Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

As mentioned in my previous post, I was in New York City in February and had a chance to explore locally. One of the ideas I came across was to visit the garden at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, located on 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue. It was the middle of winter, the garden was indoors, and admission was free! Of course, I had to look it up!

Ford Foundation Garden with reflecting pool

After walking the High Line that morning and grabbing lunch, my travel partners and I took an Uber to the Ford Foundation. The Foundation has a multilevel garden and a Gallery that are wheelchair-accessible. The wheelchair entrance is on 42nd, whereas the lobby and Gallery access is from 43rd Street. Admission to both the garden and the Gallery is free.

The Ford Foundation website states they are unrelated to the Ford Motor Company. For the last 80 years, “the Ford Foundation has invested in innovative ideas, visionary individuals, and frontline institutions advancing human dignity around the world.” The Foundation has extensively “worked in civil rights, education, arts and culture, human rights, poverty reduction, and urban development.” Read more about the work of the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice here.

After walking into the lobby from 43rd Street, we descended the steps to the garden, a veritable sea of green! Tall windows several stories high shone sunlight into the atrium. The high roof of the building dwarfed several tall trees and vines. While the garden is not immense, seeing a verdant landscape in a city full of skyscrapers is striking! There are over 40 different species of trees and plants in this garden. And it takes a gardener from an outsourced company working full time to keep this place looking as incredible as it does, all year long!

Dwarfed by tall trees in the Ford Foundation atrium garden

We enjoyed the section with several aromatic herbs like mint, lemongrass, lavender, etc. This area is for people who are vision impaired or blind and has braille signage. Walking further down the step-like garden, we reached the reflecting pool at the base. While not forming a dense canopy, it was still impressive to look up and be embraced by vigorous plant growth in the middle of winter in New York City. It felt like a balm to be cocooned in the lap of nature, even if it was all manmade. While we mostly saw green foliage, a few trees and plants were blooming, beauties of pink and white.

White beauties at the garden

After spending more time in the garden, we were ready to visit the Gallery but were told it was closed. A new exhibit was being installed, and it would reopen in April 2023. What a bummer!

If you haven’t already, visit the garden and the Gallery at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice! It’s a soothing getaway from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

The Ford Foundation is located at 320 E 43rd St,New York, NY 10017. And is open Monday to Saturdays (when an exhibit is ongoing).

New York City has been synonymous with the High Line Park since I first read about its existence in 2012. Taking an out-of-use freight line track and redesigning it into a multi-use public space struck me as clever, resourceful, and ingenious. In 2015, when the JJ family visited New York City, we spent a couple of hours at this park. It was still in progress then, but we enjoyed the concept.

The High Line in winter

A couple of months ago, I was in New York and had some time to explore on my own. Now that the High Line was complete and fully open, I wanted to revisit the park. Missy JJ spent a summer in NYC last year and thoroughly enjoyed her weekend walks here. It was a beautiful morning, with blue skies and golden sun, and the perfect way to enjoy a winter morning in the Big Apple. My travel partners were eager to explore the High Line with me.

The High Line is located on Manhattan’s West Side. According to the history on its website, the original freight lines in this part of the town ran in the middle of the streets, causing multiple accidents and fatalities. The problem improved by adding men on horseback carrying red flags and warning pedestrians about approaching trains. But eventually, the idea to elevate the train tracks gained ground. In 1933, the first such freight train became operational. Over the next 30 years, it served the Meatpacking District carrying tons of meat, dairy, and produce.

As the trucking industry took over, the need for these trains reduced and eventually ground to a complete stop in the 1980s. In disuse and denounced as an eye sore, there were many calls to demolish the tracks. On the southernmost side, a section of the line had already been demolished in the 1960s. It was but a matter of time before the rest were to follow.

NYC Love Mural along the High Line

In 1983, local residents explored the idea of preserving the structure and converting it for alternate use. At this time, Congress passed the Trail System Act making it easier to convert old rail lines into recreational areas. As the years progressed and debates and discussions ensued, Nature did what she does best: allow plants to grow in wild abandon. In 1999, Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit conservancy, was formed to advocate for maintaining the High Line and repurposing it for public use. In 2003, they hosted an “ideas competition.” Over the next couple of years, the area of the High Line was rezoned as a public park.

