…I woke up at 3:30am to hit the gym, shower, shave, and eat a vegetable laden breakfast before meeting a colleague at work to drive me to the airport – a quick layover in Chicago and I would be in New Orleans by 10:30 central time. Surprisingly the trip went without a hitch despite the ugly Midwestern weather and we made better than expected time arriving at MSY by 10:20 and obtaining my car by 10:45 – a few quick taps on the GPS and I was off to experience New Orleans.
My first stop en route to the French Quarter was to Haydel’s Bakery on Jefferson Highway – easily found in the light Saturday morning traffic I reached the small bakery around 11:00am only to find a line snaking out the door – right up to the famous bead dog where a nice local fellow later volunteered to snap a picture. Waiting in the line for less than 20 minutes (if only Café Du Monde were so efficient!) and hearing the Black&Gold song followed by the Superbowl Shuffle I loved the energy of the store – 99% locals talking about their Mardi Gras plans, how many years they’d been coming to Haydel’s, and what parades they were looking forward to most…and those Saints.
Making my way to the front of the line I was greeted by a young man who offered me samples of the plain, cream cheese, and cherry King Cakes from a small tray and when I asked him which he suggested he stated “oh, the praline filled version for sure.” Taking his advice I received a medium (supposedly enough to serve 20) that was still warm from the oven, paid, and made my way to the street. Getting back into my car I tore off a small piece – then a little more…and then a little more until I’d finished almost 1/6 of the cake.
Having never had a King Cake before I was surprised by the buttery croissant-like texture and shocked by the amount of nuance in a simple cake – notes of cinnamon and vanilla plus nutmeg clearly notable under the hefty dose of cinnamon sweet frosting. Filling the cake was a thick caramel pecan filling that tasted unmistakably like a creamy praline. Knowing there was a lot of eating to be done I wrapped the cake up and placed it in the shade of the trunk before making my way to the quarter…I would subsequently finish the cake over the next 2 days and found the baby (clearly meaning I needed to buy the next one…for myself) on the morning of Lundi Gras.
Arriving in the Quarter around 11:45 and finding a great free parking spot on the corner of Elysian Fields and Royal I next made my way to Central Grocery where there was surprisingly no line and only a couple of folks standing outside enjoying their muffaletta. Entering the surprisingly dark and shabby store I browsed around at some of the cheeses and meats – nothing really all that surprising, and also the packaged pies, Zapps Chips, and sodas. Making my way to the counter behind one other couple I ordered my half muffaletta, paid the tab, and made my way to the street to indulge.
Examining the sandwich, freshly made and wrapped while I waited, I have to say it smelled excellent – garlic, olive, and onion most notably. With oil only slightly soaking through the bread I took my first bite and was immediately shocked by the overall saltiness of the sandwich. Taking a second bite and again noting only the flavor of salami, olive, and salt…for a sandwich with so many ingredients I guess I expected more subtlety. A few more bites and I was finished with a fourth of the sandwich and left rather uninspired. Placing the other quarter back in the bag I sampled parts of it individually later in the day while I watched the Tucks parade and I believe the flaw was actually in the quality of the meats – each was entirely too salty and quite frankly none tasted all that different from the other...even the cheese was too salty. On its own the olive salad was quite good, but in total I ended up discarding most of the second half of the sandwich somewhere along Canal. While New Orleans certainly has its fair share of foods I’d love to bring back to Ohio, I’ll pass on the Muffaletta – while I can somewhat see the appeal, it just isn’t my style.