Everybody Eats When They Come To My House
Much like everything else in New Orleans, the food there is unique. With influences from French cuisine to traditional caribbean foods to Southern dishes, the food in NOLA runs the gamut of flavors. Creole cuisine, the city’s most notable fair, is a mixture of French, Spanish, West African, and Native American cuisine. Cajun food also incorporates French cooking, but with a more locally sourced flair. Throw in some Southern Soul Food and some of the best seafood around, and you have the NOLA food experience.
The first time Lindsay and I traveled to New Orleans we didn’t really know much about the food. We knew who Emeril Lagasse was. We had heard about things like gumbo and jambalaya. I did some Googling and learned about Po’ Boys and muffulettas. But we really had no solid knowledge of, or deep desire for, New Orleans cooking. That all changed when we were sent by a good friend to see chef Jeff Mattia (current executive chef at The Royal Sonesta) on our first New Orleans trip.
This good friend of ours is a foodie. Not just a little food loving guy, but the kind of guy that likes food so much he represents as many restaurants as he can as their lawyer. Friends like this are good to have. On our first visit this friend, Rich, sent us to meet Jeff who was currently the chef at The American Sector at The National WWII Museum. We had no idea what we were in for. We showed up hungry, were escorted to a reserved table for 2, and sat down. We weren’t sure what to do, so we ordered some wine and a salad to share. The salad was a mistake, not because it wasn’t good but because Jeff spent the next 2.5 hours slaying us with 7 courses of some of the best food we’ve had. The courses included things like braised lamb ribs, potato chip crusted speckled trout, braised pork belly with black eyed peas and jasmine rice, and cranberry bread pudding AND Meyer lemon Creole cream cheesecake for dessert. All uniquely New Orleans. All absolutely amazing. That salad didn’t stand a chance.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a friend who sends you to restaurants to experience a feast like that, I would suggest doing a culinary food tour with Confederacy of Cruisers. Twice we have taken their culinary tour, which takes you around the city on a trip catered to the people on the tour, and both times we have been overwhelming impressed not just with the food options but with the sheer knowledge of their guides. We have sampled foods from places like Angelo Brocato’s (gelato), Liuzza’s (Creole), Parkway Bakery and Tavern (Po’ Boys), Bennachin (West African), The Cheezy Cajun (Cajun/Wisconsin fusion, unfortunately now closed), Loretta’s Authentic Pralines (praline beignets), and St Roch Market (dining hall with multiple options and a large side of gentrification).
If you're pretty steady on a bike, and a bit adventurous, you can also do a cocktail bike tour with CoC. You start your day off at 10am with a bike that has a cup holder and a bartender who makes you a cocktail for the ride. You then travel to several different spots to sample drinks like a Pimm’s Cup from Napoleon House, pick your own beer (or whatever else you want) from Sidney’s Wine Cellar, and a Sazerac from THE Sazerac Bar inside The Roosevelt Hotel.
Since we have segued here into the realm of all that is drinking alcohol in New Orleans, I will give you our best advice; don’t waste your money on Huge Ass Beers and Hand Grenades on Bourbon St. NOLA has some of the best cocktails per square foot anywhere in the world (I made that up but I bet it’s true). There is absolutely no reason to drink some cheaply made, sugar laden, red dyed, or watered down drink just because it comes in a plastic fishbowl that you can wear around your neck.
If you want a good drink, stop in a place like The Bourbon O Bar which is one of the few places to serve not only a well shaken Ramos Gin Fizz but also was the only place that I could get an Absinthe Drip (every other bar turned me down). Bourbon O has a machine that shakes it’s Fizz for 6 or 12 minutes. However, our favorite Gin Fizz comes from Arnaud’s French 75, where we were lucky enough to have the fluffy smooth cocktail hand shaken for us by bartender extraordinaire, Chris Hannah. You can also try a Hurricane from Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shoppe (as far as I’m concerned it’s the best Hurricane in the French Quarter). If you’re staying in the Quarter, don’t forget to stop in the famous Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. It might take a bit to get a seat at the revolving bar but just be patient, people will move. Or make the trek to Freret for a cocktail from Cure, which might be pricey but well worth it if you’re a cocktail enthusiast.