A team of architects and designers was chosen, and the project began in 2006, with the first portion completed in 2009. Since then, High Line Park has continued expanding to its 1.45-mile-long journey. In addition to functioning as a public green space, it boasts commissioned art pieces. Many public programs, such as stargazing, TaiChi, fitness classes, and community engagement projects and performances, occur here regularly.

To this day, the High Line admission remains free. The park is open from 7 am to 10 pm most of the year. Public docent-led tours (three times a week) and some private tours are available.

On the day we visited, there were no public tours. We started at the Gansevoort Street entrance, walking up the stairs to join the elevated tracks. The balcony here marks the southern end of the demolished trail line. Few people were strolling along. The rail tracks were embedded in the walkway, with the vegetation on both sides stripped bare during winter. We walked further to find pieces of artwork, including the “Women and Children”, a group of bronze sculptures by Nina Beier. The figures have drilled holes for eyes through which water streams and had turned to ice!

Art work at the High Line

Further down, we walked past the 14th Street passage, where films are shown in summer. The Overlook at 10th Street was quite remarkable. This amphitheater-style seating is fully wheelchair accessible and is perfect for people-watching. It hosts performances during warmer months. We stood here for a few minutes taking in the steady flow of traffic below us.

Next up were the 22nd Street seating steps made of reclaimed wood. The location was perfect for stopping and sunning ourselves in the early morning light. Across from the steps was a mural, “NYC Love” by Nina Chanel Abney, invoking NYC’s iconic sights, sounds, and smells. Just past this, we stopped to watch Windy, a tornado-inspired sculpture of black foam by Meriem Bennani. At the 26th Street viewing area, we had to walk around the filming crew of some well-known food critic. Since the place was crowded, we didn’t stop to visit this deck.

Windy, art installation at the High Line

Near here, we also peeked into the bronze binocular art called Observer, Observed by Julia Phillips. We took turns looking through the binoculars, only to have a nearby LED screen transmit images of our eyes captured on screen. Were we the observer or the observed, or in this case, both?

At 30th, the path suddenly turns sharply to the left, and the trail runs east-west. This area was wider than the rest of the track. The Freedom’s Stand artwork sits here, showcasing headlines from various Black Newspapers. We walked to the end to get a view of the Hudson River. On the way back, we entered the Hudson Yards area and were immediately captured by the unique Vessel.

Vessel at the Hudson Yards

The Vessel is a spiral staircase with 154 flights of stairs and 80 landings, all interconnected and offering a different view of the City. I read that the Indian step wells inspired the concept. At the time of our visit, only ground-level access was allowed and was free, and we took advantage of it to exclaim over such a unique piece of architecture. Then we walked outside and enjoyed a frontal view of the structure before walking down 34th Street and enjoying some murals on the way.

Once back on the High Line, we noticed the crowd had considerably thickened. We heard people conversing in several languages, many unknown to us. People of all ages were on that track that morning, paying tribute to the brilliant idea of repurposing a beloved structure and allowing Nature to lend a hand.

Of course, since it was winter, the trees were bare and the grass brown and dry. But one look at the photos on the website shows what brilliance of color and profusion lay hibernating beneath. I am sure the wildflowers in many colors and the verdant green of trees and bushes will add an aura of magic to this beautiful place.The High Line has elevator access at four locations and stair access at various points. Pets are not allowed on the trail. Although owned by the City of New York, the park is run on the funds raised by the Friends of the High Line. The organization is also responsible for maintaining and operating the High Line.

The High Line in winter

Walking the High Line is not about the distance traversed but rather enjoying the arduous journey the freight line tracks have undertaken. Where they have been and where they are ready to go. The question is: are we?

In February, I traveled to New York City for a few days and stayed at the Sheraton Times Square. The day I visited Ichiran for lunch was also the day I got to experience gourmet dining at Indian Accent, New York. The Michelin Guide references this as one of the thirteen best Indian restaurants in New York. Chef and owner Manish Mehrotra has added unique twists to well-known and authentic dishes to create a new menu ensemble.

Potato sphere chaat, white pea mash

It was one of the coldest days in NYC when my travel partners asked if I wanted to join them for dinner at the Indian Accent. One of their family members highly recommended it. It was also a short seven-minute walk from our hotel. My friends called for a reservation and got one for 10:15 pm! We had nothing else to do; it was too cold for us Texans to be out and about. The thought of hot, spicy Indian food was far too tempting to let a late-hour reservation kill the joy of eating.

