The search for America's best food cities:
The search for America's best food cities: New Orleans
Sixth in a monthly series.
Plenty of American cities pride themselves on their fine food and drink. None of them relish where they’ve been and what they have as much as New Orleans, a city founded by the French, ruled for 40 years by the Spanish — and nearly washed away a decade ago by Hurricane Katrina.
The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I: Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.
“You will come across no one who says he just eats for fuel,” writer and photographer Pableaux Johnson says over a dinner of duck confit with dirty rice at the admired Herbsaint, where the food, much like the city, mixes cultures to jazzy effect. “We’re a small city with outsize appetites.”
On the brink of an anniversary no one wishes to celebrate, I revisited the Louisiana port town as part of my tour of the country to identify, and ultimately rank, the top 10 food cities in America. Whether I was chomping on a po’ boy a few feet away from a video gambling booth at Parkway Bakery & Tavern or singing “Happy Birthday” — along with the rest of the restaurant — to a 90-year-old grande dame at the dowager Galatoire’s on a Sazerac-laced Friday afternoon, New Orleans’s signature joie de vivre was my constant companion.
This was also a week in which I discovered a museum that allows patrons to tour with cocktails in hand (mighty kind of you, Southern Food & Beverage Museum) and watched grown men navigate the streets in clingy frocks (via the fundraising Red Dress Race). Far more than in most places, opposites seem to attract in this most bohemian of American cities.
“You can come down to New Orleans and fly your freak flag,” says chef Isaac Toups, co-owner of Toups’ Meatery, a contemporary Cajun restaurant in Mid-City. “You can have a glass of wine with breakfast,” and no one cares.
No moment hit the point home quite like the sultry night a genial cardiologist surrendered his stool at the SRO bar at Coquette in the Garden District so I could eat. I was embarrassed when the doctor, settling his bill, caught me eyeing a pack of Marlboros poking out of his coat pocket. He smiled as he shook my hand goodbye. “New Orleans,” he said, “is a city of contradictions.”
Always an open invitation
To eat even a few meals here is to discover the truth: Nothing tastes like this. “Our food is the strangest thing,” says chef Leah Chase, at 92 still a daily presence in the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s, which opened in 1941. As Brett Anderson, the veteran restaurant critic of the Times-Picayune, puts it: “The city has places that simply can’t be found anywhere else.”
F’true. The society restaurant Galatoire’s is the only place in this country where lunch too easily slips into the dinner hour, coffee is more intoxicating than stimulating (welcome to cafe brulot) and underdressed novices to the spectacle are heard to say, “No one gave me the hat memo.” Other than at the beloved Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, would there be dozens of people willing to wait 30 minutes or more for a cone of shaved ice in 104-degree heat, weather that felt like a swamp on fire? At Toups’ Meatery, my server almost insisted I order an appetizer of crawfish fritters: “Oh man, last of the season!” And when the bartender at the Mayhaw saw me debating a second cocktail before 11 a.m. on a weekday (research, baby!), he settled the matter with, “Man, you’re in New Orleans.”
Lolis Eric Elie, the TV writer, food historian and author of “Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans,” says his native city has a long history of equal opportunity when it comes to good food, pointing to the roast beef po’ boy and red beans and rice as “inexpensive, high-quality and emblematic of New Orleans.”
San Francisco likes to talk up the ultra-freshness of its larder and New York counts more stars than there are in heaven, but “New Orleans has its own cuisine,” says Liz Williams, founder of the food and beverage museum, which relocated from the Riverwalk mall to Central City last year. “All of us identify ourselves with our food.” Crucially, she adds, “Rich or poor, we all eat beans and rice.”
Alon Shaya, a protege of esteemed chef-restaurateur John Besh, knew as much when he returned to New Orleans with his boss mere days after Katrina to help feed emergency personnel in the parking lot of a looted Wal-Mart. On his person: a pistol, which he never had to use. On the menu: red beans and rice. “We could have just made rice,” says Shaya, who won this year’s James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: South for the hit Israeli restaurant that bears his name. But red beans and rice “hold a special place here. People would be comforted” by the complete dish.
Another great equalizer is gumbo, which everyone agrees requires a proper roux and can accept just about any meat or vegetable — including, for the budget-minded, Vienna sausages.
