NOLA native, journalist, author, and multi-hypenate Pableaux Johnson provides a handy cheat sheet for essential New Orleans food groups.
If you’re headed to New Orleans (and you should be), partaking of the city’s stellar restaurant scene is likely high on your leisure-time priority list. After all, the Crescent City has a 300-year tradition of culinary distinction with an almost insane number of options for a comparatively small town. And while the modern traveler might have tons of online resources to help shape your edible itinerary, including countless listicles (Top 10, The Hot 30, Where To Eat/Drink NOW) and national databases with somewhat sketchy customer reviews. A few taps of the smartphone and you might find a highly-recommended regional Italian cuisine close to the hotel or a cute tapas joint that sounds intriguing… A little sage advice: resist that urge. Or at the very least, reconsider your choices and lean towards the local.
Not that these restaurants won’t be good (they’ll likely be fine) but before you’re going to take the time to come to New Orleans, make sure your meal choices reflect the city’s distinctive sense of place. And one way to do this is to experience these New Orleans classics in their natural habitat. Instead of wood-fired pizza, seek out a million different po’boy variations. Dip a spoon into a deep bowl of seafood gumbo made with fat crabs and shrimp pulled from the nearby Gulf. Focus on menu items that usually have the phrase “New Orleans Style” as part of their descriptor, and you’ll get a first-hand experience at its source.
Here are a few classic dishes that form important everyday New Orleans food groups. Put these on your checklist and you’re well on your way to an edible education in the city’s food culture.
Po’boys (All Kinds)
Parkway Bakery and Tavern, 538 Hagan, 504-482-3047
New Orleans’ entry in the “long sandwich” category, these hefty, affordable treats are available just about everywhere in the city — from storied po’boy joints to seafood houses to legendary corner grocery stores. Local favorites include fried oyster and Gulf shrimp and gloriously sloppy, gravy-soaked roast beef (6 napkin minimum).
Cochon Butcher, 930 Tchoupitoulas Street, 504-588-7675
Another of the city’s hefty signature sandwiches, the muffuletta came from Sicilian groceries in the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) in the 1900’s. A round seeded loaf is layered with spicy salami, mortadella, and provolone, then slathered with tangy, garlicky “olive salad” (kalamatas, green olives, pickled vegetables). Many folks swear by the classic at Central Grocery, but the muff’s platonic ideal is achieved at Donald Link’s Cochon Butcher, where they cure their own meats and serve the sandwich toasty warm.
High Hat Café, 4500 Freret Street, 504-754-1336
Moving on to the stew/soup category, you’re going to want to slurp up gumbo whenever you see it on a menu — because like po’boys, there are a million variations to sample. From the overwhelming Creole gumbo at Dookie Chase (seafood, chicken, two sausages, pork steaks) to bowls of okra/shrimp goodness, the options never seem to cease. The Gumbo YaYa at High Hat Café is a straightforward but complex chicken and andouille recipe, thickened with a midnight-dark roux that imparts layers of deep, satisfying flavor.
Gulf Fish Meunière
Galatoire’s, 209 Bourbon Street, (504) 525-2021
A simple sautéed fish dish represents the Old School Creole — as well it should. Galatoire’s, one of New Orleans’ oldest restaurants, serves this near-minimalist dish in suitably old-school surroundings. Cooks sear a filet of fresh-caught speckled trout— flaky, white-fleshed and delicately flavored— and top it with a classically-influenced meunière sauce (brown butter, a little flour, a lemon squeeze to cut the richness). If you’re feeling decadent (correct answer: “I am.”), have it topped with a helping of rich, swoon-inducing sautéed lump crabmeat -also from local waters.
Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House, 144 Bourbon Street, 504-522-0111
“A dozen raw and a beer” counts as one of the classic New Orleans “middlemeals” — loosely defined as “a great restaurant stop that isn’t quite a full meal but is WAY better than a snack.” At their peak during the colder months, these Gulf reef beauties balance creamy, salty and sweet flavors for those who love local seafood. Dose them with a little dollop of mix-your-own cocktail sauce (beware the seemingly innocuous horseradish), plan on a dozen per person, and immerse yourself in one of the last great working-class shellfish experiences.
Bevi Seafood Co., 236 North Carrolton Street, 504-488-7503
Come springtime, these delectable critters —basically tiny fresh-water lobsters from the rural Louisiana marshlands—start showing up all around the city. Cooked in a well spiced-cauldron with red potatoes and tiny corn cobs, boiled crawfish are one of Cajun Country’s most elemental food traditions. Grab a sackful at a local seafood market (about three pounds a person should do) and learn how to get at the tender, rich tail meat (in essence: pinch and peel). Friendly locals will show you the ropes if you ask nice and let them demonstrate their peeling technique.
Morning Call Coffee Stand, City Park, 56 Dreyfous Dr, 504-300-1157
Contrary to popular myth, these pillowy squares of flash-fried, sugar-dusted dough do NOT make for a well-balanced breakfast. Light and savory, crispy and sweet, beignets are essentially clouds of crunchy air, while their constant companion, latte-like café au lait contains 1/4 the caffeine of your regular morning java. Pro tip: Get a more substantial morning meal and save this combination for afternoon or late-night hunger pangs. If you’re largely Quarter-centric, Café du Monde is the classic spot, but it’s worth a trek out to Morning Call in City Park for a fix — enjoy your sweets near a live oak canopy in the city’s stately Frederick Law Olmsted-designed sanctuary.