After a brisk walk in the cold evening, we made it to the cozy interiors of the restaurant. Past the entrance, the waitress immediately greeted us. Our table was ready. We walked past the bar to the left of us and a row of diners at tables on the right to enter an inner room. Our table was in the middle and surrounded by smaller tables on all sides. The ambiance was muted but tastefully done. The low hum of conversation and clinking tableware caught our ears.

Our menu at Indian Accent, NYC

Our waiter informed us that since we had chosen to reserve a table, we had to order a four-course meal. Patrons at the bar could order a la carte. At $95 per person, the dinner wasn’t inexpensive by any means. Between the three of us, we could order 12 dishes, including appetizers, mid-course, mains, accompaniments, and desserts. We ordered different dishes to get a broad taste of the menu and shared each one.

For appetizers, we chose the sweet potato shakarkandi with crispy okra and starfruit, the potato sphere chaat with white pea mash, and the pulled jackfruit phulka. The mild sweetness and softness of the shakarkandi were complemented well by the crunchy okra. The chaat I enjoyed much with the green and tamarind chutneys. I didn’t care much for the pea mash, although one of my friends liked it. The pulled jackfruit was different in its texture. I haven’t eaten much raw jackfruit before, so I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sweet potato shakarkandi, starfruit and crispy okra

We ordered the smoked eggplant bharta cornet with goat cheese mousse and the tofu masala with shishito peppers from the mid-courses. I am not a big fan of bhaingan bharta, but the dish’s presentation in the mini cones made the experience unique. I wolfed down the cornets. The tofu was well-cooked and added a touch of Asian flavor, and the shishito peppers were a great addition to the dish.

Bhaingan Bharta in a cone?!

For the mains, we chose wild mushroom kebabs with morel pulao and winter truffles, kadai paneer with stuffed sweet peppers, hearts of palm, sweet potato, and sweet corn/garlic scapes vadai with quinoa and Kerala moilee. The first option was loaded with morel and winter truffles, some of the most highly prized edible mushrooms. While I only care a little for the texture of mushrooms, I actually enjoyed these kebabs. The pulao was perfectly cooked, with each grain of rice separate and not overdone. The stuffed peppers were good but didn’t stand out in my mind. The vadais were well done, soft on the inside and crisp on the outer, and paired well with the moilee. It was reminiscent of Kerala cuisine with its rich use of coconut-based gravies.

Wild mushroom kebabs and morel pulao

The wild mushroom kulcha with truffle butter, green pea, spicy potato kulcha, and black dairy daal with naan rounded out our accompaniments. The mushroom kulcha was good, but I still enjoyed the kebab version to the kulcha. The other breads were fine, but the daal was rich and spiced just right. 

The grand finale came with the arrival of our dessert: makhan malai, saffron milk, rose petal, jaggery brittle, and almonds. It looked splendid, to begin with, the rose petals and brown jaggery contrasting with the yellow malai. Not too sweet but airy and light, the softness of the dessert was frequently broken by the crunchiness of the brittle or the almonds. It was the perfect way to end the evening!

Makhan malai with adornments

Since we were in the last reservation slot of the evening, most of the other customers had left before we could finish. But the staff remained patient as we chatted through the dinner and delighted in our dessert. After the customary photos and rounds of good nights, we walked out into the freezing evening, our hearts and souls warmed by the excellent food and company. The 10:15 pm slot was definitely worth the wait!

Sweet corn and garlic vadai with quinoa and Kerala moilee

In February 2022, we visited Junoon, one of the most well-known Indian restaurants in NYC. The ambiance was more sophisticated, the service, while slightly more formal, was excellent, and the price more expensive. Of course, the food tasted outstanding. Indian Accent, by comparison, was a bit more relaxed; the decor was muted and the service was still very good. But ultimately, the creativity was more apparent here, and I had a good time exploring different options.

I can’t wait to return to NYC and try a different menu at the Indian Accent with Mr. JJ next time!

Indian Accent has a sister location in New Delhi, India.

A couple of months ago, our friends, the K family, asked us to join them for dinner at Cafe Madrid. Being foodies, they’re constantly looking to explore the Dallas restaurant scene. And since I have a Spain trip later this year, it felt a good way to become familiar with the tapas offerings in Dallas. Knowing how much the Spanish love meat, Mr. JJ and I initially hesitated. But a quick look at the menu offered some vegetarian options, so we decided to go. Our friends reserved a table.

