I was diving into my third beignet of the morning, my face smeared with grease and powdered sugar, when I decided that I couldn’t go on this way. During my latest visit to New Orleans, I was eating well. Too well: deep-fried balls of crabmeat at Sylvain, a rich charcuterie plate at Cochon, a wurst covered in shrimp etouffée at Dat Dog, ham-stacked po’ boys from Booty’s Street Food, and a many-layered meat sub called a muffuletta at Central Grocery.
I put down the beignet and began wondering: Can you stay healthy while visiting the Big Easy, a city known for its excess and indulgence?
“It is impossible,” said Efrem, my Eritrean taxi driver, when I asked him for advice on eating healthfully. “I have been in New Orleans for 15 years. I never go out to eat.”
That was a first. Cab drivers are usually the most reliable source of restaurant recommendations. Efrem explained that because he didn’t care for fried food, he could hardly eat out in New Orleans.
Luckily, I found that there was a way to stay healthy, although you may have to get off the beaten tourist path — which turned out to be a blessing. While in search of wholesome, non-guilt-inducing food and ways to work off any excess, I discovered unexpected treasures in New Orleans.
The first stop on my quest for a healthier New Orleans was Magazine Street, Uptown’s shopping thoroughfare, where you can spend a whole day walking from one boutique to another. Sure, the street is jampacked with temptations such as District Donuts and Sliders, which, as the name would suggest, sells sliders, doughnuts and even iced coffee on tap. (How I resisted it is beyond me.)
Instead, I went into Raw Republic, a juice bar that supplies its healthful concoctions (think cucumber, parsley, kale, apple and pineapple) to upscale coffee shops around town. All its offerings were labeled organic and raw, and the shop also offered tips on cleansing regimens, something I might have needed after my trip if I hadn’t had my beignet epiphany.
But rather than skip dinner in favor of a liquid diet, I went to Dominique’s on Magazine, reopened in 2013 after an 18-month hiatus. The smart restaurant, run by Mauritian chef Dominique Macquet, features a vertical hydroponic farm that grows half a dozen varieties of peppers, heirloom tomatoes and herbs such as basil, cilantro, marjoram and lavender right on the premises. Framed and hung on the courtyard walls, the turfs of herbs are edible works of art — and certainly project a healthier vibe than, say, a deep fryer. Here, I sampled a lighter take on local ingredients, such as a gulf octopus seviche and grilled cobia, a lean local fish, both accompanied by heaps of fresh herbs.
I was on the right path.
Many locals whom I asked about healthful food pointed me to Satsuma, a cafe in New Orleans’s bohemia du jour, the Bywater. To get there, I rented a simple road bike at Bicycle Michael’s, a busy shop on youthful Frenchmen Street. The lanky, many-tattooed gentleman at the counter explained why bicycling was catching on as a popular mode of transportation in New Orleans: “The city’s so flat.” He explained that, thanks to the increasing number of cyclists and the expanding network of bicycle lanes, moving around the city on two wheels has become easier than ever.
With his assurance, I pedaled to the Bywater, part of the so-called Sliver by the River, a crescent of higher land that largely escaped the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. The journey was a breeze, merely 10 minutes of leisurely pedaling from the shop. Together with its more developed neighbor, Faubourg Marigny, the Bywater counts as the most colorful neighborhood in New Orleans, its grid of intimate streets lined with French- and Spanish-style homes in every shade of Crayola.
Flamboyant murals adorn the walls of the industrial riverfront, which is slated to open to the public this year as Crescent Park, and the neighborhood’s front yards are decorated with all kinds of whimsy, from voodoo to Tibetan. Someone had even changed a street sign on Dauphine Street from “One Way” to “One Gay,” the sign’s arrow playfully pointing toward one of the LGBT-friendly neighborhoods.
At Satsuma, an adorable little courtyard cafe, the chalkboard menu was filled with Mediterranean-inspired salads and pasta dishes. I asked for the most healthful dish on offer and got a tofu scramble, generously seasoned with Cajun-meets-Southwest flavors. The limeade, made with the satsumas that the cafe’s neighbors bring them, was a refreshing departure from the adult beverages I had indulged in the night before.
For a more active cleanse, I decided to do as the New Orleanians do: some yoga. After all, the city has seen the number of its yoga studios jump from six before Katrina to 25 today.
“I love food like anyone in New Orleans,” said Emilia Aguinaga, who greeted me at Freret Street Yoga. Aguinaga is a poster child of healthy: a practicing yogi and a graduate student in public health. But even she admitted that it’s not always easy to stay healthy in the Big Easy.
“You can easily fall into the routine of drinking and eating, eating and drinking here,” she said. “There are so many good bars and restaurants.” And there are the statistics to prove it: According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the adult obesity rate in New Orleans hovers about 4 percent above the national average, with about 64 percent of the city’s adults considered to be overweight or obese.
The next afternoon, I rode my bike out to City Park, a 1,500-acre swath of greenery that ranks as one of the 10 largest urban gardens in the United States. Plenty of people were running, bicycling and walking among the majestic oak trees, lagoons, tennis courts and a golf club. But all this was beginning to feel a little too puritanical — un-New Orleans, if you will.
Cycling back to the city on Esplanade Avenue, a leafy street packed with Federal townhouses and Spanish colonial mansions, I rode past a high school where a marching band was practicing on the sidewalk. Leading it was a corpulent boy, shimmying and twerking as if he were possessed, with enough flair and mock hair-flicking to put Beyoncé to shame.
In New Orleans, it turns out, partying and exercising can be the same thing.
Kwak is a San Francisco- and Berlin-based writer. His Web site is www.kwak.in/motion.