I’m 2 months late, but my Spring Break trip still provides lasting memories of amazing places we visited and delicious food we tried. This year, the lads and I took a road trip from St. Louis, Missouri to New Orleans, Louisiana with pitstops in Nashville, Lynchburg, and Memphis, Tennessee. The trip was by far one of my favorites, with lots to see and lots to learn about the South. Here are some of my memories:
The journey began almost abruptly at Fast Eddie’s. Yes, it is exactly as it looks – a giant beer garden-esque area with extremely cheap American grill food (burgers, steaks, hot chicken etc.) and a range of beer selections. In the words of the Mills, our gracious hosts for this leg, this is as Midwestern as it gets. That speaks to St Louis’s charm as a true midwestern city. The food is pretty good, the vibe is energizing and the whole place sets you off on the right note for St Louis..
Continuing on the midwestern vibe, we visited the Home of America’s favorite beers, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. This is actually a really interesting venue and if you can, do try to sign up in advance for the Brewmaster Tour. This is the most expensive package but also the tour with lots of special access and privileges. For one, we get unlimited beer at the end of the tour from their fridge.
Aside from the alcohol, Anheuser-Busch does has a rich history, especially in its attempt to stay alive during Prohibition. The architecture is captivating, and the stories of the Clydesdales and other Busch insignia do make you more attached to the brand. For all the jokes made about Busch and related brands of beer, this brewery has basically been one of the biggest reasons for the US’s thriving drinking culture. It’s a big deal.
My favorite part of the tour was being able to drink beer straight from the tank. We got to try both unfiltered and filtered beer, and both types were astoundingly better than the regular beer we drink in college. If only the beer we got in cubes tasted as good, my college experience may be a lot richer.
Another favorite from St Louis is the Frozen Custard from Ted Drewes, which is supposedly ranked as the World’s best Ice Cream. I would agree that it’s pretty darn good and worth the search. We even had it again on our way back home. I personally liked the Turtle flavor which is made with hot fudge and caramel.
Gooey butter cake is also a St Louis (and midwestern) favorite. It’s extremely sugary so expect to be satisfied with a small piece. Ours was made with love from Nathan’s (one of the lads) mom, so I can’t really provide recommendations on where to get it, but if you do find it in a bakery, definitely try it.
We didn’t really have the time to visit the St Louis Arch, which is the major landmark of the city but it is quite a sight and I managed to catch a quick photo while driving past it. It’s especially interesting because it commemorates Lewis and Clark’s journey to explore the west of the US. I never think too much about how most of the US states were discovered, but amongst this country’s extremely complex and layered history there are some stories that have changed the lands we walk on.
St Louis has other sights that are worth visiting that we couldn’t make time for including watching a Cardinals game at the Busch stadium, catching a blues show or visiting Forest Park. If you can, do go for those and let me know how they are.
I especially want to thank the Mills for hosting us and making our time such a pleasant experience. They really set a high standard for hospitality and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet them.
We now make our way south and take a stop at Nashville, Tennessee.
I’ve been to Nashville in 2015 and so my second pass at the city was supposed to build off that. Nashville is a must-visit when in Tennessee for its thriving food and music culture. This is where country music takes front and center, and where you can enjoy the south without making too long of a trip from Chicago.
There’s many places to visit but we mostly stayed on Broadway and did a self-guided walking tour to understand the history of the city. A lot of it is steeped in the evolution of the culture of country music and the bars the country music ‘legends’ played in. Some good ones to check out are Tootsie’s, Wildhorse Saloon and Honkeytonk Central.
In fact, you must come back to Broadway at night to explore the various bars (also called Honkeytonks) and listen to a range of country music. Most tend to cater to tourists (which is fine especially if you don’t listen to country music on a regular basis), so if you want some ground-up country music, it’s a good idea to explore Division near Music Row, especially Winners and Losers. This has a good college crowd from the nearby Vanderbilt University, but they also have regular features of local up and coming artists.
On this visit, I made sure to take advantage of the range of food offered in Nashville. This city has an amazing selection of southern food, starting with BBQ. There’s a couple of options but Martin’s BBQ is a great start. My favorite was the brisket and pulled pork which were both juicy and flavorful. The dry rubs are outstanding but it’s Martin’s adaptation of West Tennessee’s whole hog bbq style that will stay in your memory.
