When you're in town for Mardi Gras, Geoff Worden recommends taking in racing at the Fair Grounds and trying some of the restaurants around the area, including Swirl (Photos by Geoff Worden).
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Fair Grounds is not hosting live racing on March 3, Lundi Gras, but will have live races on March 4, Fat Tuesday.
For my first few years after moving to New Orleans the closest I got to a horse during Mardi Gras was when mounted police officers passed by during parades. But completely immersing myself in the debauchery that is the Carnival in the Crescent City more than satisfied. As time passed and visitors returned, however, things changed.
Lundi Gras, the Monday before Fat Tuesday (March 3, this year), offers no parades during the day which allows for easier travel around the city and provides an opportunity to do something other than wander around the French Quarter with a cocktail in hand. These quieter moments also usually remind me that my diet has been mostly liquid for a few days and that I could really use a seated meal.
Previously, the Fair Grounds beckoned me on Lundi Gras for live racing, but the track has not hosted live racing on Lundi Gras since 2011. That's even more reason to take the time on Lundi Gras to sample the city's cuisine and then take a trip to the racetrack for its Fat Tuesday card (First post time is 1:25 p.m. CT!).
Here are some excellent choices near the Fair Grounds that will be open (yes, even on Lundi Gras) and happy to see you. The first two are within easy walking distance of the Fair Grounds.
Liuzzaʼs By The Track - 1518 N. Lopez St.
If you didn’t believe my proximity statement, the name of this joint should convince you. This institution has old faded photographs of Thoroughbreds and a sign behind the bar that says, “Please, No Horses.”
They do not take reservations. There is often a wait list to the left of the door. The ambiance here is less clubhouse and more OTB, filled with local characters and short on polish. The flavors are deep and rich, though.
The best thing on the menu is the BBQ Shrimp Po-Boy. In New Orleans BBQ shrimp means a butter/olive oil sauce with lots of garlic, pepper and herbs. It makes a wonderfully messy and delicious sandwich. I recently had the Garlic Oyster Po-Boy which was very good. The bread is crusty on the outside and pillowy soft inside. My dining companion described her serving as the “cotton candy of garlic bread.” The fries are solid, their seafood is always a winner and the etouffee (a regular special) is tasty. The coleslaw is too creamy and sweet for my liking and I am not a fan of the giant glasses they use for beer (you can ask for another option). The lone draft available is Abita Amber, an unexciting but thoroughly drinkable local selection. There are a few bottled options as well. I cannot even imagine asking for a wine list here.
Open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, phone number: 504-218-7888
Side note: There is another Liuzzaʼs in the area, though farther away from the track, which also has some good New Orleans food. We’ll talk about that one (on Bienville St.) in another post.
Swirl - 3143 Ponce de Leon St.
Once the stomach has been sated, walk a block to Swirl and make your palate happy with some fantastic wines. Though the selection is far from encyclopedic it also doesn’t overwhelm, intimidate or disappoint. Beth and her crew do a stellar job of bringing in great wines you may never have heard of but will remember. They have 25 wines available by the glass, making this an inviting wine bar that also sells full bottles (at regular retail) to take with you. There are some cured meats available along with more than a handful of cheeses carefully chosen to pair with a wide variety of wines.
Here are a few wines currently being poured: Vigneti Zabu Grillo 2011 comes from Sicily and offers a rich mouthful of wine without being heavy due to the fresh acidity. The Gustave Lorentz Pinot Noir from Alsace is fantastic, offering plenty of weight on the palate and displaying juicy fruits without becoming sweet. Try the Cabernet Franc, one of the “parents” of Cabernet Sauvignon (the other is Sauvignon Blanc), from Saumur- Champigny, in Franceʼs Loire Valley. I like the mix of bright red fruit and earthiness. Chateau du Hureau makes a good one, give it a shot. Swirl also has a small release of a single vineyard Pinot Noir by Loring Wine Company, from the Santa Rita Hills, one of the best spots in California for the grape.
The website offers little information, but sign up for the newsletter and you’ll know exactly what’s happening.
Open 11a.m. to 8p.m.ish Monday through Friday and 11a.m. to 7p.m. on Saturdays 504-304-0635
Crescent Pie and Sausage Company - 4400 Banks St.
This is not within walking distance but is in the area and still avoids parade routes. They make their own sausages and feature local brews on tap. The Monday special, red beans and rice, is a New Orleans tradition and you can add a draft for $1 (lunch only). The Happy Hour deal is outstanding, $2 craft beers from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. ... and some food deals as well.
This is polished and impressive food without any attitude. Try “A Link” from the rotating list of specialty sausages, the Panzanella salad or the Mac nʼ Cheese (though the pasta was fusilli on my visit) - get it on its own or with greens and a link. The pies (pizza) are good but my order is usually a sandwich. The Redneck Brisket and This Pigʼs For You are outstanding. If Giana (aka GG) is waiting on you don’t hesitate to take a recommendation. Her enthusiasm is infectious and she will steer you in a happy direction.
While they care about the wine they serve, the listings are only by grape, no producer name. It seems like you could safely order a glass but this approach has always bothered me (wine geek alert). Beer is the way to go here with a rotating list of bottles and a half dozen local handles. Parish Brewing Co. (Broussard, La) has two at the moment, EnVie - a pale ale and Canebrake - a wheat that is a bit more pilsner-like than others (tasty). The must try is the Chicory Molasses Milk Stout, a joint effort between NOLA Brewing and New Belgium if I recall correctly. Creamy and full in the mouth it is not too heavy and pairs well with intense sausages and meats.
Open 11a.m. to 9p.m Monday through Thursday, 11a.m. to 10p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sunday Brunch 9a.m. to 2p.m 504-482-2426
Happy Mardi Gras! Maybe Iʼll see you ...