The New Orleans repertoire has been shaped, from the start, by French Acadians (who became “Cajuns”), French-Creoles, African slaves, Spanish colonists, German settlers, Croatians (important to the city’s oyster industry), Haitians fleeing revolution, multiple waves of Irish and, in the mid-1970s, Vietnamese refugees.
Further, entire forests have been devoted to books explaining the differences between Cajun and Creole cooking; a tweet might winnow the fine points down to rural vs. city, lard vs. butter, loud vs. lyrical.
As steeped as the city is in tradition, ultimately, “ethnic groups get ‘Creolized,’ ” says Williams, meaning that foreign elements “all become our food.” Thus, Italian ice gave way to snowballs and, more recently, banh mi became Vietnamese po’ boys. “We’re quick to adopt,” says Williams. When something new comes along, she adds, New Orleans says, “All right, come on in!” At the same time, says Chase, “we’re not copying. We’re saying, ‘I’ll make this my own.’ ” An Italian cook’s pasta con sarde, she says, might become her “sardines in Creole gravy over rice.”
“New Orleans can’t be mistaken for anything else,” says Johnson, whose encyclopedic “Eating in New Orleans” had the misfortune of coming out in July 2005 but remains vital. Every Monday, he whips up red beans and rice for a changing collection of up to 14 guests. That’s the most number of friends (and sometimes strangers) that can gather around his kitchen’s old oak table, passed down from his grandmother.
The host’s weekly ritual, accompanied by cornbread and whatever liquid pleasures folks bring, illustrates another way New Orleans differs from other great food destinations: “It’s not just about eating or the skill of the chef,” says Sara Roahen, a child of Wisconsin who wrote about falling in love with her adopted New Orleans in 2008’s “Gumbo Tales.” “New Orleanians have an expectation of things happening at the table.” An occasional partaker in Johnson’s Monday night get-togethers, she says, “There’s a lot about this city’s culture that demands participation: the music, Mardi Gras, the food. And so eating with others here makes me feel closer not just to my companions, but also to the rhythms of the city.”
Says Chase, “Our food is what brings us together.”
Shaya, a native of Israel and a transplant from Philadelphia, points out that eateries were among the first businesses to reopen after the storm. “Restaurants were our social clubs,” he says. “Everyone came and asked the same question: ‘How did you do?’ ”
The raucous and the refined
Generations of frat boys and Mardi Gras revelers know New Orleans for Hand Grenades and Hurricanes on Bourbon Street. Cocktail enthusiasts prefer to emphasize the city’s long history of civilized drinking. Among other libations, New Orleans introduced the Sazerac (1850), the Ramos gin fizz (1888) and the Vieux Carre (1934) to the pantheon of classics. If poorly made by some bars in some eras, none of the trio ever went out of style; indeed, in 2006, the Sazerac, the famed elixir of rye whiskey, bitters and absinthe, became New Orleans’ official cocktail by government decree.
“We’re not a trendy city,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, a high-minded industry event that started with about 50 participants in 2002 and last year welcomed 17,000 participants from 34 countries. Among the city’s most serious parties, the five-day-long Tales has pumped $70 million into the local economy since 2008, when the figure started being measured. Perhaps only in NOLA could a conference centered on booze end with a blessing by a priest, as occurred this July in Jackson Square Park with a farewell from Father Bill Dailey, a lecturer in law at Notre Dame Law School (and a cocktail geek).
Tuennerman credits her home town’s let-the-good-times-roll attitude with elevating the sport of sipping. Go-cups, she says, lend mobility to refreshment, whether for neighbors walking their dogs or anyone of legal age who cares to bar-hop. Go-cups, says Neal Bodenheimer, the co-owner of several top-shelf bars in New Orleans, including Cure and Cane & Table, “are not only accepted but revered. They remind us of our roots: watching a parade, going to a concert — enjoying our city.”
New Orleans’s liberal attitude toward alcohol surfaces in unexpected settings. Visitors at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, which houses what is thought to be the city’s oldest surviving bar (from 1849), are allowed to drink cocktails from “real glass” as opposed to plastic as they tour the exhibits, says Williams, the museum’s founder. “How could we not?”
