I believe that eating the local cuisine is an essential part of experiencing any travel destination. You don’t have to fall in love with the food, but eating what the locals do – or what the local chefs are most proud of serving – is a great way to get gain a better understanding of the local culture. It’s because we really are, to a certain extent, what we eat that I always put eating on my list of must-do attractions. No place is this more true than in New Orleans.
I’ve yet to meet a woman who is more proud of her cooking as the entire city of New Orleans is of their southern fare. Food isn’t just what they eat, it’s what they do. Ask a local what to do in town or how they spend their own free time and eating will surely be among the first recommendations. If you want to appreciate New Orleans at its culinary finest, loosen your belt and make a point of ordering up these seven foods you must eat in New Orleans.
7 Foods to Eat in New Orleans
1. Jambalaya. The Creole version of a casserole, this dish is combines rice, protein and spices to make Cajun magic. You can find seafood varieties or Jambalaya that piles on the shrimp, chicken and sausage. Any restaurant in New Orleans is likely to offer some brand of Jambalaya, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any better (or less expensive) than the Jambalaya at Mother’s.
2. Gumbo. A popular southern stew typically served over rice, there are actually two types of Gumbo frequently found in New Orleans: Cajun and Creole. What you can generally expect is a spicy soup that’s been thickened with seafood and vegetables thrown in. What you shouldn’t expect is for any two bowls to taste alike because Gumbo is a prime example of the ad lib nature of Creole and Cajun cooking. Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant serves a mighty fine bowl of gumbo on their appetizer menu – and it’s plenty big enough for a meal.
3. Red Beans n’ Rice. Don’t let the simple name fool you – there’s a lot more that goes into this meal then some lentils and rice. First and foremost, expect to find chunks of ham or sausage on your plate. (Incidentally, if you’re vegan or try to eat kosher, make a point of asking very specific questions before ordering in New Orleans even if the menu doesn’t say there’s pork included. Ham is like a seasoning in this town!) Even if you don’t think you’d like to make a meal of red beans n’ rice, consider adding it as a side to at least one of your dine-out experiences.
4. Crawfish Etoufee. Made with made with crawfish tails, sherry, fish stock, seasonings, and roux, this classic Southern dish is Louisiana’s answer to lobster bisque – with chunks. Etoufee means smothered, so expect your crawfish (or shrimp in the case of Shrimp Etoufee) to be drowning in peppers, onions, and tomatoes at the very least. The Crawfish Etoufee at Pier 424 on Bourbon Street is to die for, and goes perfectly with a classic Bourbon Street Hurricane.
5. Charbroiled Oysters. Throw out everything you think you know about how oysters taste and get yourself a seat at the bar at Acme Oyster House. From there you can watch as the pros make oyster shucking look easy, and make friends with visitors from near and far while you wait (briefly) for your charbroiled oysters. Then, prepare to be amazed. It’s like chicken, but not. But better. It’s not at all like raw or fried oysters. It’s definitely something you have to at least try for yourself.
6. Hamburger. I was born and raised in Iowa and married a man whose family raises beef cattle. I’m a little picky when it comes to burgers – which is why I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to Port of Call to try “the best burger in the world! We swear!” And you know what? It was damn good. It was almost as good as the burger I had a few nights later at a small hotel bar. I don’t know how they do it, but New Orleans cooks up one heck of a beef patty!
7. Beignets at Cafe du Monde. This one might fall in the “things only tourists do” category, but it’s still an experience worth having. Cafe du Monde claims to be “the original French coffee stand”, and it serves up coffee and beignets 24 hours a day in the French Quarter. That’s it. A beignet is a French doughnut that tastes remarkably like a funnel cake and the folks at Cafe du Monde go heavy on the powdered sugar. Dipping a powdered sugar-covered beignet in a café au lait is a decadent way to start the day, and the finger licking afterward isn’t too bad either.
While I’d like to tell you that calories don’t count when you’re on vacation, or that you just shouldn’t worry about eating healthy on the road, I know that many of us like to balance eating well with a love of travel. A place like New Orleans can make that tricky. The best way to enjoy the best of New Orleans cuisine without packing on fifteen pounds over a weekend is to practice your portion control and scour the appetizer menus for pint-sized classics.
And maybe get up early for a jog along the river.
All photos by Britt Reints