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An insider's guide to New Orleans

A tradition in New Orleans is lagniappe (LAN-yap), which means providing something extra _ the baker's dozen is an oft-cited example. Since I know what it means to miss New Orleans, here's a lagniappe of people, places and things:

Want that elusive 1988 National Football Conference Championship button (the 49ers won)? Shop Little Mex. Not satisfied with a mere dozen varieties of New Orleans refrigerator magnets? Try Little Mex. The business card boasts of "Mexican Furniture & Curios," but the majority of an estimated 10,000-plus items here are the basic tacky, touristy stuff. Wandering through the block-deep store at 1021 Decatur St. is an adventure: Merchandise overwhelms shelves and shoppers.

Care for something handmade and handsome? You'll ooh and ahh at the wood pieces in the Idea Factory _ imaginative clocks, toys, desk sets, name signs. You may ooh and ahh at the prices, too. The store is at 838 Chartres St.

If you can't make it to Mardi Gras, just take the free, 10-minute, ferry to Algiers, across the Mississippi, and ride the free van to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World. Kern, his sons and workers create, decorate and refurbish up to 400 floats a year. They have created floats for the Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas, for Bastille Day in Cannes, even for the Gasparilla Parade in Tampa. If you're lucky, the $4.50, 90-minute tour will be guided around the massive floats and warehouses by enthusiastic Brian Kern, one of the sons. The tours run every day except during Mardi Gras week; call 361-7821 for information.

For a cheap but delicious taste of New Orleans? Hang out in the French Quarter's Jackson Square and watch for Omar the Pieman, whose pies are as warm as this senior citizen is.

Need to wash it down? New Orleans breweries create various flavors of Dixie and Abita (pronounced uh-BEE-tuh) beers, including something called Turbo Dog. Last year, a Texas state agency banned the importing of Dixie's Blackened Voodoo Lager, fearful of some imagined witchcraft design on the label. But as Dixie's brewmaster told one interviewer, "Everything in New Orleans is turned up a notch _ the music, the food, the beer. People here like flavor."

Rainy day or sunny, you can't go wrong spending a couple of hours in the marvelous Aquarium of the Americas. Appropriately situated alongside the Mississippi, the aquarium is spacious and imaginative. Distinctive exhibition areas display a Caribbean reef (visitors stroll through a plexiglass tunnel, so that the fish are all around them), an Amazon rainforest (complete with macaws, snakes and a waterfall), the Mississippi Delta (you've got to see the white alligators to believe them) and the Gulf of Mexico (some very impressive sharks in this 500,000-gallon tank). At the foot of Canal Street, on the edge of the French Quarter.

Ride the trolley. C'mon, buy a one- or three-day pass and climb aboard the golden St. Charles Avenue street cars for the long, long circuit away from tourist haunts and into the real New Orleans. Or step aboard the "Red Ladies" that tootle a mile or so along the waterfront, from the far edge of the flea market past the shopping complexes and aquarium to the Convention Center. You might be welcomed aboard by ebullient motorman Edmund Walker. "It's a great day _ isn't this a great day?" he told boarding passengers during a cold downpour in January. "If you think wet, you're gonna' get drowned!"

Check with the National Park Service office in the French Market to reserve space in the free guided tours led by rangers. A favorite: Strolling past the handsome, 19th-century mansions of the Garden District, a couple of miles down St. Charles from the French Quarter.

You need to buy only two guidebooks to New Orleans, both of them excellent:

In The New Orleans Eat Book, restaurant magazine editor Tom Fitzmorris rumbles full-speed through 300 restaurants and cafes. He's authoritative and critical, and the book provides recipes, explains phrases and cross-references his reviews as to locale, quality, type of cuisine, etc. The current version is his 13th edition, and he offers to mail free updates between revisions. Published by New Orleans, Big Bend & Pacific Co., P.O. Box 51831, New Orleans, LA 70151-1831.

For a witty overall guide to the city, get New Orleans on the Half-Shell, by Alan Graham and James Taylor. This second edition is nearly 2 years old, but I didn't find anything in the 157-page paperback that was out-of-date or too romantic. These guys take you by the elbow and steer you through their city, with a narrative both informative and friendly. Published by Pelican Publishing Co., 1101 Monroe St., Gretna, LA 70053, $12.95.

And if you want one handy foldout map/city history/pocket almanac, check the Delta Air Lines counter at the airport for its excellent New Orleans Street Map and City Guide. It tells you just about everything except what the ubiquitous Mardi Gras colors stand for _ even the city buses are striped in these colors _ so I'll tell you:

Purple, for justice.

Gold, for power.

Green, for faith.