You’ve seen him take Manhattan. You’ve seen his birthday dinner in Prague. This year, I chose New Orleans for Fernando’s birthday. Unlike many birthdays past, it was not a surprise. He was obligated to hit the Daytona 500 in February for his father’s birthday, so I let the cat out to the bag so he’d have something to look forward to in March.

We left on his birthday, the 28th, grateful for snagging an upgrade for the three-hour flight from National to New Orleans. Fernando immediately tucked into a Bloody Mary. A relatively smooth flight — thank you, US Airways — had us in Louisiana in no time. The cab was even quick, with no midday traffic. My first observation was that the highway sound barriers heading into the city have this decoration that looks like  the Vietnam Airlines lotus logo. This decorative image, however, I’m guessing is a stylized water lily. Still, many Vietnamese immigrants settled in Louisiana; in part because of similar climate. Different flowers, maybe, but used to similar effect.

Fernando is a first-class lush.

Fernando is a first-class lush.

The lotus-lily connection that so captivated me.

The lotus-lily connection that so captivated me.

Driving in the French Quarter was a unique experience. I’ve never gone so far on such small roads in such a big car. A tuk-tuk might’ve been more appropriate. It’s no wonder the Quarter is filled with pedicabs. I’d chosen our hotel months ago on two primary criteria: had to be in the Quarter, needed a pool. I was thinking the last weekend of March would be awful sweaty. Nope. Never used the pool. Hotel Le Marais was a nice enough boutique hotel, though. The location was perfect, half a block off Bourbon Street. Being my first time in New Orleans, I hadn’t realized what a selling point it was to have a calm oasis in the middle of the chaos. Both the peaceful courtyard and the soothing bar were just that. There was one guy who was working the desk when we checked in who was mildly surly, and housekeeping kept forgetting to stock the coffee maker, but otherwise everything was just lovely. I forgot to photograph the breakfast, so I will instead advise that they offer something I love: traditional coffee cups and sturdy to-go cups. A fella likes options.

The lovely Hotel Le Marais courtyard.

The lovely Hotel Le Marais courtyard.

The comfy room.

The comfy room.

And a view of poor ol' weathered Spooky the Owl.

And a view of poor ol’ weathered Spooky the Owl. (Look closely, you’ll spot him.)

French 75

French 75

Our first stop, not long after checking in, was French 75, Arnaud’s adjacent bar. I wanted to take Fernando here for happy hour, a bit of luxe for his birthday. You know what else I love, beyond coffee-cup choices? Gougères on the bar-snax menu. We noshed and sipped. (We did not, however, order the namesake cocktail. Too sweet for Fernando, and I’d had one before our anniversary dinner at Blue Duck Tavern a week prior, already sating that appetite.) Food is a big deal in New Orleans, though we didn’t go nuts, really. We had lunch at Coop’s Place on the recommendation of a local, a stylist at Mickey Nolan Salon. This should’ve been an authentic — if touristy — lunch, a laidback afternoon. Fernando, however, popped into the Pepper Palace a few doors before Coop’s.  A range of sample hot sauces were on offer. Spicy sirens were calling to Fernando, calling him to his doom. Sauces were displayed with heat ratings of 1 to 10. An evil brew at the end of the line was rated “10+++.” There was waiver to sign sitting next to it. Fernando bypassed the waiver and dove in. On the sidewalk, as we continued to Coop’s, came the first sign of trouble. “Oh, my God, I’m on fire.” “Well, yeah Honey, it said ’10 plus-plus-plus. I don’t know that they could’ve done anything more to warn you.”  “My scalp is sweating.”

Fernando, about to get burned.

Fernando, about to get burned.

