OK, so you're hungry. You've come to the right place. New Orleans is a culinary delight, but don't look too hard for healthy food; some would say don't look at all (although those demanding vegetarian, vegan, or kosher food can, with effort, find some). You're on vacation, so take advantage of what they prepare best here. New Orleans has good food for people on any type of budget.
While most places take major credit cards, "cash only" restaurants are perhaps a bit more common here than other places, so plan in advance.
The main culinary tradition in New Orleans is Creole - which means the culture and its cuisine already flourishing when Louisiana was purchased by the U.S. in 1803. The Creoles were the peoples originally in New Orleans from its founding. Creole has a mixture of influences, including French and Spanish, with a strong West-African foundation. Creoles cook with roux (a blend of butter and flour) and the "trinity," a popular term for green pepper, onion and celery. These are the base for many savory dishes. 19th-century southern Italian immigrants added increased appreciation for garlic — an old local joke calls garlic the "Pope" to the culinary "Trinity" — along with tomato based sauces and other dishes. (The influences went both ways; some New Orleans "Italian" restaurants have their own take on the Italian tradition, sometimes called "Creole Italian".) Eastern European, Latin American, Vietnamese, and other immigrants have added to the New Orleans mix. Thus New Orleans cuisine is rich in tradition while open to new ideas, and culturally inclusive while still uniquely distinctive.
The seafood is fresh and relatively cheap compared to many places. Some think it is often best fried, but you can try seafood of a wide variety cooked many different ways here. Repeated studies have shown that the 2010 oil spill has not at all affected the quality of Gulf seafood.
Oysters are a popular specialty, gulped down raw, battered and fried, in a po' boy sandwich, or elegant Rockefeller style.
There may on occasion be some exotic items on the menu. Yes, you can have alligator if you’d like - it mostly tastes like chicken (but chewier). The softshell crab can be excellent. If it's on the menu of a good restaurant, it's probably pretty good—when in doubt, ask.
Crawfish (don't say "cray" fish) is a popular dish here, usually boiled in a huge pot of very spicy water and served in a pile with corn and potatoes. If cracking open the shells and sucking the heads isn't your thing, try them with pasta or in sushi or any other way they’re prepared.
Po-boys (don't say "poor boys") are the distinctive New Orleans variation of the sandwich. Unless you request your sandwich put on something else like sliced white bread (while you're in New Orleans, don't bother), it will be served on a po-boy loaf, similar to French bread; bread pundits debate whether the New Orleans po-boy bread is the same thing as the baguette of France or qualifies as its own unique type of bread (some say it actually IS French bread but because of the humidity, the bread ferments very quickly and gets its distinctive taste and texture). Either way, it's good, but only part of what makes the sandwich tasty. The rest is what is put on it, of course. Roast beef with "debris" gravy, fried shrimp, oysters, etc... You'll probably be asked if you want it "dressed". In New Orleans, "dressed" means with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and sometimes pickles, depending on the restaurant. Every neighborhood in New Orleans has its favorite po-boy places; the better ones butcher, slow cook, and season their own meats. The po-boy is a great and filling taste of New Orleans at a reasonable price.
The Muffaletta is a sandwich served on a big round airy Italian loaf (also called a muffaletta) which is similar to focaccia, it consists of a variety of sliced meats such as capicola, salami, and mortadella as well as cheeses topped with olive salad. Unless you have a very big appetite, half a muffaletta will probably be plenty for a filling meal. It was created in New Orleans around 1906 at Central Grocery on Decatur where you can still purchase them.
Gumbo is a tasty Louisiana traditional stew, originating in West-Africa and comes in numerous varieties. The vegetable base is traditionally okra (in West-Africa, the Wollof language word "gombo" means okra) with filé (sassafras leaves) used as a thickener. Seafood is the most common meat; but one will just as often find chicken, duck, smoked sausage or "andouille" sausage, the ages-old "gombo d'zherbes" (vegetarian) and other types of gumbo on many a menu. Gumbo is universally served with rice.
Red beans and rice sounds bland, but is a tasty, comforting treat prepared in the New Orleans way. The beans are slowly cooked until they reach a creamy texture, with a mix of onions, bell pepper, celery, and spices. Especially traditional on Mondays. It can be vegetarian but may not be; ask. It is often served with spicy, smoked or "andouille" sausage.
Local fresh produce: Have you heard of Louisiana strawberries, satsumas and creole tomatoes? If not, it's probably because they're so good that locals eat most of them right here! The strawberries come in around Jazz Fest time, satsumas in December and the creole tomatoes in early summer. You may spot "mirliton"; on the menu, a vegetable not common in most of the United States. In Mexico and the Southwest, it is called "chayote", though travelers to Guatemala may recognize it as the same thing that's called "hisquil" down there. Of course, when the first crops come in, there are parties, festivals, and parades commemorating the strawberries, creole tomatoes, or mirlitons.
Bananas Foster might be the most well known Orleanian delicacy served at the end of a fine meal. Consisting of warmed bananas mixed with brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, and rum poured over vanilla ice cream; it is usually made flambe style in front of the customer just before serving. There are a number of restaurants in the French Quarter that specialize in combining the show of making it and serving it as well.
Snow balls or sno-balls are the New Orleans take on the northern "snow cone" or flavored ice done with more finesse. Ice is not crushed but shaved into microscopically fine snow in special machines, and flavored with syrups, fresh made at the better places. New Orleans sno-balls are often topped or layered with sweetened condensed milk, but this is optional. The flavors need not be overly sweet, and can come in a wide variety ranging from striking to subtle, including such treats as wild cherry, lemonade, chocolate cream, coffee, orchid vanilla, and dozens of others. Locals almost worship the better neighborhood sno-ball stands during the city's long hot summer; try the refreshing treat as a snack or dessert and find out why. Note, many snow ball shops will close in the winter, as New Orleans is surprisingly chilly between November and February and the demand dies down.
Beignets (pronounced "ben-yays") are a deep fried square pastry covered with powdered sugar. Most famously found at Morning Call & Café du Monde, Beignets are a traditional New Orleans treat enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. Beignets are traditionally served in orders of three with café au lait.
Café au lait is a coffee served half brewed coffee and half hot milk. Coffee in New Orleans differs from any other coffee in the world. During the Civil War, coffee beans were very scarce. The local French extended their coffee supply by adding ground roasted chicory (the root of endive lettuce) to the brew. New Orleanians became very accustomed to the new beverage, noting that the chicory softened the bitter edge of the coffee while enhancing the robust flavor. Many taste a slight chocolate flavor while drinking café au lait, due to the addition of chicory.
Many restaurants will have hot sauce as a condiment on the table (even Chinese and fast-food restaurants). Louisiana is the creator of Tabasco sauce after all. Although always flavorful, not all New Orleans food will be very spicy hot. Many locals do like to add hot sauce to many dishes. If you can take it, give it a try.
In many of the fine restaurants around town, people take their clothes as seriously as their food. Despite the obnoxious heat and humidity in the summertime, don’t go to these restaurants dressed in shorts/jeans; they won’t let you in. This applies only to the nicest (and some say best) restaurants in town but there are plenty of places that you can wear shorts to (many of which are great too). This is what you've been saving your pennies for.
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