Ten things to eat in New Orleans

By: Charles Pizzo. Charles is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and former chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). He has been on Couchsurfing since 2016, is the current CS Ambassador in New Orleans and has hosted over 250 surfers.

Bourbon Street by Sean Pavone/shutterstock

Travelers flock to New Orleans for its jazz, architecture, and history.  Some people go just to party, but be sure to try several of New Orleans’ most iconic dishes during your visit. The city has many charms—and its cuisine ranks high among them.

You’ll find more than one type of food here, all considered local. That’s because the area has long been a melting pot of cultures.  Creole is the main style in the city, a mix of French and Spanish cuisine. It’s usually seasoned mildly. It’s spicier cousin, Cajun food, originated west of the city in the countryside, bayous, and swamps. New Orleans is a majority black area; it’s soul food is legendary. 

A common question: is all local food spicy? No. Your best bet is to ask. Different chefs season different ways. The same dish can be mild in one place, and spicier down the street. 

Here are ten things you can try for a true taste of New Orleans:

Gumbo

Traditional Cajun Gumbo by Diana Zuleta/shutterstock

This stew-like soup has been traced back to West Africa. It takes many forms; the two most prevalent versions are seafood or chicken and sausage. It’s a well-known local axiom that no two versions are ever the same. Some are thickened with a roux (flour and fat), others with okra, and some with filé powder (ground sassafras leaves). Cajun versions have a deeper, dark roux and are usually spicier.

Jambalaya

Sausage and Shrimp Jambalaya by Ivana Lalicki/shutterstock

Also based on a West African dish, jambalaya is a rice dish cooked with what locals call the trinity—onions, bell peppers, and celery. Meat or seafood is often included, but this can vary. Chicken and sausage are common, yet so is shrimp. It’s not uncommon to find variations featuring rabbit or game. There are two major schools of jambalaya cookery. The Cajun version is brown (and spicier); the Creole version is red owing to tomatoes (a nod to the many Sicilian immigrants who immigrated to New Orleans). 

Po’ Boy

Po’ Boys | Mother’s Restaurant by Charles Pizzo

In simplistic terms, this is a baguette sandwich. The name is short for “poor boy,” a reference to transit workers who were fired during a violent strike in 1929. Sympathetic restaurateurs fed the starving laborers with fries on New Orleans French bread topped with beef gravy.

Today, the fillings vary, but the bread is a constant. Perhaps the most famous contemporary versions are roast beef with warm brown gravy, fried shrimp, or even gator sausage (usually cut with pork because alligator meat is quite lean).  Modern riffs include the use of Vietnamese báhn mì bread and creative fillings such as fried green tomatoes with remoulade sauce, pork belly, or even fried mac n’ cheese.

Your server may ask if you want it “dressed.” That’s local parlance for “with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayonnaise.” This too can vary, so ask. 

A muffuletta is not technically a po’ boy because it’s served on round, seeded Italian bread. But, it’s a solid choice if you like olives, Italian cold cuts, and cheeses. 

Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken | Dooky Chase by Charles Pizzo

This dish is well known throughout the South, and there are many outstanding versions here.  Lots of locals swear by the versions found in area Soul food restaurants, but this dish can be irresistible most anywhere if fried fresh and served piping hot. Good fried chicken should have a crisp crust that crackles, and be moist and well seasoned inside (look for buttermilk- or -brined versions). 

While fried chicken is sometimes served in gourmet restaurants, most locals swear by a national fast food version that got its start in the city. You’ll also find a proliferation of fried chicken counters of varying quality on Bourbon and Frenchmen streets. 

Crawfish Étouffée

Étouffée with cheese grits | Mother’s Restaurant by Charles Pizzo

The name translates from French as “smothered.” Vegetables and other goodies are cooked down, often in butter, with peeled crawfish tails (or shrimp). The result is often rich, unctuous, and savory.  Like most Cajun food, every chef has her or his own recipe. Some might add tomatoes. Most versions are mild. 

Looking for boiled crawfish? The season runs from March – June. 

Charbroiled Oysters

Charbroiled Oysters | Drago’s by Charles Pizzo

A relatively new addition to the culinary landscape, bi-valves are doused in a garlicky, herbed, and cheesy olive oil-based dressing. Then, they are broiled or grilled over an open flame in the shell until the oyster is cooked. Even people who say they don’t eat oysters have taken a liking to this preparation. They’re often served with bread (ideally warm) to sop up every last drop of the sauce. 

Purists might prefer raw oysters, or the classic Oysters Rockefeller. But charbroiled oysters have taken New Orleans by storm, and are well worth trying.

Barbecue Shrimp

Barbecue Shrimp | Pascal’s Manale by Charles Pizzo

The name might sound like something you’d find in Texas, but the resemblance stops there.  Not technically barbecued, peel and eat shrimp are bathed in pepper and olive oil (sometimes mixed with butter) and baked. They are cooked in the shell and easy to peel, albeit messy. These are also served with bread to help you soak up the seasoning. Once in awhile, you may find a variation on this, less peppery but loaded with Italian herbs and white wine. Both versions are good, though different. 

Red Beans and Rice

Red beans and rice with sausage by HG Photography/shutterstock

A working class (read: inexpensive) staple, beans are simmered all day till creamy and soft. Most, but not all, versions are made with ham or sausage. Vegetarian versions have gained popularity and can be found. Available every day in restaurants, this was once home food usually prepared on Monday, the traditional washday. Red beans can cook unattended, freeing the home chef to clean and what not. 

It’s common to see red beans paired with sausage links (as pictured) or fried chicken. 

Beignets

Beignets | Café du Monde by Charles Pizzo

These little pillows of fried dough goodness topped with way too much powdered sugar have reached the zenith of iconic status. They’re simple yet beguiling—especially when fresh out the fryer. Tear the sweet dough apart to smell the steam emanating from within. Pair with café au lait (coffee and chicory with hot milk) for the quintessential Crescent City experience. 

Looking for a snack for later, or a souvenir? Beignets are ethereal when fresh, but a dud once cold.  Instead, buy sugary pralines from most any shop downtown. 

Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding by cobraphotography/shutterstock

The local dessert of choice in many restaurants, bread pudding is made from stale French bread used to make po’ boys. It’s soaked in custard laced with cinnamon and nutmeg, and occasionally other things, then baked. Most of the time, it’s served with an accompanying sauce featuring butter, sugar, and some kind of booze. We prefer warm bread pudding, but the occasional cold one can be refreshing too. It’s soft, sweet, and sinful. Contrary to popular belief, very few versions include raisins. 

French Quarter Restaurants by f11photo/shutterstock

If you’ve been watching your budget and eating nothing special, this is the city to splurge and indulge yourself with the culinary traditions that make New Orleans famous. 

Need recommendations for where to try these foods? Check out https://nola.eater.com/maps

A version of this article was originally published in Ambush Magazine Volume 37 Issue 18 on August 26, 2019 and is reprinted here with permission.

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