I naturally gravitate towards restaurants like a compass needle points north. So when I was sling-shotted 7,000 miles across the US to the deep south in New Orleans (NOLA) without a second to research dining, I was unconcerned. No chance to run into old flames so far from the rock meant fewer awkward moments and more time to make out with vampires over Sazeracs while snacking on gator pupus. I knew I could wing it.
But then I started having the worst luck. I didn’t know what to order, couldn’t find the cuisine I wanted and got no help from the vamps. Then the GPS on My IPhone stopped telling how or where to go. Without my tech, I had to guide myself through southern dining in the French Quarter in analog.
Here’s what I did:
1. Bourbon Street is for the Dogs
Bourbon Street is NOLA’s perennial street party, not just during Mardi Gras. The street closes to vehicles around 5pm and the beads start flying soon after, regardless of whether your top stays on. The cocktails flow “as long as someone is still drinking,” according to the numerous NOLA residents I asked. Keep yourself going on this street with carb and protein staples: pizza, Philly cheesesteaks and hot dogs. The latter make their appearance right as the street closes at 5pm: from deep in the gut of NOLA, the Lucky Dog hot dog carts begin making a mass migration to Bourbon Street, where you will find one parked about every 50 yards. Their buns are steamed hot and the dogs are huge, ready to walk down the street with you, in fact. Of course, there are plenty of condiments. Just beware of the strap-on drinks and the free Monster cans passed out by hot chicks in the back of a truck.
2. I know you have heard this before but it works: Eat Local
After ordering five different crappy brown leafed salads, I got the idea that the whole city got the same bad shipment of pre-cut salad mix that sucked. Javier Barberi, a Southern boy and and GM at Pulehu, filled me in on the seasonals: “Tomatoes, green beans, okra, squash, sweet potatoes, collards, cabbage, rutabaga, and sweet vidalia onions.”
The lesson here is eat what is not shipped in. Seafood is caught wild right here in the gulf or procured in the swamps. I ordered oysters at the Bourbon House and not only were they divine, the staff whipped out a map and showed me exactly where they were caught that day. Also, okra rules. And crab meats are stuffed in everything. Sweet potato fries count as a veggie. Go for the gator, it’s on the menu everywhere and caught locally (haven’t you seen swamp people?). Don’t be surprised by the turtle soup–its a delicacy, and not made with sea turtles (they are a protected species even in NOLA). The turtle soup is made with farm-raised cooter or snapping turtle, and sometimes the recipe includes a mixture of veal, beef and turtle meat.
3. Join the Tea Party or have a cocktail
The Sazerac is the official cocktail of NOLA, but it can put unwanted hair on your chest. It’s rye whiskey, in an absinthe-washed glass served neat with a twist. Summer in the south means its 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity, and the only way to relieve that is with southern black brewed iced tea. Southern hospitality dictates they make big vats of it sweetened or unsweetened. Whichever your preference, a lot of it comes served in Styrofoam cups. If you need something a little stronger, NOLA is famous for its cocktail history. Their waterfront marketplace, called the Riverwalk, includes the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, where you can see the years of rum running, underground moonshine production of prohibition, aging barrels of bourbon and absinthe and the like. One thing NOLA has kept in their history books is their commitment to craft cocktails. Bottom line: bottoms up.
4. Spice up your life by eating what you don’t know
This is the home of creole and cajun cooking, considerably different than cuisines here. Emeril and Paula Deen have made their names famous on the Food Network with southern cooking. While I saw plenty of sushi and Chinese, I couldn’t help but ask why people eat that in the south? Immerse yourself in the diversity of the food in the area and pay attention to the subtle flavors that surround you. Etoufee may sound completely foreign but it’s crawfish over rice with a dark roux. The seasonings and sauce make it very different from the shrimp and rice of the islands.
Creole is the result of the melting pot of French, Spanish, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Native American and African American cultures. It’s their version of our “local food.” Jambalaya, crawfish etoufee, bisques, oysters rockefeller, beignets and pecan pie are some of the most notable and recognizable elements of this cuisine found on the tables in NOLA.
5. Let your ears lead your nose
While you wander around looking for restaurants, let your ears lead the way. This city is full of remarkable musicians on street corners, pubs and restaurants. The Eels and Submarines were playing at House of Blues one night, and although that wasn’t my first choice for dinner, getting to hear live music was. Jazz bands on the corners serenaded every outdoor meal, and even lone trumpet players made a simple cup of coffee al fresca so much more memorable.
Got a hot food scoop? Contact Jen Russo at 808-280-3286 or fax to 808-244-0446.