NOLA. The Big Easy. Home to Mardi Gras, jazz music and voodoo priestesses. The region has more iconic dishes than any city I can think of in the country. New York has thin pizza and Chicago has fat pizza. Philly has the cheesesteak while Boston owns the chowder. Austin is the bbq capitol, Baltimore is the crabcake king, and call Los Angeles butter cause it’s on a california roll. (sorry, had to)
Jambalaya. Bananas foster. The Muffaletta. The Po’boy. All of these were born in New Orleans. The region is a melting pot of cultures. There’s the cajun blending with the creole. A French/African/American combo that’s resulted in the creation of Tabasco sauce and the perfection of the roux and the remoulade. Heck, the ever-so-American sno-ball came from here.
When in town there’s swamp tours to go on, Voodoo to partake in and a party on Frenchmen every night. The food warrants its own trip though, and after spending four days shoving as much starchy and seafoody goodness in my face as my poor belly could handle, I’ve barely skimmed the surface regional dishes. I hope to be back soon (but where don’t I want to go back to). I’ve done my research and I now consider myself fully equipped to venture back into the city and consume it whole. If you go, may you do heed these words of hungry reason and hit up these dishes that best encapsulate the city.
Jambalaya: The word itself comes from the Provencal word jambalaia, translating to mish mash or mix-up. Jambalaya was born one dark and stormy evening (ok, I added the dark and stormy) when a traveler passing through the French Quarter instructed the cook at his inn “Jean, balayez!” meaning “Jean, sweep something together!”. He was given a mish mash of a meal: Rice, meat, andouille sausage, seafood, and vegetables (most importantly the holy trinity of Creole and Cajun cooking, onion, celery and green bell pepper) tossed together. Think of this as elevated dirty rice.
Our encounter with jambalaya came at Coops Place — A French Quarter institution whose salty servers are just as memorable as the food.
Bananas Foster: It’s simple really, toss bananas, butter, brown sugar and cinnamon into a skillet, heat it up, throw some rum in, then light it on fire. Serve the caramelized gooey goodness with ice cream and voila: you have a now world famous dish that was created in the 50’s to promote the recently imported fruit, with the city being one of the largest ports of entry for the yellow berry. Brennan’s restaurant had the banana brainchild, and nowadays 35,000 pounds of the fruit are flambeed there annually.
This was a “must” dish for me while we were visiting, but sadly, we were denied entry into Brennan’s because the Peach Bowl was on and the restaurant was closed to accommodate the oh-so-hallowed event. Though we were disappointed and caught off guard I kind of love that I was denied entry to an expensive restaurant “because football”.
Muffalettas: Created in the Central Grocery Co in 1906 by its Italian immigrant owners, the muffaletta sandwich consists of salami, capicola and mortadella meats, layered with provolone and topped with a marinated olive salad, all smushed under an entire loaf of muffaletta bread (hence the name). If you find yourself ordering one in Orleans without distinguishing between whole, half or quarter, it’s not a real muffaletta.
We ordered a whole figuring we could each eat half. What we were given was 10 inches in diameter. I couldn’t finish my quarter, especially since I was eating my sammie alongside a bag of Zapp’s Cajun Dill Gator Tators, the second most addictive chip I’ve had (Tim’s Jalapeno Potato still wears the chip crown). Our party of six was able to eat 1.5 sandwiches combined, which we consumed on a confectioners sugar coated bench in Jackson Square, the sugar contributed by the beignets from Cafe Du Monde across the street. I’m pretty sure the fertilizer for the Square’s grasses comes from marinated olives from the Grocery and spilled chicory coffee from the Cafe.
The Sno-ball: First thing’s first — a sno-ball is not a snow cone. Snow cones are served in those conical paper receptacles, designed specifically to irk the eater. Syrup is rapidly funneled to the bottom, deteriorating the paper till the tip bursts with artificially colored sugar water which almost always ends up on the shirt or shoes of the consumer or their nearby friends. All of this occurs while the top of the cone is completely devoid of syrup, making the first ⅔ comparable to eating a bag of hail. It’s not pleasant.
The sno-ball meanwhile, is finely ground ice which begets the consistency of actual snow, absorbing the syrup in every tiny flake. We have Ernest Hansen to thank for this snow treat 2.0. In the early 30’s he invented the first motor-driven, ice shaving machine, which he plopped onto a cart and peddled through the streets of Orleans. Shortly thereafter, a shop was opened in West Riverside where it has remained since. It’s now a third generation family establishment that’s spawned many rival sno-ball stands in the city.
Though we didn’t go to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, my hatred of the snow cone and devotion to the sno-ball alone is enough to bring me back to the area.
Crawfish Boil: A crawfish boil is a “one size fits all” kind of meal. Within one boil batch are dozens of pounds of crawfish, hundreds of garlic cloves, potatoes, corn cobb halves, andouille, and a shit ton of seasoning and salt. A friend in the area was our meal-guide, walking us through how to consume and destroy the crawdads. The general rules are to rip the head from the body, suck the juices from the head cavity, tear away (I’m assuming here) its spine, then eat the half inch of meat you’re rewarded with.
As a nailbiter this was the most painful meal I’ve ever eaten, as the seasoning wedged its way into my hangnails. At the end of it all I was left with burning fingers and a somewhat hungry stomach, and I’m pretty sure I accidentally discarded 40% of the meat.
