, but I'm still stuffed from lunch. So...I head back to the hotel, and heat up some of my leftover Boudain from lunch...just what I need.
A little Monday Night football...then off to bed. It's been a long day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Down South...Day Fourteen...Sunday, December 13, 2009...When Shrimp Go Bad

It was a real luxury to spend yet another night in a "real bed" after my camping adventure in Big Bend. I slept in late this morning, and awoke hungry. Having been disappointed at the "best" place in Galveston last night, I'm not particularly eager to do any more restaurant "exploring" here.So...I decide to head back up to San Leon for the fried shrimp at Gilhooley's.
Doug is back, and he introduces me to a few more "locals". Pretty soon, I'm feeling comfortable and very much at home...but, then again...that's Texas.
A beer, six more of those great grilled oysters and...then...six fried oysters and six fried shrimp...outstanding! Oh, and I can't forget the slaw...hand-cut, creamy...and...strewn with chopped! I give this place my top rating. After lunch, I hang around for a few more beers and some friendly conversation before heading back down to Galveston.
It's another foggy, rainy and damp day soon, I'm at my customary set at the bar for a few beers and some football. Ah, I see that the Lions have taken one of their customary "swan dives"...great. Patriots and Tom Brady looking good...Brett Favre does it again.
Seafood is very big here in Galveston...particularly shrimp. At one point in the afternoon, I stepped out for a smoke and saw a huge shrimp flip out of the ocean and bounce off the roof of the bar before damaging several cars. It took ten of us to drag it back into the bay!
Time flies...and soon it's dinnertime. I head back to the room to shower and dress for dinner...back to Gaido's...not great, but it IS close. Soon, I'm settled in with a Stoli Martini. I'm not ordering anything fried this night, so I opt for Gumbo (good), boiled shrimp (also good) and a big crab meat cocktail (very good). A big piece of pecan pie with a scoop of Texas' own Blue Bell vanilla ice cream caps off a pretty decent meal. Back to the bar for a nightcap before heading to bed.
I've made another "strategic decision"...I had planned to spend four or five days camping here in Galveston, but two days is plenty...time to move on. So...tomorrow, I'll be leaving for the Lafayette/Baton Rouge area in Louisiana. There's a restaurant in Henderson, Robin's (pronounced "ro-bans")...I've eaten there before...and it's really really good.

Down South...Day Thirteen...Saturday, December 12, 2009...The Appetizer that Launched a Thousand Miles

This morning, I'm only about 50 miles from my destination, Galveston, so I am in no particular hurry. I use most of the morning to shower, repack the Escape, ice the coolers, etc. Around 10:30AM or so, I'm on my way.
For lunch, I'll be stopping in the town of San Leon at a little "hole in the wall" place with a great reputation for seafood...Gilhooley's. Back in September, I was planning my annual trip to Florida when I received my monthly copy of Saveur magazine. The whole issue was devoted to Texas, and it was a photo of Gilhooley's "signature" appetizer, grilled oysters, that made me decide to come to Texas.
I had forgotten what a mess Houston traffic can or night. My leisurely drive turns into a two-hour crawl through construction. But soon, I'm off the Interstate and rolling along Texas 517 past pi;es of construction equipment, oil refineries, bayous and more...and then...I'm at Gilhooley's. It a ramshackle little building right on the highway...inside, it's packed with tourists today (except me). A little hand-lettered sign announces Gilhooley's "no children policy" the friendly gal behind the bar explains, people come here to spend a little time away from their own kids, so they don't want to spend time with other people's kids. The spelling of "Gilhooley's" is, well, conflicted's spelled one way on the sign outside, a different way on the signs inside, and yet another way on the's all part of the charm.
I sit down at the bar and order a beer and a dozen oysters on the half-shell...the oysters are wonderful...plump and fresh from the Bay that morning. But they're just the warm-up for the main event...the grilled oysters. They take oysters on the half-shell and top them with butter, garlic, a big piece of shrimp and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Then they place them atop a wood fire to cook briefly. It is one of those "perfect" combinations of flavors...briny, smokey, cheesy, buttery...they are, quite frankly, maybe the best oyster dish that I've ever had. As I'm eating the last one, I'm already wishing that I had more room for another order. I look around at what other people are eating, and everything looks good...really good. This place is one of those little "gems".
At the bar, I strike up a conversation with Doug and Marilyn (that's them waving in the photo). They moved down here from Houston about twenty years ago...and they never left. They're friendly folks...just what you expect from Texas, a state where total strangers wave "hi" while you're driving. Marilyn orders a fried shrimp dinner and insists that I try one...two. They are REALLY good...absolutely fresh, perfectly breaded, not a trace of grease.
Now completely stuffed, I bid farewell and head down to Galveston on the back's a nice little drive.
I was last in Galveston well over twenty years ago...and driving through, I can see that it is quite different now. Several hurricanes (including the most recent, Ida) have really taken their toll over the years. Along the Seawall, a three-mile strip running along the water, it used to be wall-to-wall hotels, bars, restaurant, souvenir shops, etc. Now, however, places are few and spread wide apart.
It's also very foggy, and there's a steady rainy my plans to camp in Galveston State Park are put on hold. Instead, I check into a hotel that is next to, and part of Gaido's restaurant, the oldest and, supposedly, best seafood restaurant in Galveston. The bar there is comfortable, so I have a few cold Sella beers while watching football. Around 4:00PM, it's time for a three-hour nap before heading down for dinner.
My bartender, Angela, waives the "no dinner at the bar policy", and I order the fried shrimp is, well, disappointing. The shrimp are certainly fresh, but the breading is soft and, I'm still thinking about the ones that I had at Gilhooley's. After dinner, a nightcap (or two), then off to bed.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Down South...Day Twelve...Friday, December 11, 2009...Heading East