A Nashville-only find is Hot Chicken, and there’s no better place than Hattie B’s. Now, objectively, this is some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. The outer cripsy later is delicious and the chicken is juicy. The pimento mac and cheese is also uniquely flavorful. But what will get you is the spice rub. Hot Chicken is no misnomer, and if you dare to try the Damn Hot (which I did) or the Shut the Cluck Up (which is the hottest flavor), you will know what it’s like to have a fire in your mouth. I was running around the restaurant looking for something to soothe my tongue. This is my favorite food from Nashville and I want to come back.
One of the best finds on our trip was Arnold’s Country Kitchen, in the Gulch area of Nashville. This place cooks southern food daily on a rotating menu with authentic dishes. It’s cafeteria style where you grab food along the way and pay at the end.
There’s many options including liver, catfish, chicken etc, but I got the roast beef (so damn good), mac and cheese, collard greens and cornbread. Everything worked so well and I left jealous of Nashvillians for having constant access to this food.
After all this good food, we made our way back towards New Orleans, but we had to make a pit stop in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
Without being disrespectful, there’s really only one highlight in this quiet (and DRY) city – the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. This is the one and only place where JD’s is produced for worldwide distribution which made it even more exciting. I do appreciate my whiskeys so it was interesting seeing the end to end process of how some of my favorite whiskey is made. Once again, we went for the Angel Tour, which is the highest value tour and we got a treat for the price.
We were treated to a flight of rich, rare whiskeys, including the single barrel select and single barrel, barrel proof varieties. These are crafted artfully and have so much texture in their flavors. It’s interesting how this distillery exists in a dry district and walking around the distillery understanding the secret to JD’s whiskey (the water source that Jack Daniel found and the surrounding location) was such an insight into the dram I will consume next time at the bar.
It was now time to go non-stop down south. We were on our way to New Orleans, Louisiana.
If you’re in the US and want to explore a selective range of cities, New Orleans has to be on your list. This southern town is reputed as a party city but it also holds culinary prestige and a complex history. One of the first things we noticed as we hit the city was the presence of old streetcars that seem to continue to provide reliable transportation to the city. If that doesn’t tell you how much the city holds onto its history, I don’t know what will.
The main place to visit in New Orleans is Jackson Square. This is near all the hotspots, including the French Market and Bourbon street, and is full of tourists. Again, that’s fine for a first visit because it’s undisputedly beautiful and there are legitimately good musicians always playing hot tunes for your entertainment.
Right at the square (aside from the park) is the oldest cathedral in the United States – the St Louis Cathedral. This sight reminds you of the role Louisiana played in the religious conservatism of the American South, and how much New Orleans is still a ‘religious’ city at heart. In fact, people forget that Mardi Gras is actually the last chance of crazy celebration before Lent, which is in itself questionable as an intention.
Right beside the square, appears this elegant tree which is just embellished in the notorious Mardi Gras beads. That’s essentially the spirit of New Orleans – elegant with a bucketload of craziness.
Before the partying, you must take the opportunity to explore the actual city and see what the locals do. Lafayette Square has regular food and music festivals and I was fortunate to catch the monthly jazz festival where people just bring out lawn chairs and catch local jazz bands play their hearts out.
People will, of course, tell you to make your way to Bourbon Street, where two things exist. Beautiful french-style buildings that have balconies that peer out for you to overlook the crowds. In addition to that are more bars than you can even imagine. Bourbon Street is where the true Spring Break part of our trip came alive. Again, elegance smashed with bucketloads of craziness.
Come to Bourbon street early enough (around 5 pm) and you’ll catch jazz bands playing on the streets and adding to the liveliness of the area. New Orleans, in general, allows you to carry alcohol out in the open, but Bourbon Street is where it makes the most sense to do so as you hop in and out of bars where jazz bands play all night. My favorites are, of course, on the streets, but the bar is already high here. Bars I’d recommend are Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Old Absinthe Bar and Pat O’ Briens.
You’ll also be enticed by the range of interesting drink offers from fishbowls to frozen daiquiris to grenades (which Nathan is holding above). All of these are highly alcoholic but also very very sweet so watch your alcohol count with these.
