For the best food in New Orleans, look to the road
I took my very first trip to New Orleans recently. Why I waited so long I don’t know, because it is a town that does a lot of things right – hospitality, architectural preservation, music and above all, food.
New Orleans’ cuisine can be roughly divided into two groups: the fancier, French- and Spanish-influenced Creole cooking, and the more down-home Cajun and Southern style, cooked up in backyards and diners. The food gods must have been smiling on me, because after I booked my trip I discovered that the annual New Orleans Roadfood Festival coincided with my visit.
This two-day festival, now in its third year, has become a mecca of sorts for foodies across the land, as five blocks of Royal Street in the historic French Quarter are shut down to traffic and opened up to food worshipers.
Lined along the stretch of road are two dozen booths with grills, smokers, BBQs, ice chests, bars, bands – whatever it takes to make a good food party. Some of the purveyors are local restaurants – like the Court of Two Sisters, which is renowned for its daily brunch buffet, set in a gorgeous courtyard with a sublime jazz trio on hand. Others are from out of state – like the Memphis-based Central BBQ that had folks lining up for their sloooow cooked ribs and pulled pork sliders. Or the Tucson Tamale Co. which offered up three types of tamales including earthy green corn. (Try eating one of those standing up!)
But the Roadfood Festival is only two days of the year, so if you can’t get there then, there is a head-spinning range of options for the dedicated foodie. The famous TV chef, Emiril Lagasse, has several restaurants in town and I tried the mid-range NOLA on St. Louis Street one night and had a small foodgasm over the pizza with duck confit, arugula, truffle oil and fried egg. Then at Mr. B’s Bistro the next night I practically needed a shower after getting elbow deep in a dish of peel your own barbecued shrimp in a peppery butter sauce.
The only sub-standard (for New Orleans) restaurant experience I had during my visit was at a wine bar called Grapevine on Orleans Street where, although the setting and service were charming, the food was indifferent. What was worse was the computer-run player piano sitting in the corner churning out lame tunes. In a city like New Orleans with musicians on every corner eager for performance experience, having a fake piano player in a restaurant is just a crime.
For a little break from the gustatory indulgence there are plenty of themed tours available like cemetery, garden district historic homes, and voodoo, but I decided to get out of town and get swampy. What surprised me about my visit to the bayous with Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours was the focus on the preservation of wildlife and its surroundings. Set in a large privately-owned wetland reserve, there are lots of alligators, turtles and Great Blue Herons cruising by during the leisurely and entertaining two-hour float down the canal.
New Orleans has many charms, but for me what stood out and got me hooked on the place is their ability to take whatever they’re doing seriously – whether it’s food, music or nature – yet still have a very good time doing it.
Cathy Riches has been writing about music – mostly jazz, “world” and vocal – for over 10 years for publications such as The WholeNote, the Women’s Post, JazzFM91 (blog), examiner.com, Toronto Downtown Jazz Newsletter. She also ventures into other writing realms such as travel and food and, whenever possible, music, travel AND food, since they go so well together. Cathy studied music at college and had a brief career as a performer and now only occasionally ventures onto a stage. She is also a student of Flamenco dance, Brazilian percussion, Spanish language and Texas hold ‘em.