One of the best meals I've ever had in my life was served off the back of a ute at 3am at the unfashionable end of Frenchmen St in New Orleans.
I'd just stumbled out of a small dive bar called the Apple Barrel, where I'd been grooving to a ferociously good electric blues trio. The joint had been jumping but, even in New Orleans, the music has to stop sometime. That time, as it turns out, is 3am. As soon as I set foot outside, I was hit by the mouth-watering smell of a barbecue, with its meats a-grillin' and big fat pots a-bubblin'.
The barbecue was on a trailer that'd been parked pretty much right outside the bar, a frequent sight in New Orleans.
No menu, so I asked the chef, "What's good?". The dude cooking, turned his head and replied, "Mac cheese. Burgers good too."
Usually, after a long night of partying - and this night had been particularly long, starting as it had with mimosas and live jazz for breakfast at the tranquil surrounds of the Court of Two Sisters - a burger should have been a no brainer.
But New Orleans, with its rebel spirit and good-times vibe marinating its sticky, spicy air, cares not one iota for brain power. Go with the flow, feel the rhythm of the night, throw caution to the wind and let the music move you.
"Mac cheese, please," I said.
A few minutes later I was handed one of the best meals of my life. Mac cheese served Cajun barbecue-style is alarmingly orange but that wasn't going to stop me. The cheese sauce drenching the pasta was thick and goopy and enhanced tremendously by the addition of crawfish, a crustacean that resembles a small lobster that the locals go cray for.
The smell wafting up from the container was eye-wateringly delicious and only bettered by that first greedy mouthful where the clash of flavour-bursting spices, cheesy goodness and pleasingly smushy texture all came together to blow my mind.
Mind-blowing New Orleans
Having my mind blown was turning into a regular occurrence in New Orleans. Earlier in the evening I'd seen the best jazz musicians of my life at the historic Preservation Hall. These seasoned jazz cats had put on a performance of traditional New Orleans jazz that was so intimate that no mics or amplifiers were needed.
A couple of hours later, after some very fancy fine dining at Arnaud's, a restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter that's been serving fine Creole cuisine since 1918, I'd barrelled out to the burbs to go to the Maple Leaf, a hip live music bar. Crammed on to the small stage, busting out some of the funkiest jams I've ever heard, was the legendary Rebirth Brass Band, whose irrepressible funky jams left me wishing I'd never given up the trombone after three miserable weeks when I was 12.
But even the non-legends working in this town are more than capable of putting on incredible show. Leave the excesses of tourist trap Bourbon St behind you and head for nearby Frenchmen St and you will be spoilt for choice. Bars line both sides of the street and inside each is a band guaranteed to wow you. I saw bands playing catchy New Orleans jazz, acid jazz, party funk, blues and, finally, the indie-rock trio at the Apple Barrel.
Grab a cocktail, to go
A curious quirk in the Big Easy is that you can leave venues with your drink and wander into another one, no problem - something you get very used to doing very quickly. So while there's no cover charges on Frenchmen St, most places have a one-drink minimum expectation. You're also encouraged to tip the band, mostly by the bands themselves.
No trip to the Big Easy is complete without sampling its signature drink, The Hurricane. This potent combination of rum, rum, rum and more rum with a splash of passionfruit juice to take the edge off even comes with its own warning; do not drink more than one. Heed this advice, friends.
We went to Pat O'Brien's, largely credited as the home of the Hurricane where, legend has it, old man O'Brien concocted the drink to get rid of cheap, plentiful and undesirable rum during the Prohibition era. Despite its history stretching back to the speakeasy era, O'Brien's is a party bar and fairly raucous. Fortunately, there is a room of respite away from the revellers in the courtyard, where you can sit comfortably and watch the duelling pianists battle. Any and all requests accepted.
They say things get a bit crazy in New Orleans and the fact that I learnt how to cook gives credence to that statement. Under the watchful eye - and jokey bants - of chef Matthew Guillory at the New Orleans School of Cooking, the mysteries of the kitchen, and the history of Cajun cooking, were both revealed to me, extending my culinary repertoire from eggs on toast and cereal to also homemade pumpkin soup, shrimp Creole and the traditional, distressingly rich, dessert of Bananas Foster.
It's no exaggeration to say I loved every groovy, boozy, fatty minute in New Orleans. But of course I did. It's a city built on tall tales, utterly scrumptious food, potent booze and astonishingly great music. Really, what's not to love?