Even when we reach maturity, which most of us truly never achieve, the battle cry never grows tiresome. Adventure awaits, along with new discoveries, new friends and new experiences to be recounted to those we left behind.
You can take the journey on your own terms. Go without a plan, meandering into the countryside, following some long-dormant internal instinct, and just see what you shall see. Or you can map every moment, studying guides and historic books, assuring you will miss nothing of interest.
Or you can do something in between: Keep enough time free to take advantage of adventuresome prospects that unexpectedly head your way, but plan and reserve pieces of a schedule so you are confident of where you will be sleeping, dining and what you will be seeing at least for a part of the adventure.
Road trips around here can be close, satisfying affairs. New Orleans is at the center of America’s Third Coast, a treasure trove of culture, history, sites, entertainment, back roads, small towns, big cities and luxury or spartan accommodations. The coastal states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida are kissed by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico – both the best friend land ever had, and its worst enemy.
Fortunately for the residents of the Isle d’Orleans, the central part of the Gulf Coast states are within easy reach. That ribbon of concrete known on maps as Interstate 10 East and West goes right from the heart of our town all the way to both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. But for our immediate purposes we shall concentrate on those sections of I-10, and even U.S. Highway 90, that stay closest to the Gulf, oftentimes providing pretty views of blue or emerald-green waters, or moss-covered oaks lining barely-moving bayous.
The Gulf Coast reaches back for its roots in tribal populations whose villages dotted the entire area. Then Europeans arrived, mostly Spanish, French and English, followed by citizens from Caribbean nations, people from Eastern Europe, Africa, Germany, Italy and Ireland, and most recently, newly arrived residents from Vietnam and other countries in the Near and Far East.
These layers of people built communities, made homes, educated their young and provided sustenance derived from within their previous-nation heritage, but adding what the end-of-land and warm sea of the Gulf Coast proffered. Crops of all types flourished in the fertile soils. The bounty of the rivers and the waters were beyond even what the immigrants had enjoyed in their native lands.
Ultimately, the people blended into the region and into each other. The important point is that all of those international influences, as well as influences from the heartland of North America, traveling to the South on rivers, brought lifestyles, celebrations, cuisines and even languages to the Gulf Coast. There is a diversity of cultures that makes this area not only historic and fascinating, but downright compelling to visit.
The immigrants to our areas brought with them the tasty cuisines of their homeland, adapting the ingredients available here. What has evolved are incredibly imaginative, unique and satisfying dining experiences. In the kitchen and at the dinner table are perfect ways to learn about people, their heritage and their surroundings.
Today, the mantra among a suddenly environmentally aware nation is to “Eat Local.” We’ve been doing that around here for more than 300 years. Welcome, America, to our world.
Lake Charles, Louisiana
La Truffle Sauvage. The Wild Truffle has found a home in the French world of southwest Louisiana with fine dining and classic French presentations, with a nod to the styles and the ingredients of the Acadian culture. Duck confit and the daily fresh fish preparation are must-haves. Then there’s the classic lobster bisque with a puff pastry top-hat and the curried clams. It is quite a nice addition to Lake Charles. 815 West Bayou Pines Drive, (337) 439-8364
El Tapatio Mexican Cuisine. The proximity to Texas has nothing to do with the cuisine here. This is real Mexican food, not Tex-Mex. The blending of the textures and the spices has more to do with the culture of Mexico than heavy doses of cheeses and sauces, which is prevalent to the west across the state line. El Tapatio is comfortable and unpretentious and the owners and staff are interested in your comfort and enjoyment. An unhurried experience is assured. Linger over the queso fundido and a classic margarita. 2624 Highway 14E, (337) 475-9022
Blue Dog Café. You are in the heart of Cajun country, so enjoy Cajun food as it was meant to be savored. George Rodrigue, a local boy from just down the four-lane pave in New Iberia, who created an international art icon, the Blue Dog, features not only his creative genius but also honors his culinary roots. 1211 W. Pinhook Road, (337) 237-0005
Pamplona Tapas Bar and Grill. Often overlooked and underplayed in Acadiana is the influence of the Spanish.