If you want something classier, go to Frenchmen street which is just northeast of Bourbon street. Jazz musicians here tend to ‘take themselves more seriously’ and bars are known for being stricter with their clientele. There’s only a great selection of music either ways so I’d compare it to having different styles of the same beer. A good recommendation is Spotted Cat.
What I would recommend while on Frenchmen though, is to check out the night art markets. The local fare is really cool and it’s always interesting to see the talent brought.
There’s more nightlife that I didn’t take photos of, because it was inconvenient to carry my camera, but definitely also make the journey down to Magazine Street to check out Red Dog Diner and The Bulldog for good beer, Rum House for great Carribean food and Le Bon Temps Roule for amazing amazing jazz music by Soul Rebels, a famous band. Audubon Park is also worth the visit in the evening to drink a few beers along the Mississippi River.
While the city itself has a lot to explore, it is worth the day trip out to Lafitte to take an airboat and explore the swamps of Louisiana. We booked our package with Airboat Adventures which was really reliable and our captain was both friendly and safe. The airboat itself was fun to ride on, especially when the captain speeds up and takes a few thrilling turns.
The highlight of the package is interacting with gators though. We don’t necessarily have to if we don’t want to but these captains know how the gators live and interact, and play with them for your understanding. Everything is respectful and you end up learning a lot about the natural environment in this region.
Now onto food. This is a long list, but we’ll start with the star – Commander’s Palace. This is the best restaurant in the city and for good reason. Its history precedes it as a destination for fine Creole cuisine. You need to dress up for it, so don’t come in anything less than Business Casual and make sure you make a reservation at least a week in advance.
There’s a lot to enjoy but the fried catfish on grits, with crawfish tails took the show for me. The seafood is fresh and the flavors are well matched with the spice in the sauce accentuating the catfish incredibly. You can get a set meal here for approximately 30USD, and you can also get up to 3 martinis for 25 cents each. Yes, 25 cents. They’re all strong so take your time with them.
Another must visit is Cafe Du Monde for beignets. This place runs 24 hours so you can get your powdered sugar fix any time of the day. Lines are really long in the morning but they move fast. Each serving comes with 3-4 beignets that are freshly fried and are soft and chewy, and the powdered sugar just makes each bite an explosion in your mouth.
To get good oysters, go to Acme Oyster House. Chargrilled oysters are a NOLA local favorite and it’s a creamy rendition of the commonly raw dish.
In the same restaurant, we also got some good po’ boys – this one has both shrimp and oysters. ACME Oyster House has an exciting NOLA-esque vibe that makes the dining experience fun.
The next dish on our list was some savory gumbo, so we went to Dooky Chase, one of NOLA’s remaining traditional dining houses where even Obama has gone to visit. The gumbo here is rich and scrumptious with all its ingredients.
We also got the fried chicken with a side of rice & beans. The chicken was good, but what really stood out was the simple rice and red beans with its classic yet complex flavors. Dooky Chase is definitely a must-have on the list.
For Jambalaya, baked ham and other southern soul food dishes, Mother’s restaurant is a worthy visit. There are no tips allowed but service is outstanding. The jambalaya is famous for its rich flavors and it definitely deserves the fame. This is also a cafeteria-style setting which has become my favorite kind of place to eat in the US because you know the focus is on the food.
One of the things I told myself to eat while in NOLA is crawfish. And I wanted a homely non-restaurant version that was as close to how it was meant to be served. R Bar has a weekly crawfish boil on Friday evenings that has no charge as long as you buy a drink at the bar. You should tip the chef though. The boil is done on the spot and you can see the skillful chef bring the right mix of ingredients to the pot.
What results is this beautiful and so so flavorful tray of crawfish that reminds you why Cajun style food is by far one of the world’s best cuisines.
New Orleans gave me a lot and it was worth every mile traveled towards it. Now it was time to go back but we had one more quick stop along the way.
We went back through Tennessee, this time actually going through Memphis – one of the BBQ Capitals of the US. This is where whole-hog bbqing is said to be done best, and at Central BBQ this is the absolute truth. The pulled pork sandwich is legendary and will blow your mind.
At the end of the day, this Spring Break offered a lot in terms of sights, food and activities but the brothers and lifelong friends I got to hang out with were really the highlights. I will keep great stories emboldened in magnificent destinations as memories from this trip.