Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Taste of New Orleans: Creole & Cajun Cookin'


When visiting New Orleans, you can't help but be tempted by the many famous (and sometimes infamous) local delicacies and dishes.  Gumbo, jambalaya, crayfish (spelled crawfish in good ol' NOLA), and alligator are only the beginning - New Orleans, sandwiched between the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and the giant saltwater Lake Pontchartrain, features many seafood and swamp specialties to soothe your growling stomach.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Oceana Restaurant on Conti Street just off Bourbon Street

A couple of weeks ago I was in New Orleans, and truth be told, I might have been more excited to eat the food down there over doing any sort of sightseeing.  I literally had a list of things to sample during my week-long stay, and I drug my traveling companions along with me to all of my favorite restaurants, which I will share with you in this post.

Before I go ahead and make you hungry, though, you first need to understand the difference between "Creole" and "Cajun" food.  In this day and age, typically, the two words are interchangeable.  There are only some subtle culinary differences between the two styles - the biggest differences are cultural from days gone by in Southern Louisiana.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Louisiana offers a plethora of amazing hot sauces!

The Creole culture was predominantly European-based; the upper echelons of Louisiana colony culture, if you will.  These families ordered their supplies from local markets, who in turn were often supplied with wares directly from Europe.  On the other hand, the Cajun community consisted mainly of non-colony locals and displaced French-Canadians, known as the Acadians. The Cajuns were a poorer and simpler folk.  They lived off the land, and produced their own food supplies from farms and gardens.  In this way, the Creole and Cajun styles of cooking varied due to different products. This also explains why today, in a world where restaurants get their raw materials from similar commercial suppliers, the terms 'Cajun cooking' and 'Creole cooking' are basically equivalents. The spices, cooking styles, and dishes are similar to begin with - for example, both groups enjoyed a good pot of gumbo now and then.  The Creoles made their gumbo with a tomato base and pureed it into a refined soup, while the Cajuns used a simpler roux base and kept their gumbo in a stew form.

All of the restaurants we visited boasted both styles of food - now you know why both varieties are so common in New Orleans!

Oceana
Our first full day in New Orleans was a busy one: convention keynote speaker and sessions all day, and then we explored Bourbon Street in the evening.  As we strolled down Bourbon, I saw a familiar sign for a restaurant called "Oceana" hanging just off Bourbon on Conti Street (739 Conti Street to be exact).  I had eaten there last time I was in New Orleans, and memories of the most delicious crab cakes ever tasted by any human floated through my mind.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, crab cakes
Delicious crab cakes from Oceana restaurant

The sign was the same, but the line-up was new, winding a few doors down from the restaurant. Rather than be discouraged, we figured a line-up was a good sign and so we joined the crowd.  While waiting, we bonded with a fellow Canadian who was just ahead of us - Charles from Vancouver, down to visit NOLA for the week just for fun. We convinced him (forced him?) to join us for dinner, and in we went.

Once again, I ordered the crab cakes, which were just as good as I remembered.  They were thick, moist, and covered with a delicious shrimp sauce.  I also ordered the alligator sausage appetizer.  The sausages were definitely tasty, if not a little spicy, but also quite fatty.  Still, worth a try in my opinion!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Spicy alligator sausage - yum yum!

Red Fish Grill
Another flavor favorite for me are the BBQ oysters of New Orleans. What better place to have them than the "Red Fish Grill", located right on Bourbon Street a few steps down from Canal Street.  It is a nice restaurant with great service, and fantastic fare.

If you want to watch your oysters being freshly shucked, head to the bar and plunk down at the end closest to the kitchen.  There you can see the shells being wedged open, their tasty prizes just waiting for you to eat.  Sadly, I did not get any pearls from my oysters.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, Red Fish grill
The oyster shucker at Red Fish Grill - live in action!

The Red Fish Grill has tons of different items to choose from, but the BBQ oysters are my favorite.  Of course, their house specialty is the grilled red fish (but of course!), which one of my travel partners tried and loved.  It was a bit pricey for its size, however, but I suppose that's what you can expect when you order the 'fanciest' thing on the menu.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, Red Fish Grill
BBQ oysters with blue cheese sauce at Red Fish Grill

I also tried their gumbo, which was cooked Creole-style and was more of a soup than a stew. I myself prefer my gumbo Cajun-style, with chunky morsels and a thicker base. It was still tasty!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, Red Fish Grill
Gumbo served Creole-style at Red Fish Grill

Blind Pelican
One evening, after puttering up and down the St. Charles Trolley to see the majestic Garden District with all of its Grecian-pillared verandahs, we decided to get out of the French Quarter for dinner.  Halfway back to Canal Street, we jumped off the trolley and meandered down St. Charles Avenue, photographing the trees dripping with so many left-over Mardi Gras beads they looked like bedazzaled Christmas decorations.

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Mardi Gras beads hanging from St. Charles Avenue trees

To our right, at 1628 St. Charles Avenue to be precise, a restaurant that looked like it used to be an old house beckoned.  Three men stood just inside the front gate, two of them holding white styrofoam containers which they were eating from.  Curious, we headed over to investigate.  The men were very friendly and willing to share - not just information, but their actual food! The third man turned out to be the cook, and he was cooking a soup of boiled crawfish, shrimp, corn, and potatoes inside a giant vat right there on the restaurant's front porch!

