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.
|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.
|Louisiana offers a plethora of amazing hot sauces!|
All of the restaurants we visited boasted both styles of food - now you know why both varieties are so common in New Orleans!
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.
|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!
|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.
|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.
|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!
|Gumbo served Creole-style at Red Fish Grill|
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.
|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!
|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!
|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!
|Raw oysters... not my favorite thing ever.|
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).
|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!
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.
|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.
|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...