Nola, the Big Easy, “laissez les bons temps rouler” — when one hears these terms, only one city comes to mind: New Orleans.
For a city of its size, New Orleans sure offers its residents a lot of exciting festivals, parks, and neighborhoods to explore. And even though it’s Louisiana’s largest city, it’s still known for its laid-back atmosphere and easygoing pace.
But no matter where you venture within the city, the Big Easy is sure to pull out all the stops when it comes to food. Here are just a few of the dishes that should be on your culinary bucket list for your next visit to New Orleans.
Most people know about “Po’ Boys”, gumbo, and jambalaya — three famous New Orleans dishes that you certainly should seek out while you’re in the city. But beyond those are the truly exotic, hidden food gems that only the locals seem to order. That is, until now.
This first surprise can be ordered as a part of a “Po’ Boy,” one of the city’s famous sandwiches, at Crescent City Brewhouse. While the unconventional meat is tasty, it is also known for being slightly chewy, and it doesn’t have much of its own flavor. For this reason, when ordered in sandwich form, the array of sauces truly help make the alligator meat shine. That being said, there are other surprises awaiting you that may supersede the fried alligator, in the end.
TURTLE SOUP AND OYSTERS
Whoever thought of adding turtle meat to a soup had definitely gotten bored of chicken noodle, but they started a trend that really works! Check out this delicacy in Pascal’s Manale, a favorite among New Orleans locals. Their turtle soup is creamy, with a generous portion of bite-sized pieces of turtle meat, and is reminiscent of New England clam chowder. At the same restaurant, you can also take advantage of “oyster happy hour,” where you can order a dozen freshly shucked raw oysters for less than $4. Needless to say, Pascal’s Manale is perfect for anyone who wants a local experience in New Orleans.
If your alligator cravings haven’t been satisfied at this point, or if you were feeling a bit underwhelmed by the fried alligator, head to Dat Dog, a local hot dog and sausage joint that has a wide selection of meats to choose from. The alligator sausage is unbelievable and doesn’t taste the way you’d expect it to — the chewiness that so often accompanies alligator meat is replaced with tenderness, flavor, and delicious toppings.
All coastal areas have some claim to fame when it comes to seafood, and New Orleans has already topped the charts with its oysters, but the most notable fish to make its way into the local cuisine is the crawfish. These small crustaceans look similar to lobsters but are conveniently bite-sized. A common way to eat them is to buy one to two pounds (one-half to one kilogram) to share with your friends, and just sit down and eat them one-by-one! The crawfish are usually cooked in a spicy sauce that lingers pleasantly on your tongue for a few seconds, which serves as a subtle reminder at just how quickly good things seem to come to an end. Although you can find them all over the city, Jefferson Seafood Shack is known for cooking them just right!
If you’re craving something sweet, nothing beats the Mardi Gras staple that is King Cake. A sweetened bread with a flavored filling inside, this classic can only be found in certain cities during the Mardi Gras season — and it’s worth seeking out several times over the course of a vacation in New Orleans. That said, there are two major styles you’ll come across: New Orleans style and French style. The major difference between the two is the texture; the New Orleans version is more bready and is usually iced, while the French version is flakier and is often plain on top. I found that PJ’s Coffee is the perfect place to settle down with a slice New Orleans style King Cake, and Maple Street Patisserie is the best place to buy a French version. Needless to say, both types will flip your world upside-down, so you can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.
If it’s not Mardi Gras season, head to Laura’s Candies for pralines. There caramelized confections are a rich mixture of sugar, nuts, and sometimes cream. In the local New Orleans shops, you’ll see them lined up in rows inside display cases, each one with a different flavor — from almond to coconut to chocolate. At Laura’s, you can even sample as many different types as you want! It’s hard not to fill up on samples, though — so be warned.
And, of course, you can’t miss the famous Beignets from Café du Monde. This old-timey location consists of an indoor store as well as an outdoor covered canopy where you can simply sit as a server takes your beignet order. When you realize just how delicious these pieces of fried dough covered in powdered sugar are, your heart will melt just as fast as the sugar does when it hits your tongue.
New Orleans is more than just jazz and letting loose; it’s about filling your belly with some of the best cuisine in the American South. It’s about trying something new, being pleasantly surprised by it, and then letting that surprise carry you on to try something else.
Before you know it, your time in Nola will be up, and you’ll feel like you’ve only eaten your way through half the city. I was fortunate to have a local friend of mine, Justin Gitelman, guiding me to some of the best spots, but even we could not scratch the surface of all the city has to offer. Fortunately, the Big Easy isn’t going anywhere, and there is plenty of time to return for the culinary journey that awaits. Here’s to letting the good times roll, and letting the good food leave you wanting more!
Header image by Westley Ferguson