If craft cocktails aren’t really your thing, you can always check out some of the shot and beer options at the numerous dive bars across the city. Places like Markey’s in the Bywater, R Bar in the Marigny, Molly’s in The Market, Mimi’s in The Marigny, The Dungeon in the Quarter, or Bullet’s in the 7th Ward. And if you like sports there’s a slew of bars where you can get your wings (or Po’ Boys) and beers for the game. Personally, my favorite is The Bayou Beer Garden which is adjacent to The Bayou Wine Garden. Imagine the Garden of Eden with big screen TVs and wine on tap. Yes, they have craft beer and WINE ON TAP.
Another easy way to experience NOLA food and drink is to visit some of the more well known establishments. Check out places like Commander’s Palace (go for lunch and get $0.25 martinis with your entree), Brennan’s, Arnaud’s, Elizabeth’s, Cochon or Cochon Butcher, Galatoire’s, Muriel’s, or any one of John Besh’s 10 New Orleans establishments (the happy hour at Lüke, with $0.75 oysters and half price drinks M-F from 3p-6p, is a game changer) and you won’t be disappointed in your food experience.
And while we are talking about happy hour… happy hour in NOLA is a meal time. Breakfast, brunch, lunch, happy hour, and dinner are your 5 New Orleans meals. We have found that the best way to get a taste of NOLA cuisine on a budget is to hit up restaurants at happy hour. One day while on our honeymoon we wandered into a place called Kingfish for happy hour and ordered a few small plates from the menu. We were pleasantly surprised with the fare. We got to try a new place that we normally wouldn’t have without spending dinner time prices. We enjoyed the food so much, we went back the next day.
The truth is it’s hard to have a bad meal in New Orleans. Whether you get a Po’ Boy from Killer Po’ Boys in the back of Erin Rose (get a frozen Irish Coffee!), a muffuletta from Verti Marte (Verti Marte saves lives), beignets from Cafe Du Monde, brunch at Atchafalaya (Bloody Mary Bar? Yes please), a Sno Ball from Hansen's (satsuma or cardamom and ginger with sweetened condensed milk are my favs), or a four course meal from a swanky suit and tie restaurant like Commander’s you will probably leave thinking it’s the best meal you’ve eaten in a long time. There are endless lists on sites like Eater or Thrillist and reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. And while the standard popular restaurants are great, sometimes it’s nice to check out a new place. We opted to try out Willa Jean’s (try the Frosé) and Compère Lapin based off of Eater suggestions and loved both.
Of course, if you’re tired of wading through the endless restaurant reviews you can always try the tried and true way of finding a good restaurant; ask a local. And a local is not the concierge at your hotel. Ask the bartender or server at your restaurant. Or the cashier at the mini mart. This is how we ended up getting boiled crawfish at Cajun Seafood on North Claiborne. The crawfish come in a plastic bag and you can order corn and potatoes on the side. You sit at a folding table in a place that looks kind of like a gas station, and enjoy some of the best crawfish in the city. The only time we had better crawfish was at a bar that serves free crawfish to patrons. I’d tell you the name of that bar, but I don't want to give up all our secrets.
When you get to the point where you feel like you may explode from days of eating fried alligator, beignets, bananas foster, gumbo, po’ boys, étouffée, broiled oysters (I prefer the ones from Drago's Seafood), jambalaya, and an array of foods slathered in remoulade, head down to the farthest point of the Bywater and wander into a place that looks like a neighborhood liquor store (or packie for those of you from the North East like us). Once you’re inside Bacchanal Wine, pick out a bottle of wine (or beer if you’re not a wine fan) and a few different meats and cheeses from the cooler. Hand them to the cashier who will open your wine and take your meats and cheeses to be plated with some yummy fixin’s for your charcuterie board. You can head into the back yard and find a table amongst the array of aging yard furniture, put your wine in a plastic bucket of ice, and enjoy the music from the band on the outdoor stage while you wait for your server to bring your charcuterie board. Because in New Orleans, drinking wine isn’t considered drinking and a cheese plate is considered lite fare.
Next post we explore all the NOLA music. Until the, Friends, Adventure On!