Founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company, New Orleans and its food clearly still has French influences infused with the Southern style. A walk down the French Quarter and neighboring areas is enough to take one on a Cajun cuisine journey – its hallmarks being heavy one-pot dishes, local seafood and the use of spices such as parsley, dried cayenne pepper and cajun seasoning. Though Cajun and Creole are often used inter-changeably, Creole food is a more refined version of Cajun food, and was developed specifically in New Orleans. For the readers who are more interested, here’s a simple elaboration .
For those who are not familiar, some classic dishes in this style of cuisine are gumbo, jambalaya, muffalettas, po boys and so forth. The classic gumbo is made with chicken and andouille sausage, though traditionally it was made it using okra or lady finger, which was brought to the region from Western Africa.
Here’s a run-down on some of the best places I ate at in New Orleans:
Cafe Du Monde
800 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116 (also at other locations throughout the city)
Established in 1862, this French coffee market’s most famous items are beignets and cafe au lait. Though I was unimpressed with the latter, the beignets were to die for. They’re basically hollow deep friend dough dipped in powdered sugar. Situated right next to the Mississippi River, it makes for a great afternoon snack that you can take with you and go relax next to the River or in the park outside the St. Louis Cathedral. For those who tend to get a sweet craving after a night-out, it’s not too far from the famed Bourbon Street either.
401 Poydras Street
Founded in 1938, this establishment is run in cafeteria-style – one walks in, orders at the counter, struggles to find an empty table in a rather dingy hall. However, the quality is amazing enough to make one forget about the lack of ambience. To get maximum variety, we got a combination platter – my favorite was their jambalaya cooked with chicken and ham, in a really rich sauce with rice. The rice and beans and the buttered potatoes, also on the platter, were also delicious. The real surprise were the cabbages – I normally dislike cabbages, but these were stir-fried with a bunch of spices and butter and tasted amazing. We also got the gumbo (again, great). I wasn’t a big fan of the crawfish etoufee, but that’s because the smell of crawfish is too strong for me to handle; it’s gravy on the other hand was great. The dessert was my favorite part of all that they had to offer and we definitely picked a winner there – the bread pudding with rum sauce. Extremely textured, with dried raisins and cranberries, this is the best bread pudding I’ve ever had and is a must-have for anyone who goes there.
Pros: fast service, excellent food. Margaritas that you can carry out at $4/glass.
Cons: ambience not great, hard to find a table during lunch and dinner hours.
Bon Ton Cafe
401 Magazine Street, New Orleans
Established in 1953, this is the perfect spot for a slightly fancy dinner, especially for those who don’t want to blow up a few hundred dollars at some restaurants in the Hilton or nearby hotels. It can be hard to find a table during dinner, so it’s best to make a reservation. The red-and-white tableclothes, wrought iron furniture, wooden walls and dim lighting give it a cosy, intimate ambience. While waiting for our table, we went over to the bar, where I tried their famed signature drink – the Rum Ramsay. Unfortunately, the bartender didn’t give me much clue as to what else was in the drink besides rum, saying that it was a family secret that had been passed down from generation to generation – so secret that the concoction is already prepared and chilled so that we can’t see what all goes into its creation! I absolutely loved the drink, it had a kick to it and definitely left a spicy after-taste.
Their turtle soup is supposed to be really famous (we didn’t order that), though I’ve heard the turtle soup at Commander’s Palace is supposed to be the best in the city. Since I was all meated-out by the time we went here (it was my last meal in the city), I asked if they could do anything vegetarian. I was just trying out my luck since it’s essentially a seafood restaurants but it turns out that they do vegetarian dishes as well, they’re just not listed on the menu. The vegetarian jambalaya was absolutely deliciously – rich and creamy, with broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, brussel sprouts and onions. We also ordered the crabmeat au gratin – think mac n cheese, except with crabmeat and much richer. It was delicious, and for those who feel they are not up to an entire dish that is so heavy, they also do a half-n-half of the crab meat au gratin and the crab imperial. The sides were less impressive – not much to write home about there.
For dessert, we ordered the bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Luckily, I asked for the whisky sauce on the side because it was way too strong for me and essentially looked like whiskey mixed with melted butter. The bread pudding was good in itself, though the texture was way different from what I’ve had before – it was a lot more condensed and heavy. I have to admit though, I prefer the bread pudding at Mother’s to the one here.
Pros: attentive service – will try and cater to your needs as much as possible
Cons: woeful beer selection, heavy on your wallet
511 Saint Louis Street, French Quarter (Note: Open only till 4:30 pm, so don’t wait till dinner to grab a bite)
Inspired by a Food Network episode, I had to go here. With lines extending till the street during lunch hours, this place specializes in muffalettas and po-boys. Po-boys are essentially like sandwiches on French bread, though this French bread is the lightest bread you’ll ever eat. As a filling, they use chicken parmesan/fried oysters/fried catfish/crabmeat/crawfish/sausages etc with a bit of lettuce, tomato and mayo. Sounds pretty simple, right? How did something so simple get so popular?
“In 1929, the Streetcar Union, Division 194 went on strike. The strike went on for several months, and the striking workers had very little money to survive. Two brothers, Benny and Clovis Martin, former streetcar operators before opening their “Martin’s Bros. Restaurant”, decided to help their friends on the picket line. They fed their friends sandwiches made of one pound loaves of French Bread cut into three and filled them with ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayo. These sandwiches were fed to the men free of charge. As the men came into the restaurant, they would say “Here comes another ‘poor boy’ man”. And so, the po-boy became a part of New Orleans cuisine.”
– From the website of Johnny’s Po-Boys
Muffalettas, on the other hand, are influenced by Sicilian immigrants in the late 19th century. Served on an entire 10-12 inch loaf of Italian bread, it is filled with mozzarella, salami, ham and then topped with an olive relish containing olives, celery, garlic, cocktail onions, capers, oregano, parsley, olive oil. Be warned – trying to have an entire muffaletta is like taking on a man vs. food challenge. The half a muffaletta pictured below was a huge meal in itself.
Pros: The lightest bread ever, which really brings out the flavors of the chicken/meet/seafood. They also have an entire dessert section upstairs (though you probably won’t be hungry for any dessert after their huge portions)
Cons: essentially a single kind of item served, hard to find a table (best to go upstairs to find a spot on the balcony)
These include some of the many great things that I had to eat while I was in the city. My next aim is to try and cook some of them. Have you ever cooked any Cajun dishes? What recipes did you use?