When people asked what part of our trip I was most excited for, New Orleans was always the answer I gave in my heart, even if not the one I said aloud.
While there are certainly destinations I’m excited for, New Orleans is the first one (which makes it special), one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit a second time (since I was here in 2010), and a haven for delicious foods and drinks that you simply can’t get anywhere else (or as well anywhere else).
Having just departed, I was 100% correct: there’s no place like New Orleans to eat and drink. If you consider yourself a foodie, put it on your list. Whether it’s your first trip to New Orleans and you’re looking for the best restaurants to try – or your hundredth and you’re visiting old faves, it’s hard to go wrong with food in the Big Easy.
Here are some of the foods I would most recommend, if you have New Orleans on your itinerary, or just on your bucket list. You may not get to enjoy them all, but hopefully you’ll get a taste for the kinds of food you can find. Get it, taste?
Before you jump in: if you’ve never been to NOLA, be sure to get oriented and acquainted by checking out this handy guide to New Orleans.
The Breakfasts of Champions
There are plenty of delicious Southern breakfast options in New Orleans, including grillades & grits, sweet potato & pecan waffles, and even creative, decadent donuts.
If you have just one opportunity to start your day off right, there’s only one choice: Beignets with Cafe au Lait. Most people, myself included, visit Café du Monde in the French Quarter for this quintessential morning meal, but there are several other restaurants who offer it too (Morning Call in City Park was recommended to me as well).
Of course, French foods like Croissants and Quiche are available too; Croissant d’Or in the French Quarter has the reputation as the best bakery in the city. If you can’t tell, there’s a trend toward rich, bready foods – this is a trend that continues throughout every meal!
Okay, forgive me for the photo on this one – for some reason, I decided that taking it at a 45° was a great idea (it could have been all the Pimm’s, but I’ll get back to that in a minute…). We found this sampler dish at Kingfish in the French Quarter, and it was the perfect way to try a lot of different dishes (a great shared plate!). The important things to take away from this section are the three must-eats (plus one bonus that turned out to be my favorite on the plate!):
- Jambalaya – the combination of rice, sausage, and veggies might not seem particularly inspired, but it’s the kind of dish that every chef has a special way of making. You’ll never get tired of eating it.
- Gumbo – similar to jambalaya, the elements of the dish (stock, meat, and the Cajun holy trinity of vegetables: celery, bell peppers, and onions) are basic, but each time you eat it will be distinct and delicious.
- Red Beans & Rice – typically made as a side dish to accompany other foods, red beans & rice pack a punch no matter what seasoning the chef chooses.
And the bonus:
- Crawfish Pie – the name says it all: a pie, with crawfish baked into a think, floury filling along with veggies, seasoning (can you say cayenne?) inside a flaky, crumbly crust. I’d never tried this before this trip, and I immediately fell in love. Turns out, most New Orleanians – and most Loiusianans – love this dish and defend it fiercely. Now I now why.
Maybe some of these dishes are classics too for those from New Orleans, but for visitors, they’re likely to be less known. That doesn’t mean you should skip them, especially if you have a sense of adventurousness about food!
One of my all-time favorite dishes (possibly across all cuisines) is Crawfish Étouffée. First of all, it’s fun to say: eh-two-fay! Second, my favorite versions serve it as a pasta dish with little pieces of crawfish all rolled into a creamy gravy (“roux”) and often served with rice. Personally, I am conservative with the rice in favor of diving into more of the roux and crawfish. On this recent trip, I had a great dish of it at Lüke, widely considered one of the best restaurants in the city. Agreed on all counts.
Cracklins, or pork rind, or fried pork skin, might be a total turn off for some people (vegans and vegetarians for sure!). If you’re willing to be open-minded, cracklins form the basis for some really fun finger or snack foods. Take the pulled pork nachos Mr. Valise and I also devoured at Kingfish: pork and pico de gallo, piled on cracklins, smothered in pimento cheese. Hold onto your hats, this ain’t your local Mexican restaurant’s take on “nachos!” Seriously, one of the best meals I had.
I will admit, I didn’t actually try this food, but as Mr. Valise has volunteered as my personal Anthony Bourdain, willing to try nearly any food I’m not up for, I recommend this in solid confidence. Soft-shell crab is popular along the whole East coast of the U.S., but the photo above shows it served atop a BLT: hearty soft New orleans bread, crispy lettuce, and juicy tomato. Yes, it might take a little courage to try, but you won’t be disappointed.
Po’Boys are another food you should hunt down while in New Orleans. I say hunt, but it’s not that hard to find places selling them (it is hard to find good ones, and most are served during the late breakfast to late lunch business hours). French bread forms the basis for a handful of common recipes: at Mother’s in the Central Business District, I had a friend shrimp po’boy with lettuce and mayo, whereas Mr. Valise had the Ferdi special which included ham, roast beef, and an au jus gravy. They’re named after the lunches working men used to get back in the earlier days of the city, and they’re certainly hearty enough to carry you through a day of adventures.
New Orleans is a food city – if you’ve gotten this far, that’s obvious. It’s also a city that knows the value of a good drink, and I’m not just talking about the $10 fishbowls and $4 Hurricanes you can get on Bourbon Street (yuck!). Here are a few of the cocktails you should add to your must-sip list… if you don’t have a must-sip list yet, you should!
- Sazerac – cognac or rye whiskey, absinthe, bitters, sugar cube. The Sazerac cocktail originated in New Orleans some time in the 1850s, and can still be found (with minor tweaks and adjustments to the recipe based on bartender preferences) all over the city.
- French 75 – champagne, lemon, gin, simple syrup. It’s not a New Orleans staple, but it fits well with the other French and Creole food you’re going to find when you eat anywhere in the city.
- Pimm’s Cup – Pimm’s liqueur, fresh fruit, lemon/lime soda or ginger ale. This drink is from England, but the common history of it says that it made its entry to the U.S. by way of New Orleans. Thank you, New Orleans!
What About Dessert?
Really, you want dessert after all that? Okay then. I didn’t actually have any desserts on this recent trip – I had no room left in my stomach! But, I was tempted several times, primarily by Bread Pudding, which often kicks things up a notch with vanilla whiskey sauce or other indulgences, or Pralines, the crunchy sweet nut treat. Oh, and beignets are also considered dessert, so you can always head back to Café du Monde (open 24 hours!) for those.
And there you have it – everything you need to sip, savor, and enjoy the next time (or first time) you find yourself in New Orleans. As I mentioned early on, the food is heavy and rich and unlike food anywhere else in the world.