For Stanford students, there’s only a few bars that everyone goes to. One of the biggest nightlife hotspots is NOLA, an aggressively Mardi Gras themed bar and restaurant that’s gaudily decorated with scattered dangling beaded necklaces. It’s the kind of place that I’d normally write off at first glance, assuming they’d only be able to make stupidly sweet and strong alcoholic punches and serve shitty bar food, but that assumption would be wrong.
Actually, this wasn’t my first time dining at NOLA so I knew going into the meal that there was more to this place than meets the eye. Up front there’s a college-y bar with a sort of New Orleans sports bar vibe and in the back you can have a more formal sit-down dinner experience in their multi-story dining area with open-sky courtyard.
I decided to sit and eat at the bar, which during peak evening hours is often totally packed shoulder to shoulder with rowdy students. But at 8 PM on a Monday, it was actually pretty tame and provided a great atmosphere to enjoy a few cocktails and authentic cajun cuisine on my own.
As soon as I was seated, the bartender asked me for my drink order. I went with the Barrel Aged Creole Cocktail which isn’t necessarily a New Orleans style specialty, but it’s definitely the kinda of comforting whiskey based drink I often gravitate towards. This one was very boozy, just how I like it, made with Hennessy cognac, Bulleit rye, sweet vermouth, benedictine, peychaud and angostura bitters, chilled on the rocks, and served neat. As a guy who appreciates a strong cocktail, I enjoyed its spirit-forward nature, but it’s probably not for everyone.
NOLA, however, is much more well-known around these parts for their enormous boozy sweet ‘moron bowl’ punch bowls which are a much better representation of Bourbon Street drinking. Those are more in the vein of the famed Hurricane from Pat O’Briens which I’ve actually had in New Orleans before. I wanted to try the version here, but seeing as I was dining and drinking on my own, I figured I should stick to regular sized cocktails instead. I’m sure I’ll get around to trying a moron bowl on of these days when I’m out with some friends looking to get a little crazy.
But I wasn’t there just to drink. Since I was in the mood for some seafood, I started with a half dozen raw oysters on the half shell. These oysters were very fresh, cleanly shucked, and came with a variety of condiments and toppings. I added a squeeze of lemon and a touch of mignonette to each deep, plump oyster-filled shell and wholly enjoyed every one of these local West Coast bivalves.
But the six oysters didn’t completely quench my desire for seafood, so I also went with an order of Crispy Dungeness Crab Cakes. These were pretty enormous, came served over a bed of cabbage slaw, and were topped with a creamy remoulade.
The Bay Area is well known for their Dungeness Crab so there’s no surprise that the fresh, sweet crab meat really shined here. The shredded seafood texture inside worked really well with the freshly deep-fried exterior crust. The slaw was tasty and paired well too, but it was pretty much just an ordinary slaw. I also really appreciated the prominent cajun seasoning I tasted in the patties so they get my seal of approval.
At this point, I was ready for another cocktail and went with the Garden & Gun, which I assume was named after the amazing eponymous southern culture and food magazine.
This drink, made with Pisco Portón, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, cucumber, lemon, agave, pineapple gomme syrup, Peychaud bitters, and a hearty shake of cayenne pepper powder was very interesting and strong and managed to maintain a precarious balance of smokey, sweet, spicy, and citrus flavors. This drink was balanced really well. None of the bold, aggressively flavored elements dominated any the others, allowing this complex cocktail to go down quite easily. Down the hatch it went.
And for one more small plate, I repeated a dish from my first visit. I loved those Cajun Boudin Bites so much that I knew they deserved a second go. As I’ve proven over and over and over again, I’ve become a bit obsessed with interesting sausages and these alligator boudin bites certainly fit the bill.
The exterior of each precut bite was crispy and snappy, while the interior had an almost grainy, meaty texture that I think can be attributed to the rice used to bind the filling. They were pretty unusual, but I really love ’em. The gator meat doesn’t contribute much flavor on its own, but the whole thing comes together really well especially due to the authentic Cajun spices inside and the whole grain creole mustard swiped outside.
If you’re looking for something a little more substantial for dinner, I’d point you in the direction of the Spicy Jambalaya. This dish is offered at three different spice levels: regular, spicy, and caliente. I ordered it spicy which was topped with a bevy of jalapeños and came at me pretty hard. I’d be a little scared to try the even spicier caliente version actually. Unless you’re a real spice-nut, stick to the spicy which was plenty flavorful and spicy for me.
No matter what spice level you order it though, it’s gonna be really incredible. The mountain of rice was loaded with andouille sausage, tasso ham, chicken, shrimp, and salmon and dressed with cajun spices, roasted tomatoes, crushed garlic, the holy trinity (onions, pepper, and celery), and finished with a bright, spicy tomato-based sauce. It was super delicious and the variety of meats and seafoods made for a really flavorful, filling, exciting plate.
So in conclusion, though NOLA looks like a crappy Bourbon Street knock-off that you should be quick to write off, all the food and drink options are actually quite excellent. Whether you want a nicely made cocktail, some cajun small plates, a sit-down dinner, or a massive ‘moron bowl’ punch to really get your night going, they have it all and do it all really well.
Got another great Cajun spot in Silicon Valley I need to check out? Let me know in the comments below.
535 Ramona St. Palo Alto, CA 94301