This morning, I'm up to watch the sunrise, and I get a few good photos of the sun rising over the mountains surrounding my camp.'s the "never fun" job of breaking camp and packing up. Bob and Jay stop to say goodbye. Jay is, yet again, a VERY happy dog because he gets another bone from last night's steak. My fellow campers stop by to help me pack up and wish me a safe trip.
I'm heading for Galveston, but the plan is to drive until 6:00PM or so and find a hotel with a friendly tavern nearby. It's a sunny day, and I'm already wishing that I could have spent more time here in Big Bend...there's so much left to see and explore.
The 70-mile drive out of the Park is slow going (45MPH and all the Ranger vehicles have radar). Then, back out on Route 90 heading east. Around noon, I stop in Del Rio and have lunch at a cool tiny Mexican Restaurant called "Elena's" like the canyon). She cooks one thing only each day of the week...tamales on Mondays, enchiladas on Tuesdays, etc. Today is Chile relleno day and, man, is it good. The chile, rice, homemade refried beans, a small salad and a coke...all for $5.00!
Then, back on the road. It's around 6:00PM, and I'm having problems finding the hotel near the friendly tavern...plenty of hotels with no taverns, plenty of taverns with no hotel. Driving on, I finally stop about thirty miles west of Houston in the town of Katy, Texas. I check in at a Super 8 Hotel, and there's a Landry's Seafood restaurant next door...perfect. First...a 45 minute shower (a real luxury after three days in the "bush")...clean clothes. Then, over to Landry's for a few cocktails, a dozen oysters on the half-shell, and another dozen is good...very good.
Off to bed...and to Galveston!

Down South...Day Eleven...Thursday, December 10, 2009...Santa Elena Canyon

I slept great again last night...snug in my tent as the temperatures stayed in the 50's. I'm up at sunrise...make coffee, cook breakfast (eggs, bacon and a big glass of milk).
There are deer walking through the camp this morning...they come every day. They seem pretty relaxed around humans, and you can walk up pretty close to them. I've also seen a few jackrabbits and those funny little birds...roadrunners (no wily coyotes though).
I'm thinking that maybe I'll pack up tomorrow and start heading east. I'd really like to spend more time here in Big Bend, but I've got a lot more to see and do., I decide to drive south in the Park...down to Santa Elena Canyon. This is a magnificent National Park...every bit as impressive as any of the other Parks that I've visited. I've made some new friends at my campground...a couple from Odessa (they've been coming here for forty years)...another couple from Missouri (they've come every year for as long as they can remember). People love this Park...they are drawn to it...and they keep coming back.
The drive south today is absolutely gorgeous...mountains, valleys, all sorts of unusual rock formations. It's thirty miles or so from camp to the Canyon, and it takes me over an hour...with many stops for photos. The canyon i part of a geological formation known as a "rift". This is where two geological "plates" shift up or down creating a huge rift (see photo). I have been fortunate enough to see the world's largest rift in Kenya...back thirty years or so ago. It's a very impressive sight.
The drive back to camp is leisurely...more photos...a couple of short hikes off the highway.
I'm back at camp by 3:00 or so, and I take an hour to do some preliminary packing up for the trip tomorrow. I've got that second rib eye to cook, and it's every bit as good as the first one...beefy and so tender, I can cut it with my fork. I may have had better steaks than these...but not many. After dinner, I linger over a bottle of wine (a Spanish red) as the sun sets behind the mountains surrounding my camp...then...the stars are out again...the sky is full of stars. This is a moment when you really feel good to be alive...and fortunate enough to witness such a thing of beauty.