For a Little Inspiration, Get Outta Town

By Matt Sorrell
In Food

It’s easy to get caught up in your routine and suddenly find yourself in a deep rut. Maybe you’re knee-deep in work, or perhaps you’ve just ensconced yourself too far into the comfort zone. Whatever the reason, it’s suddenly the same old, same old day in and day out.

Photo courtesy of Tales of the Cocktail

Photo courtesy of Tales of the Cocktail

 

For aficionados of food and drink, complacency such as this is an especially dangerous state of affairs. Whether you’re active in creating cuisine and cocktails or just enjoy indulging, it’s imperative to get out and see (and taste) what’s going on in other places in order to expand your skills as well as your palette and get inspired.

So, what better way to shake off the rust and get the juices flowing than embarking on a good ol’ American road trip? Recently, thanks to Ted and Jamie Kilgore of Planter’s House, I got the chance to go to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, the preeminent cocktail convention in the country (though I’m embarrassed to say it was my first time attending. Hopefully it’s not my last)! I have a tendency to stick close to home, and this was the perfect opportunity to force myself to get out and recharge my batteries and see something of what’s happening outside of the Lou. It was sort of a whirlwind trip, just a few days, but I was able take in myriad experiences that helped rekindle the fire I have for the work of making drinks.

I’ve been to NOLA many times, but I’ve always flown into the city, and so haven’t ever taken the time to enjoy and appreciate all of the fabulous things that can be found along the roadside on the way to the Crescent City. Goodness such as:

  • Thanks to Ted Kilgore’s supreme Googling skills, we discovered Green Ghost Tacos in Jackson, Miss. Tucked inside a nondescript strip mall, this taco oasis serves up some of the best examples I’ve ever tasted, including superior cabeza and lengua versions. They also have five house-made salsas in varying degrees of heat, and they make all tortillas to order. Crazy. This family-owned joint also has a food truck and plans to expand, so keep an eye out for them.
  • I’ve long heard of boiled peanuts, that most Southern of snacks, but had never tried them before. We found some stewing in a crusty crockpot in a gas station somewhere in Mississippi, and with Jamie’s encouragement, I gabbed a cup of the cajun-flavored variety. Mushy, savory, spicy—it’s hard to come up with enough adjectives to adequately describe these little flavor bombs. Mark my words, I will one day make a boiled peanut cocktail!

Once in New Orleans, I of course hit up a couple of my favorite haunts (Old Absinthe House, Port of Call), but I was also fortunate enough to check out some new places (new to me anyway):

  • Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, tiki scholar and author extraordinaire, recently opened up his own bar, dubbed Latitude 29, on the edge of the French Quarter. This bastion of tropical goodness features the best of the tiki tradition with just the right amount of kitsch and the best possible spirits. I indulged in the Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) Swizzle, a sublime yet potent combo of two high-proof rums. The food was pretty great too.
  • The French Quarter is all well and good but there’s so much more to New Orleans than the Vieux Carre. This trip, I ventured uptown a bit and got the privilege to dine at Upperline. JoAnn Clevenger and her staff offer the best food and hospitality in the city in an absolutely charming space, and the duck etoufee and the drum fish with hot & hot shrimp here are completely off the chain, as the young people say.
  • While I love cocktail bars, I also have an affinity for that most humble of watering holes, the dive bar. One night I ambled (maybe stumbled) over to the Copper Monkey Grill, thankfully right next door to my hotel. Cheap shots, good eats and friendly bartenders, this place ended up being my base of operations during my brief stay. They aren’t reinventing the wheel here, just keeping it rolling.

Of course, it was fun running into other bartenders and industry folks I know at Tales and making new connections, but the journey itself was the best part. It got me thinking about new flavors and techniques and fired up some fresh ideas that I hope to bring to the bar.

I encourage anyone reading this to take some time, get out of town and
see what the wider world has to offer. Whether it’s heading a few miles away to the next town over or going overseas, the change of scene will do you good. Just remember, comfort zones are self-imposed. Cheers!

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