The two men with the styrofoam containers shared with us their shrimp and crawfish.  Being out-of-towners and from land-locked Alberta, Canada, we we unaware of the proper etiquette when it came to eating fresh crustaceans.  One of the men showed my friend and I how to pop the head off a shrimp and eat it by pinching the tail and pulling with your teeth.  The shrimp was delicious!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, The Blind Pelican
Too cute to eat? Nope - just squish his head and suck! Tastier than it sounds...

More curious was the process for eating a crawfish.  You rip the poor thing in half, pull the meat from the tail with your teeth and eat it, then pop the other half in your mouth, squish the head, and suck the juices out!  I was disgusted watching my friend do this, but once I tried it myself, it was really good!  The 'head juices' are spicy and rich - as long as you don't think about what you are eating!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, The Blind Pelican
Piles and piles of delicious crustaceans at the Blind Pelican

Convinced of the restaurant's worth, we headed inside and ordered our own plate of shrimp and crawfish right from the boiling vat.  We also dared to try some raw oysters, which were one of the restaurant's specialties.  I wasn't so taken with those!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, The Blind Pelican
Raw oysters... not my favorite thing ever.

Eat
If you want a nice place in the French Quarter to grab some lunch, try this little place we discovered while wandering the Quarter in search of the Voodoo Museum. The restaurant is called, simply, "Eat", and is located at 900 Dumaine Street.  It is cute, small, and pleasant.  You can even bring in your own wine to drink without a corkage fee (lots of places in New Orleans allow you to bring your own wine, but most charge a $15 corkage fee right off the bat).

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Fried crawfish po'boy at Eat in New Orleans

I was originally going to order a nice, light salad, since I'd been eating heavy Creole and Cajun food all week, but couldn't pass up the chance to try a fried catfish po'boy and some fried green tomatoes. A po'boy is basically just a big sandwich served with some sort of fried meat.  In this case, it was the catfish, which was delicious.  I had to take the bun out of the whole equation - my po'boy was gigantic and I never would have been able to eat it all.  So basically I just ordered fried catfish.

I was really happy with the fried green tomatoes.  I'd never had them before, but they were tasty and super simple: something I could make at home.  I need to find a good recipe for them - if anyone has one, feel free to send it my way!

Huck Finn's 
The last restaurant I want to mention is actually one that we didn't get to visit, although we walked past it on the way to the French Market down at 135 Decateur Street. During our swamp trip, our captain overheard us talking about the alligator sausage at "Oceana", and basically berated us for being such tourists. Apparently, the alligator sausage and jerky samples that you can find all around town are mixed with beef or pork or other blends of meats, and aren't 'pure' alligator.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Huck Finn's restaurant, courtesy plus.google.com

He recommended that we try the Alligator Platter at "Huck Finn's", which offers blackened or seared alligator, the best kind to eat.  We never did get to this place, so now it is on the bucket list for my next venture down to the Big Easy! For those of you horrified at the thought of eating alligator, don't worry.  You won't be eating a hunk of endangered or poached alligator - there are actual alligator farms down in Southern Louisiana, and alligator meat is sold in supermarkets all over the place.  It is a guilt-free meal!

Other tasty treats we tried include the giant muffeletta in the French market (I ate only a small portion of my meal and was still ready to be rolled home afterwards), pralines at a little corner store (which were too sugary for me), and beignets from Cafe Beignet (not Cafe du Monde as it was too crazy and lined up on every single day we visited).  If I wrote about them all, this post would be much too lengthy and we'd all have drool slipping up our keyboards, so I'll refrain.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Slap Ya Mama spice - I put that stuff on everything!

One last word on New Orleans cuisine - if you are down visiting the city, pick up a bottle (or five) of a Cajun spice called "Slap Ya Mama".  I bought some in 2008, and have been waiting to go back to NOLA ever since just to get my hands on some again.  This time around, I bought four bottles, just to be safe.  This stuff is good on fries, potatoes, popcorn, and basically everything!  Yum yum!



Eating raw oysters at the Blind Pelican - my face says it all...

6 comments:

  1. A girl after my own heart eating your way around NOLA! The poboy and the gumbo look so yummy!! It's been years since I've been to New Orleans, but I'd love to go back sometime soon for all of the good food!

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    1. Ahh, the food was sooooo good! But I'm paying for it now as everything is fitting a little tighter now that I'm home. Been focusing on eating clean and doing some exercise (have to fit into a bikini - hopefully - for Mexico next month)! If you go back, let me know where your favorite places to eat are! :)

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  2. The food looks so YUM! I have never been to New Orleans, but it is definitely on the list :)

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    1. Go! Definitely go! According to a local, now a friend, that I met during this last trip, there is a "fest" nearly every month that celebrates some aspect of New Orleans cuisine. "Crawfish-fest" is the closest one to now, I believe. :)

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  3. Didn't try alligator sausage, but I had fried alligator instead! And boy was it yummy! (although it kind of tasted liked chicken in my opinion!)

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    1. Fried sounds good - that was one of the ways the locals recommended we try it! I am slightly jealous! Was it really fatty, cuz the sausage was...

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