Visiting the Mayhaw in St. Roch Market, the pristine food hall that is a fresh symbol of gentrification, Tuennerman overheard a stranger order a Revolver, similar to a Manhattan but with coffee liqueur instead of vermouth. He turned to her, offered his glass and asked: “Want to try it?” Tuennerman took him up on the offer. “You don’t find that in New York,” she says.
Where red beans and rice fit in
Perhaps the need for such connections is stronger than ever since Katrina, which left more than 1,800 people dead and caused an estimated $108 billion in damage. Discuss Katrina with locals, and the word “trauma” comes up a lot.
“Blunt trauma has changed the city,” says Johnson. “You can’t go anywhere without experiencing evidence of blunt trauma. You want it behind you.”
But the wounds remain. “After 10 years, we’re still making sense of it,” Johnson wrote via e-mail. “I don’t know anybody here who takes very much for granted, and those same people work to keep the city moving forward as they honor the memory of that disaster.” Elie, the writer and filmmaker, bemoans the death of small neighborhood restaurants and the decision by the children of African-American restaurateurs not to go into the business, even at a time when there’s more money and respect to be had.
In a slap heard ’round the food world a year after Katrina, GQ’s Alan Richman visited a weakened New Orleans and asked, “I know we are supposed to salvage what’s left of the city, but what exactly is it that we’re trying to cherish and preserve?” Among other slights, he compared Creoles to “faerie folk, like leprechauns,” because he never met one.
Anderson of the Times-Picayune hit back, writing that Richman “mucks around in exhausted clichés with the pride of someone who has uncovered hidden truths.” More recently, Anderson argued that in terms of dining establishments, “months before Katrina hit, New Orleans was as good a city as it ever had been.”
Cool off with sno-balls, a New Orleans treat
The ice is shaved so fine at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz it’s like eating snow, sweetened with homemade syrups.
If anything positive came of Katrina, it was a renewed connectedness to the area, “a renaissance of spirit,” says Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture and the author of multiple books about New Orleans. “This trauma has made New Orleanians more self-aware of their history, their culture, their geography.”
Helping to lead the charge are what Campanella calls “Orleaneophilic super-natives,” outsiders so enamored of the city they “overcompensate for not being local.”
The first wave of the so-called “brain gain” included “urbanists, environmentalists and social workers” eager to be part of something significant, Campanella wrote in a 2013 essay for Newgeography.com. Right behind the crusaders were artists, musicians and other types “who turned their backs on the Great Recession woes and resettled in what they perceived to be an undiscovered bohemia in the lower faubourgs of New Orleans — just as their predecessors did in the French Quarter 80 years prior.” Gentrification, in other words, is hardly a recent phenomenon.
Wood-fired pizza? That’s fairly new to town, a product of “a different population that wants different things,” says Anderson.
Roahen, author of “Gumbo Tales,” agrees: “We’re eating a lot like the rest of the country is eating,” she says. Post-Katrina New Orleans finds more international accents (including inventive Vietnamese), chefs who don’t feel compelled to put gumbo on their menus and “more casual places that aren’t po’ boy shops.”
As of two years ago, New Orleans had 2,375 restaurants, up from 2,138 a decade ago and 1,860 the year after Katrina, according to the Census Bureau.
“I can’t tell what’s going to happen,” Roahen says of the wave of outsiders and their ideas. “Will they eat red beans? Something else?” Like me, she appreciates the better balance of choices (“If that’s a priority”) but likes knowing she’s not far from some of the dishes that made her fall for the city in the first place.
Long live Gulf fish topped with sweet crab. For starters.
Toups of the eponymous Cajun restaurant welcomes most of the changes post-Katrina. Restaurants that were resting on their laurels have either closed or stepped up their game, he says, and diners’ wants, needs and expectations are higher.
With that comes some wiggle room for chefs. Toups comes from a family that can trace its roots in the region back 300 years, but the Cajun has no problem using soy sauce in some of his food — or promoting to chef de cuisine a guy from Minnesota.
Bucking convention is part of the beauty of New Orleans, says Shaya, who never dreamed when he came to town he could pull off a modern Israeli restaurant. “I can dress up as a chicken for Mardi Gras and be the chef of a restaurant,” he says, “and not feel like I’m leading a double life.”