Cafe Madrid, Dallas

Cafe Madrid is located in the Highland Park area. The restaurant was very lively. We walked into the main room, packed with small tables, European style, and a bar. Two other rooms lead off from that one. They were all packed with customers. The host led us immediately to our table, close to the bar and in the middle of the room. Conversation flowed around us as the waitressing staff walked up and down all night long.

Our waiter suggested ordering at least three tapas each. We chose the mixed olives trio, the patatas bravas, the queso frito con ceballo y miel (fried goat cheese with honey and caramelized onions), grilled shishito peppers (I didn’t find this on the menu today), and espinacas pirineos (sauteed spinach with pine nuts).

The fried goat cheese was the best of all. The outside was just crisp, while the cheese was perfectly melted inside. The dish moved to another level with the caramelized onions and honey. The potatoes were less spicy than we had hoped. I enjoyed the mixed olives, but not Mr. JJ, who isn’t a big fan. The peppers were grilled well and tasty. The food was not spicy by any means. I wanted to taste the paella, but they couldn’t make it vegetarian enough to suit our needs. We settled for the saffron rice, but it was too salty and not worth the money spent. We hardly touched it. For dessert, we all chose flan that was light and flavorful.

Fried goat cheese with caramelized onion and honey

Our friends ordered sliced Jamon Iberico, mixed anchovies olives, chorizo al vino (sausage with wine), Mejillone con azafran (mussels in saffron sauce), morcilla de arroz y cebolla (fried blood sausage with toasted bread), setas en salsa de Jerez (mushrooms in cream sherry sauce), pan con tomate (grilled bread with tomato), boquerones alinados (imported white anchovy fillets). They felt the Jamon was delectable, like candy, and was worth the price. They also enjoyed the fried goat cheese and thought the mushrooms were delicious. They said the blood sausage was perfectly spiced and one of the best they’ve ever had.


There was a lot of movement around us that evening. Which meant I couldn’t get photos of the room where we were seated. But the decor was very reflective of Spain’s matador and bullfighting culture. I enjoyed the tapas at Cafe Madrid. While I’d have preferred a spicier taste to the food, I understand this is as it’s meant to be. Reviewing the menu today, I found more options for the next visit. Warmer weather will allow us to sit outside and enjoy a Happy Hour, or we can visit on the first Friday for some flamenco. And get a small taste of Spain in Dallas! I highly recommend reserving a table before your visit.

One of the best things about April in Texas is enjoying the roadside wildflowers as they blossom. Anyone driving up and down Texas highways knows it’s the best time to be on the lookout for bluebonnets, the state flower. But to get an up close and personal look at these beauties on a leisurely drive, there’s no better place to be than Ennis. Well known for its abundant bluebonnets, along with Indian paintbrushes and primroses, Ennis is a must-see in spring.

Bluebonnets on the Ennis trail

Bluebonnets peak at different times in April in any given year. Also, where the blooms are abundant varies from year to year. To take the guesswork out of the equation, I follow the Ennis Bluebonnet Trails and Festival website, It contains the peak predicted times, the best locations to enjoy the blooms, trail maps, the best spots for photos, etc. The Ennis Garden Club members visit the trails to check on the flowers and constantly update the information.

Ennis is located about 30 miles south of Dallas, a straight shot along I45 south to Houston, making it easily accessible within an hour’s drive. In addition to the trails, Ennis also hosts the Ennis Bluebonnet Trails Festival over one weekend in April. Spread over three days, from Friday to Sunday, the Festival is held downtown and includes kids’ activities, foods of all kinds, arts and crafts, and wine-tasting experiences. It also includes live music performances on the main stage and at the Wine Wander tent.

This year, in 2023, the predicted peak for the bluebonnets was between April 8th to 18th. And the Festival was held from April 14th to 16th. Since the weather was perfect on Sunday (yesterday), we decided to make a quick trip. Our friends, the K family, joined us. It was their first visit to the Ennis area.

Last year, we used the Ennis Y’all app, but this time, we decided to be low-tech and get a trail map. Our first stop was at the Ennis Welcome Center, where the friendly staff gave us a trail map, and another staffer showed us all the locations where the blooms were the best seen. Although the center was crowded, the line moved quickly, The Center is one of the few places with restroom facilities, and they were well-maintained and clean.

