By Ben Adler
As readers of the IFA surely know, I am not one to praise the cuisine of mid-sized American cities lightly. So I went to New Orleans, which everyone has been telling me since I was about 10 years old is an amazing city with amazing food, ready to be underwhelmed. I was not. I was overwhelmed. New Orleans food is every bit as good as everyone says it is, and better.
Yes, I tried the wonderfully rich jambalaya, the spicy shrimp and crawfish etouffes, and a few different gumbos. And yes, they were good. But the amazing thing about New Orleans is that you don’t even need to be particularly enamored of Creole food to eat like a king there. The abundance of fresh, cheap shellfish and other swamp things is just extraordinary. I had fried oysters practically every day. Sometimes in Po Boy form, e.g. on a light french baguette. They were always superb. I can’t overstate the importance of seafood having never been frozen. The insides are so much softer, the flavors so much more complex. I had a fantastic, life-changing soft shell crab po boy. I didn’t even know I loved soft shell crab before!
I found alligator interesting — too rubbery when fried but so chewy and delectable when part of the cheesecake at Jacques-Imo’s wonderful restaurant. Bread pudding is a great specialty down there, rich in caramel flavor. I was amazed that even the food at Jazz Fest itself was uniformly excellent and not outrageously over-priced. I highly recommend the po boys, jambalaya and bread pudding at Mother’s in downtown.
A few caveats are in order. I don’t actually like craw daddies, at least not as they are served. Too much pepper, and too much work for too little meat. I think beignets are fine, but completely over-rated. It’s still just fried dough. And yes, I went to the famous place in the French Quarter. Finally, my meta-complaint would be that the food is incredibly heavy. Almost every meal involved something fried. I seriously gained weight in only four days there.
That said, we’re talking about a mecca of fantastic big band and brass band jazz, a friendly, warm culture, beautiful architecture, and good cheap alcohol. I recommend Abita, a local beer. And I definitely recommend going.