We're back with our ongoing, mostly-during-Interlulls series on American cities where you might find yourself, and New Orleans really should be at the top of everyone's list. Though Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, and Saints fans is what registers on most Americans' radars, the Crescent City is much more than that crude cartoon sketch. I make regular pilgrimages for the mind-blowing cuisine, phenomenal music that sometimes literally turns the corner on to your street, and a rich and bizarre history which manifests to the present day, where it seems like everyone in the city has a fascinating backstory and a good chance of landing in a Wes Anderson movie or (if he were still around) a Raymond Carver short story.
And, like all good American cities, there's an Arsenal contingent. We checked in with Omar Khalid and Ally Dever of the Krewe of Arsenal (aka New Orleans Gooners) for some insights on their supporters group.
WHO ARE THEY?
Though the New Orleans Gooners were only recently registered as an Arsenal America chapter (long story), there's been an Arsenal contingent hanging around Finn McCool's (more about that in a second) for at least a decade. Ranging from about 40-100 Arsenal fans per match, with a nearly-200-strong following on Facebook, the group's had a long history of rooting for the red and white. As Khalld notes, "New Orleans Gooners existed before becoming official and before getting on Twitter and Facebook. Those are just the latest tools to help us share the good thing we have going down here. I was watching streams at home for years, unaware that there were die hard Gooners watching every match across town!"
WHERE DO THEY WATCH?
Finn McCool's, tucked away on Banks Street in a residential stretch of Mid-City, is an Irish pub with a strong sense of allegiance to the beautiful game. Dever notes, "The NOLA Gooners have always congregated at Finn McCool’s, because it is THE place to watch football in New Orleans. Despite being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, they quickly rebuilt in time for St. Patrick’s the next year, continuing to build the football watching community in the process. You can read Finn McCool’s Football Club by Stephen Rea to get an idea of the sense of spirit and community found at the pub." Run by a Northern Irish couple who are avid Celtic fans, they welcome fans of all teams to the pub, though Arsenal and Liverpool fans are so prevalent that Arsenal-'Pool matches have been christened the "Banks Street Derby" by bar regulars.
WHAT'S IT LIKE THERE?
Imagine a cross between an Irish pub and a comfy rec room, and you have a fair idea of the Finn McCool's aesthetic. While most fans stand three or four deep around the bar, there's an assortment of tables and additional folding chairs around strategically-placed new flat screens. (An improvement from last year, when I watched Jenks get a red card against Sunderland on The TV That Time Forgot.) There's also an in-house BBQ restaurant where you can order meat and other tasty things, which led me to a classic bad-yet-good dichotomy for the Nov. 10 United Match -- "Well, looks like Arsenal's not going to equalize, but at least I have cheese fries in my mouth." While it's primarily a soccer bar, it's also home to other manly overseas sports, and like virtually everything in New Orleans, it becomes Who Dat Zone once the Saints kick the pointy ball off.
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO IN YOUR TOWN?
If it's Mardi Gras (which it will be for the next Banks Street Derby, by the way -- planning's already underway); there are parades galore that much of the city turns out for. During the other 50 weeks of the year, there's still plenty to do.
Everyone who knows New Orleans has food recommendations.
Khalid says, "We really do have the best food, and most of it isn't gumbo and po-boys (though those are both amazing!) From gourmet food served from a taco truck like Taceaux Loceaux, to John Besh's amazing Italian pizza bistro Domenica (best happy hour in the city by far), and world class BBQ in the Bywater at The Joint. Yuki Izikaya on Frenchmen St is a good place to try some Japanese-fusion small plates after seeing a show. St. James Cheese Company and Stein's deli will fix you up with the best sandwiches you ever had in your life if you're spending some time walking around Uptown."
My advice is to EAT BYWATER. In addition to The Joint (which is the best non-Texas barbecue I've ever had), there's Elizabeth's (Southern-inspired, best at breakfast, and let me just throw the words "praline bacon" out there), Booty's Street Food (food cart-inspired, dressed-up dishes from around the world), Bacchanal (tapas and sinful cheese plates), and Satsuma (your standard cafe done really, really well). If you do find yourself on Bourbon Street -- a dismal state of affairs, generally -- find the Erin Rose a half-block north, go to the back room where Killer Poboys does its dirty work, and order the Dark and Stormy. And if that doesn't knock you over with porky goodness, cab it over through the CBD to Cochon on Unpronouncable Street (Tchoupitoulas) and its sister restaurant Butcher around the corner. And, if you want to eat fancy, go to Sylvain in the Quarter -- one menu option is, I kid you not, "champagne and fries."
Two reasons to go -- drinks and music; many have both, so if you're going for just one or the other, make a good choice, because there's a lot of quality either way. Khalid says, "Avenue Pub on the St. Charles streetcar line is the destination for beer selection (best maintained beer lines in town). New Orleans invented the cocktail, and we won't let you forget it with a number of craft cocktail bars. My personal favorites that have a high quality-to-ostentation ratio are Bar Tonique and Cane & Table, both in the French Quarter." I'm going to throw in with a couple of classy joints in the Quarter -- French 75, where waiters in tuxes bring ridiculously-fussed-over drinks, and the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, where you can sit and drink at a rotating carousel bar (no, seriously, click on the photo), which is just as dangerous as it sounds.
For music, Dever and I agree -- Frenchmen Street is the place, especially for brass bands and old-timey blues bands. Tipitina's and Howlin' Wolf, a relatively short drive or cab ride from the Quarter, are the two best bets for touring acts and notable New Orleans acts.
THINGS IN THE DAYTIME
If you like zoos and aquariums, New Orleans excel in both these categories, and if you've ever wanted to play mini-golf on a Louisiana-inspired course, drive out to City Park and try not to get lost. (Or you can take the St. Charles Streetcar, which is a sort of tourist attraction in itself, though it is also public transportation.) If walking and shopping around is your thing, make sure you check out Magazine Street. And, finally, if you want a little history and exercise with continued eating and drinking, I highly recommend the culinary bike tours put on by Confederacy of Cruisers, where you pedal around the city at 2 mph in between restaurant stops and can thereby feel those unwanted pounds just melting off.