Ennis Bluebonnet Trails Map

Ennis has three main trails: North, South, and West. The area around the West Trail has the Ennis Veterans Memorial Park, Bluebonnet Park, and the Meadow View Nature Area. These are the best places to leisurely take photos among the bluebonnets and enjoy a nice picnic. Besides the Welcome Center, these parks have restroom facilities (we saw portable toilets at Meadow View).

It was nearly noon when we left the Welcome Center and went to the Meadow View Nature Center. The collections of blooms were different in different parts of the area. Some were purely bluebonnets, while in other regions, orange-red Indian paintbrushes vied for attention. A few pale pink primroses grabbed our attention. It was a beautiful afternoon, and we spent several minutes admiring the beauty of the flowers and clicking photos.

Primroses, paintbrushes and bluebonnets pose for the camera

Eventually, our hunger caught up with us, and we enjoyed a sumptuous meal prepared by my friend. We topped off the excellent meal with cold sparkling cider and ice cream. Bellies full, we were ready to hit the other trails. One of the nice things about Meadow View is the lake that borders it. The lakeside was the perfect tapestry of colored blooms in the foreground and the blue water in the background.

After a quick stop at the Welcome Center, we went to the Festival next door. After paying the $5 per adult entrance fee, we walked around the festival grounds, enjoying the warm sun. People thronged the area, enjoying various vendor stalls. Artwork, quilts, small jewelry, and clothing boutiques competed with food stalls of all kinds. Mr. JJ bought sasparilla root beer, and we snacked on cinnamon-roasted nuts. We walked past stalls offering brick-oven pizza, boiled crawfish, burgers, and fries. The funnel cake stand also sold nachos, corn dogs, fries, and Snickers and was immensely popular with the longest line. There were many games for kids of all ages while performers crooned on the main stage. Shortly, we left the Festival to get back on the trail.

We first took the South trail and were rewarded with at least three flower fields. The first had only bluebonnets and afforded the perfect opportunity to take photos seated among the blooms. We saw many families, some multigenerational, happily creating new memories in that field. The next area was so abundant with blossoms we could only see a sea of orange-red interspersed with blue. The vista was breathtaking! No amount of photos or words can do justice to the natural beauty of that field!

Field of Indian paintbrushes, Ennis

Further down, we came across a tidal wave of yellow! We had to stop and explore this bright and gay field of yellow daisies! Oh, what a joy it was to walk among them and let their happy colors soothe the eye and the soul!

Sea of yellow daisies

Next, we took the connecting Hwy 660 to the North Trail. We drove past Bristol to the Sugar Ridge Winery area. It was nearing 330 pm by the time we got there. A stop at the winery is highly recommended by those who have visited, but we chose to skip it. I loved the overarching trees and the canopies they provided in this area. There was something exceptional about the narrow lanes and greenery and the changing topography of this area. Well past the winery, we came across a small pond with a couple of swans. The bluebonnets in the meadow fronting this area appeared larger and more densely packed.

Further along the route, we came across Sugar Ridge Ranch, where we saw four horses. Fenced in, they still stood several hands high and nudged visitors for food, Two large bags of grains sat in front of the gate, and we joined others in feeding the horses! We saw some longhorns grazing a short distance away but didn’t stop to see them up close.

The fields along the North and South Trails are private property, so we followed posted directions like not trespassing, etc. Since the roads are narrow and traffic on weekends is high, we had to keep our eyes peeled for people and animals. Especially, when we reached a flower field, with many cars parked along the sides of the road, There are no shoulders in these areas. On most streets, the traffic was free-flowing except in one where we had to wait patiently for a large RV to pass almost 20 to 30 other vehicles!

Horses at the Sugar Ridge Ranch, Ennis

The paintbrushes overtook the bluebonnets in most locations this year compared to other years. I’m not complaining as their fiery color only added to the beauty of the viewing. This time, we saw more blooms on the South Trail than on the North, which is usually the case. I could have sworn, eight years ago when we first visited, there were far more blooms than this time.

Ennis Bluebonnets are a ritual of sorts for us. I hope to be back for more spellbinding colors next year!

I am starting a series titled Food Travel. I have long wanted to write about some of our dining experiences, and a series such as this would serve that purpose well. In early February, I had a chance to visit New York City (NYC) and eat at Ichiran. It was a unique dining experience and one I present below.