Pamplona rectifies that oversight, offering a real touch of Spain, from décor to menu. Try the bacon-wrapped dates, both jamon and manchego croquettes, Galician octopus and more, all accompanied by excellent sangria and wines from the Iberian Peninsula. Olé! 631 Jefferson Street, (337) 232-0070
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Gino’s. At the top of the list of restaurants that are soon to be fully appreciated, Gino’s takes classic Italian cuisine and serves it to perfection. The surroundings are modest and the service can sometimes be a bit slow, but the packed tables attest to the value of what is coming from the kitchen. 4542 Bennington Ave., (225) 927-7156
Mansur’s on the Boulevard. A fine dining destination located in an area of suburban hotels and strip malls, Mansur’s takes Louisiana classics and makes them its own. Cedar-roasted redfish, Shrimp Vacherie, Alfredeaux and Duck Mansur, alongside Creole veal piccata and warm crawfish salad keep this restaurant at the top of the Capital City’s power venues. 5720 Corporate Blvd., Suite A, (225) 923-3366
Juban’s. No discussion of Baton Rouge restaurants would be complete without including Juban’s, the most admired restaurant in town. The elegant décor and service befit a true gourmet restaurant. Classic Shrimp Martini or Blue Crab Crème Brûlée leads you into Louisiana Bouillabaisse or Creole Tuna. 3739 Perkins Road, (225) 346-8422
Mississippi Gulf Coast
Mary Mahony’s Old French House. The old home with a courtyard was built sometime prior to 1740, and the saying, “They don’t build them like that anymore,” aptly applies. More than one powerful storm, the most recent being Katrina in 2005, has battered and overwhelmed the structure, but here she sits proudly today, still serving fine food in comfortable surroundings. Flounder is a particular favorite, served only steps from where it was caught. 110 Rue Magnolia, Biloxi, Miss., (228) 374-0163
BR Prime. Glitzy in a grand old style borrowed from another era, BR Prime, and the companion restaurant, Jia, present beverage and wine selections constructed and served by Mark Warren, Master Sommelier, the only person to earn that valued designation in a two-state area. This restaurant is a classic American fine-dining steak experience, with offerings of lobster, oysters and Kobe ribeye. The Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, 875 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, Miss., (228) 386-7111
Phoenicia Gourmet Cuisine. A delightful surprise in this Old South, Gulf-front community, Phoenicia offers Mediterranean-centric cuisine, anchored by hummus, pita bread, falafel, baba ganoush, mixed chicken and shrimp shawarma, finishing with a sweet, honeyed baklava. More traditional Southern fare includes blackened snapper, gumbo and fried green tomatoes. 1223 Government St., Ocean Springs, Miss., (228) 875-0603
Wintzell’s Oyster House. The Azalea City’s place to go for oysters, crabs and fresh seafood, “fried, stewed or nude” is the restaurant’s slogan. Now part of a small local chain of restaurants, the flagship packs in the patrons, mostly because of its offerings on the plate, but also for its cozy and friendly ambiance, complete with the founder’s favorite (corny) quotes about life featured on the walls. Drink, eat, read, groan. 605 Dauphin St., (251) 432-4605
Island Thyme. Fish tacos, fish wraps, pork, steaks, fresh veggies and bread pudding. Oh, did we mention the changing exhibition of art? How about music? Island Thyme has made a big impression in a short period of time, both with its cuisine and its changing music and art exhibitions. It is eclectic, but not to the point of uncomfortable. And it’s casual, so don’t even think of wearing a tie. 453 Dauphin St., (251) 229-7055
Orange Beach, Alabama
Cosmo’s. Whaddya want? Well, that’s what they have. Duck and sausage gumbo, muffuletta pasta, fried shrimp, burger on sourdough, salads, spicy pork, sushi appetizer, blackened grouper, mahi-mahi, bread pudding, cheesecake, steak and crab claws. Sit at the bar or sit on the deck. 25753 Canal Road, (251) 948-9663
Villaggio Grille. A prime indicator of the gentrification of Orange Beach. Veal Scaloppini, rabbit with wild mushrooms, baked lobster orecchiette, capicola-wrapped snapper and white truffle honey shrimp are all served with amazing sides that the folks over at FloraBama have never even heard of. Next door is the Intracoastal Bread and Bottling Company assuring diners there will be fresh, hot bread and pastries at all times. 1480 Parkway, Suite 1012, (251) 224-6510
The Global Grill. It is an expansive name for an impressive restaurant. The pride of the house is the tapas selections: cold, hot and signature. The upscale, tasteful décor complements nicely the sturdy menu of both seafood and meat selections. The extensive wine list is rooted in the new world with champagnes adding a bubbly touch to celebrations. 25 South Palafox St., (850) 469-9966
Blue Dot Barbecue. If you’re near the beach, visit the Dot. Best burgers along the Panhandle. Also great ribs and rib sandwiches. And that’s the entire menu. Don’t expect nice. Sometimes don’t even expect it to be open. But when it is, you will know because of the lines out front. That’s about the only way you will know it. No sign. Cash only. 310 N. DeVilliers St., (850) 432-0644
Stinky’s Fish Camp. With a name like Stinky’s, it has to be good. Chef Jim Richard, originally from Lafayette, La., is better with seafood than he is with pithy expressions. But the food is really good, and really fresh. They serve great fish stew, and the oyster log is legendary. Leave plenty of time for dinner. The wait tends to be lengthy and no one wants to go home. 5960 County Road 30-A, Santa Rosa Beach, (850) 267-3053
Restaurant Paradis. Restaurant Paradis is a real oasis in an absolutely stunning beach community. One of the great bars along Road 30-A, with fine cuisine in almost elegant surroundings. During beautiful evenings, dining on the veranda is a special experience. For a treat, just plan on staying there all evening, drinking in the bar, then having a lovely dinner with wine, and finally a nightcap back in the bar. Every day can be Valentine’s Day when you live like this. 82 South Barrett Square, Rosemary Beach, (850) 534-0400
Seagar’s. You really don’t go to the beach to have a big, juicy, delicious steak. But sometimes the carnivore in you just needs to come out. Take comfort in the sub-title, “Prime Steaks and Seafood.” And don’t let the name fool you. There is no smoking in Seagar’s. Some of the dishes, such as Steak Diane, Dover Sole and the dramatic Bananas Foster, are prepared tableside. It is dinner and a show with great wines, all in one sitting. Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa, 4000 Sandestin Blvd., South, (850) 267-9500
We live in a great city, but the world is large. Moving about the region and meeting our neighbors is the New Orleans thing to do. And with neighbors like these, who wouldn’t want to get to know them better?
The road trip experience awaits. The diverse cultures and fascinating countryside can put you in a place close enough to home but with completely different dining and cultural opportunities.