This was all eaten at Industry Bar in the French Quarter where I ordered an Abita Andygator maibock and the bartender instinctively asked if I wanted that mixed 50/50 with the brewery’s watermelon seersucker beer, pouring me a sample and saying it’s a common combo. Was he fucking with me? Possibly. In any event my response was “A suicide beer? Sure”. He poured this while whistling a Sublime song. Ultimately it was the perfect combination for my atomic crawfish with the sweetness and the malt cutting the burning.
I must add that the same water is used for multiple boil batches. This means that between batch 1 and batch 15, the crawfish get hotter and hotter, as the spices just accumulate in the water. Praise be that I didn’t arrive 5 batches deeper, as my fingers would have required an indefinite time out after my first crawbaby.
Beignets: True, beignets aren’t a New Orleans original. They’re a pastry brought over from France, but don’t even think about leaving the city before a stop to Cafe Du Monde. You know a place is good when the menu has one item on it yet there’s a line out the door no matter the time of day. Morning, afternoon, evening, or early early morning (think 2:00am) there’s going to be people waiting ahead of you for this fried dough topped with heaps of powdered sugar. The line goes by quickly though, due to your limited options: Three beignets or five? Cafe au lait or coffee with chicory? Oh, and do you want orange juice with that? You could go somewhere else for these babies, but that would beg the question, Why?
Po’boys: There’s plenty of fine dining in the area, but the city is just as known for its street food as it is for its upscale dishes. Take the po’boy for instance, a sandwich whose name was initially “poor boy”, but shortened to po’boy due to regional pronunciation. Though the history of the po’boy is hazy, it’s said to have been invented by the Martin brothers when they fed striking streetcar drivers the sandwiches free of charge from their restaurant, stating “here comes another poor boy” when they saw a striker heading their way. The humble po’boy consists of french bread stuffed with meat, with the most popular fillings being fried seafood like oysters or shrimp, or layers of roast beef, usually slathered or smothered with mayo, remoulade or gravy. Garnish with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, or hot sauce if you wish, but just be sure to bring the meat.
Praline Connection on Frenchmen street served up a satisfying sandwich, but it was the jazz music played by a 12-man band on the neighboring corner that really drew us in. Bands are frequently stationed outside the restaurant at night and it’s the perfect dinner soundtrack.
Oysters Rockefeller: The original recipe for oysters rockefeller went to the grave with its creator Jules Alciatore, and unless you’re at Antoine’s, the restaurant these green goodies were created in, you’re eating a copycat recipe. In 1899 when no snails were available in New Orleans, Jules’ attempt to reinvent escargot centered around the closest local equivalent: oysters. The slippery suckers are topped with a sauce of pureed vegetables and breadcrumbs, then baked till matte. The chefs of Antoine’s swear that no spinach is used in the sauce (whose ingredients are a closely guarded secret), and they swear it so fervently I get a “no wire hangers, EVER” kind of vibe. I just see a white aproned sous chef stomping while proclaiming “No spinach in this kitchen, EVER”.
King Cake: A superstitious desert to the residents of New Orleans, it’s believed that eating king cake outside of carnival season brings rain during Mardi Gras, so good luck finding this tri-colored confection outside of January 6th when carnival kicks off and Ash Wednesday as the celebration is winding down. Parties are thrown dedicated to the cake alone. The dish dates back centuries beginning as a popular Christmas dessert (it is named after the three wise men after all) and is baked in kitchens of Europe and Scandinavia, all the way down to the American South. Each region has its own rendition, and NOLA’s is a pastry base topped in cinnamon and iced in the official Mardi Gras colors: green for faith, purple for justice, and gold for power.
A tiny baby figurine is commonly hidden in the cake and is said to bring wealth and prosperity to its finder. Bakeries in the region have lately broken tradition though, placing the baby delicately on top, since the trinket poses a choking threat to the drunken cake consumers. So when eating a piece, beware of baby.
Gumbo: When researching the foods of Louisiana and New Orleans, Gumbo’s Wikipedia page was by far the most extensive. Gumbo combines culinary practices found in a variety of cultures, including French, Spanish, West African, German, and even Choctaw. It has a roux base and a body of meat, stock and veggies, and is commonly served on top of rice. It has a long history and is delicious of course, but it’s the memory of my gumbo experience that makes this so beloved to me.
Our introduction to Gumbo came in Ooh Poo Pah Doo, a bar in the Treme neighborhood. The bar was everything you ever wanted in this city. It’s not a “jazz” bar per se and it’s not a bar bar. It’s a bar that plays the most authentic Orleans music. As a Philadelphia native, we saw a band travelling from Philadelphia at the d.b.a. on Frenchmen street. They were amazing entertainers, frontlining a singer with a shaved head donning a lace cocktail dress, bicycle shorts and cowboy boots, but at Ooh Poo Pah Doo the bar’s owner took a few turns at the mic.
She shook her denim-clad ass while singing about shaking your ass, with the backup of a man playing spoons off his chest and a trumpeter using a blender lid as a muffler. Between songs she’d say hi to every new face in the place, ask where you’re from, then welcome you to home cooked dishes of red beans & rice and gumbo stewing in crock pots in the back of the bar.
The beans were chock full of ham hocks and the gumbo was thick and hearty and shone black in the dimmed red lighting. It was our last night in the city and this was the perfect way to spend it. I felt like I was in her living room and as she asked me where I was coming in from, the guitarist in the background sang a cover of Purple Rain that made me miss Prince like I’ve never missed him before, and all the while the gumbo steamed in my hands.