Missy JJ spent a summer last year in NYC and explored several eateries then. One of the places she highly recommended was Ichiran. My hotel during the visit, the Sheraton Times Square, was a couple of blocks away from this restaurant. The day of my visit being one of the coldest in NYC, I was loathe to venture out despite being layered from head to toe. But a feeling of restlessness and hunger eventually drove me to make the short walk. Missy JJ insisted that the place was to be experienced in person and not to order online. And boy, was I thankful she made me go!

Written order sheet at Ichiran

Ichiran is famous for its classic Tonkotsu soup with its “deep savory flavors of pork-bone broth without the strong aromas.” The ramen noodles are made fresh in-house daily from a unique blend of flours. The ramen is then enriched by a red pepper sauce or the Hiden no tare made from thirty specially blended spices. Toppings and sides further enhance the soup’s taste and include Yakibuta (marinated pork in thick slices), seaweed, mushrooms, scallions, chashu (barbecued pork), white rice, and a soft-boiled egg. Ichiran serves vegetarian ramen (although not vegan). The diner can customize it with extra minced garlic, scallions, mushrooms, and an extra helping of spicy red sauce. If they choose, the guest can order either full or half servings of the noodles as Kae-dama or refills.

What is unique about the Ichiran service are the Aji Shuchu counters. Each guest is led to a single dining booth enclosed on both sides by the counter and in front by a curtain that separates the diner from the kitchen service. Essentially the guest is left to enjoy the meal with the least distractions. Also, since the freshly made noodles start expanding once added to boiling water, Ichiran guests are served the dish within fifteen seconds to enjoy the exact texture of the ordered noodles.

My counter at Ichiran

While waiting to be seated, guests order their meals using a written order sheet from which they can customize the toppings and sides. They can choose from soda, sake, draft beer, Calpico, and Ramune (Japanese soda). Matcha pudding serves as dessert. To order noodle refills, a Kae-dama plate is left at the booth. Guests place the plate on a sensor that activates a tune and notifies the staff.

The day I visited, there were about eight people in line ahead of me, waiting to be seated. I received the order sheet and filled it in, but I didn’t see an option for veggie ramen. As I neared the start of the line, I asked the waitress about veggie options, and she handed me a different sheet to fill. Soon, she led me to the single booth counters inside. She showed me where to hang my coat and mentioned the water dispenser. All but three or four booths were occupied. Soon the curtain in front of me opened, and I handed the server my order. She showed me how to place the kae-dama order. Then I waited patiently for the food to arrive.

My kae-dama plate

I enjoyed some cold water and hot Matcha tea meanwhile. After the brisk walk in the cold, it felt cozy to be sipping the tea, lost in thought in my booth as the servers worked on the other side. Soon enough, the curtain opened, and a waiter placed a black dish before me. Inside was the gleaming ramen with scallions and extra servings of the spicy red sauce. The ramen was worth the trip! Tasting the umami of the broth at first without the sauce or the toppings felt perfect! Not too salty, light enough to swallow quickly, and rich enough to feel satiated. As I swirled the red sauce and the toppings into the ramen, the flavors came together, and I was lost for the next few minutes in the ramen-umami world! I saved some soup for the half kae-dama I had requested. Although it may be a bit too filling, I had a bakery to walk to next and knew I could walk it off.

My veggie ramen

Walking away from Ichiran that afternoon, I was glad Missy JJ pushed me to experience this unique ramen place. I can’t wait to return the next time I’m in NYC.

The itinerary for the first day of the trip was to reach New Orleans and do the ghost tour with Free Tours by Foot at 730 pm. The rest of the afternoon was quite open.

As if to get any future problems out of the way, the flight from Dallas to New Orleans was delayed by a half hour. But once we took off, it was all smooth sailing. We took an Uber to the hotel, where the staff had a room available, even though it was a bit early. Mr. JJ and I thought to finish lunch at the French Quarter and go to the Warehouse District, where the National WW II museum and Mardi Gras World are located.

Unfortunately, Killer Po’boys was closed that day. So we were walking around the French Quarter when we came across Cunada. It was on my list of restaurants to try for its many vegetarian options. The interior was quiet, with only one couple dining in the back. There was a counter and bar to the front and right of the room, while a few white folding tables and chairs occupied the space to the left and the back. The decorations were typical of any Mexican fiesta.