We waited outside Coop’s for about 10 minutes, trying to talk about something aside from Fernando’s self-induced discomfort. Once seated, however, it got worse. We got him some water. Fernando started gagging a little. Then wincing. We asked for some bread. The waitress hovered. “Do you need some more water? Anything?” I think she and everyone else who could see Fernando feared he was in the early stages of a heart attack. He excused himself suddenly, saying he needed to stand. I moved so I’d have view of the sidewalk through the window. I couldn’t see Fernando, but I figured that if he spontaneously combusted or passed out a crowd would gather and I’d know something was up. He returned about 10 minutes later, saying he’d been sort of doubled over in pain, but was feeling much better. I’m sure he learned no lesson. As for Coop’s, the Chicken Tchoupitoulas was dandy.

The menu at Coop's.

The menu at Coop’s.

Also on a recommendation, from D.C. pal Andrew, we sampled Central Grocery’s muffuletta. This sandwich was actually great for a hangover. Thick bread, salty meat and olives, fatty cheese and oil — really hit the spot. The gastronomic stars of the weekend, however, were in hipster Bywater. That’s where our pal Kate lives. On Friday night, she took us to Mariza. I had some delicious potato gnocchi and lamb meatballs. Mm, mm, mm. Before our flight home, Sunday, she took us to a spot a short walk from her house that was sublime: Bacchanal. We could not have had a better Sunday afternoon — which was so welcome after the stress of navigating our French Quarter exit, unaware that the neighborhood hosts three Easter parades, any one of which could’ve penned us in. Inside the initially dingy-looking little shop, the very helpful clerk directed us to an inexpensive sparkling wine (“It’s not a Champagne, because its produced in a neighboring province.”), which we married with some fizzy lemonade. Outside, I ordered a pastrami sandwich of some kind — can’t recall the name. But, dang, so good.

Central Grocery, can't miss it.

Central Grocery, can’t miss it.

Just look for the line!

Just look for the line!

But worth the wait. Mmm...

But worth the wait. Mmm…

Fernando getting shifty.

Fernando getting shifty.

First suppah -- generic po' boys, don't know where.

First suppah — generic po’ boys, don’t know where.

But then Kate showed up for birthday cake!

But then Kate showed up for birthday cake!

Easter Champagne with Kate before Bachannal!

Easter Champagne with Kate before Bacchanal!

Lovely garden, lovely Kate.

Lovely garden, lovely Kate.

Lovely garden, lovely Fernando.

Lovely garden, lovely Fernando.

But my pastrami was the prettiest of them all!

But my pastrami was the prettiest of them all!

Also of note was a particular bar, Bar Tonique, on Rampart, across from Armstrong Park. We’d gone to meet up with some D.C. transplants, Jennifer and Matt. The Saturday special was the $5 Bloody Mary. Rather than a thick V8-inspired beverage, they had the juicer going behind the bar, whipping up this garden-fresh base. Tasted and smelled like a fresh tomato, with jalapeno for a little kick. My Moscow Mule also knocked my socks off.

Bar Tonique: Best. Bloody. Mary. Ever.

Bar Tonique: Best. Bloody. Mary. Ever.

Speaking of bars, we were most at home at Café Lafitte in Exile, spending quite a bit of time there with Derek, a D.C. pal who was coincidentally down for the same weekend. And the crowd at the Golden Lantern — where they also whip up a dandy Bloody Mary — was particularly friendly on Saturday afternoon. And while a Sazerac takes me out of my comfort zone, I really did enjoy them as crafted by Amanda (?) back at the hotel’s bar, Vive.

Lafitte's multimedia extravaganza.

Lafitte’s multimedia extravaganza, Cazwell screening on a wall across the street.

Most of our time, however, seemed to be spent merely meandering the streets of the French Quarter. The crowded, chaotic, magical streets. Not ones to stop for street entertainers, ever, we met our stubborn match: Tanya & Dorise. Wow. We even tipped.

Hanging out on the Lafitte balcony with Derek!

Hanging out on the Lafitte balcony with Derek!

Adult Slurpees.

Adult Slurpees.

They garbage comes out at night.

The garbage comes out at night.

Tanya & Dorise! Click to listen. Do it!

Tanya & Dorise! Click to listen. Do it!

There is so much more to see, but not in three days. All in all, great trip. Thanks, New Orleans!