The simplicity of the inside belied a staff that was quick and efficient and food that was delicious. We ordered the tortilla soup with fixings (tortilla strips, onions, avocado, crema, radish, and cilantro). The soup wasn’t much to speak of by itself, but once we added the fixings, it tasted sumptuous. The vegan ceviche was lemony and tasted of tomatoes mixed with well-cooked cauliflower and lentils. Perhaps it was the texture, but I wouldn’t say I liked the ceviche as much. We also ate one taco each; mine was the calabacitas, while Mr. JJ chose the taco de papa. The tacos were just adequate and oh! so fresh and highly reminiscent of our time in Mexico. I also ordered the hibiscus-infused Jamaican but couldn’t enjoy it as it was too sweet.

Taco de Calabacitas at Cunada

While we dined, two groups of college kids showed up. A couple of them mentioned visiting Cunada for the third time as they loved the food. Nothing could be a better testament to the food than thrice-returning customers!

We decided to look up the World War Museum with lunch out of the way. The Museum has several exhibits and a movie about 45 mins long. Since the Museum closed at 5 pm, we would need more time to enjoy it. So we decided to go to the Mardi Gras World instead.

Mardi Gras is such an integral part of NOLA history that we felt obligated to visit this store. Mardi Gras World is a working studio owned by Blaine Kern, generally regarded as “Mr. Mardi Gras” in New Orleans. Blaine helped his father build their first float on a mule-drawn wagon in 1932. In 1947, he established his studios to make a float for one of the local krewes. Since then, he has pushed for more detailed and extravagant floats for his customers and to the delight of the revelers!

King Kong model at Mardi Gras World

The studio runs tours daily; each lasts about an hour. Ours started with a 15-minute movie about the history and significance of Mardi Gras in NOLA. Followed by the distribution of the king cake, and then we set off to tour the studios. The whole facility was teeming with artists, architects, and painters. The guide showed us how float designs are first created on paper. Then cutouts are made using styrofoam which can be easily manipulated into different shapes. Next, using the papier mache technique, the styrofoam figures are smoothed over and then sent for painting. We saw models in various stages of completion scattered throughout the studios. Of course, most of them were gigantic as befits a grand float.

We met Katy Perry, Clint Eastwood, King Kong, and Darth Maul, among others. They were so lifelike, it was uncanny! But even these giants paled in comparison to the actual floats! The massive floats sat on wooden platforms housed on a custom-melded chassis. The guide mentioned that the wooden floor was covered by muslin. Slowly, the main elements are added according to the original sketch. Eventually, flowers and other props add to the layered effect. 

The float’s inside has hooks designed to hang Mardi Gras beads and storage areas for doubloons, etc. There are seat belts for the riders and much-needed bathrooms for comfort! The floats are pulled by tractors and run on solid rubber tires to avoid any flat tires.

Each Krewe commissions its float annually. Once done with the parade, the floats return to Kern Studios, where the props are removed and the floats stripped down bare and painted white before they begin a new transformation journey for the following year.

One of the neat things at the studio was watching a robot named Pixie, who works on digital fabrication. Kern Studios employs cutting-edge technology with the use of this robot. The artists create a 2D sketch which is then transformed into a 3D model. Once all the details about the type of armature, prop material, and finish are decided, the information is fed to the robot. Pixie then works precisely and tirelessly, creating what she has been tasked to do. 

Pixie sculpting away! At Mardi Gras World (seen through glass window)

Named Pixie after a long-time beloved employee of the company, Pixie has enhanced the accuracy of the work and increased the production capabilities of the studio, leading to more employment.

We watched from the studio as Pixie sculpted away at her prop, ignoring her gawkers. A large mural on the wall behind her depicted the real-life Pixie and Blaine Kern, keeping a sharp eye over Pixie. As the tour ended, we walked the floor of the vast studio, admiring the colorful props everywhere, from the iconic to the whimsical to the ordinary. As we left the lobby, the staff announced a free shuttle that could drop us off on Canal street, close to our hotel.

At Canal Street, we found ourselves across from Cafe Beignet, one of the two beignet places on our list. So we walked over to join the long line, ordered our beignets and coffee, and waited in their indoor seating area. As luck would have it, the weather had cooled that morning after being balmy all winter. While we had to layer clothes to stay warm, it was the perfect weather to enjoy warm beignets and hot coffee. I was disappointed that the beignets smelled of overused oil. But they were warm and coated in powdered sugar, and I was glad about that.

Beignets at the Cafe Beignet

Satiated, we decided to skip exploring and took an Uber back to the hotel for a break before returning to the French Quarter for our ghost tour. Join us tomorrow for a review of the spooky ghost tour. Until then!