Louisiana Eats: From Bourbon Street to the Bayou

We were tired–bone-tired–both physically and mentally but we remained determined.  We had consulted travel guides and picked locals’ brains and not one source, it seemed, could be trusted to steer us in the right direction of true Louisiana cooking.  How could a state fabled for its cuisine be in the running for ‘Culinary Dud of the Year’?  It had been more than a decade since I last visited the balmy jewel of The Gulf and, at this point, I wanted a refund.

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THE ARRIVAL
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Stepping off the plane, fresh-faced and eager to get our hands on an authentic po’boy, we headed to Seafood & Po-Boys in Kenner.  (Louisianans tend to not be bothered with minutiae like the creative naming of businesses–made evident by the names of local eateries like ‘Eat’ and ‘Quick Food’.)  The side-of-the-road restaurant was so non-descript that it required a second look at the GPS and a breakneck u-turn to locate the drab beige building that was more mobile home than restaurant.  A lonely battered pick-up truck sat in the parking lot which should have served as a warning but to two Yankees was misinterpreted as ‘authentic’.  Seafood & Po-Boys is both a video poker gaming hall and eatery (which is oddly common in Louisiana)–complete with the requisite bottle of Tabasco (produced on the state’s Avery Island) and roll of paper towels.  The Ritz it is not.
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The menu boasted fresh seafood po’boys and a host of other local deep fryer delicacies.  I chose the half-shrimp, half-oyster po’boy and, after being called out about my Northern roots when I couldn’t choose between sandwich dressing or mayo, I tucked into my first Louisiana po’boy.  I was disappointed with the stale, overcooked shrimp which tasted as if they had been fried in recycled oil.  I was, however, pleasantly surprised with the brininess of the fried oysters which remained perfectly tender on the inside while being crispy on the outside, but surely Louisiana had better offerings.
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To our dismay, the first day of our foodie excursion was a comedy of culinary errors.  In our quest to find ‘off-the-beaten-path’ down home cuisine, we ended up in both tourist traps and holes-in-the-wall.  Something had to give so we tweaked our food-finding formula and the results were a great mixture of high-low dining.
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ROAD TRIP
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As our quest continued, we headed to Houma in the heart of Cajun country and, literally, stumbled upon Boudreau and Thibodeau’s Cajun Cookin’–a quirky, tongue-in-cheek neighborhood restaurant.  Once you get past the gaudy décor and framed jokes that adorn the walls, Boudreau and Thibodeau’s actually serves good fare.  Po’boys, gumbo, a slew of lowcountry slow-pot favorites, and that delicious Southern oddity–fried pickles–adorn the menu.  Albeit the gumbo wasn’t as spicy as I would have liked, it had that slow, rich taste for which the bayou is famous.  Who knew this quirky little hole-in-the-wall would restore our faith?
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After our impromptu lunch, we drove downtown (a term used with great license) and found what appeared to be a tiny home with an attached carport known as Kajon Koolers (Louisianans aren’t terribly concerned with spelling, either) whose specialty is the syrupy sweet cousin of water ice–the sno-ball.  In complete disbelief that any food served from a carport could be edible, we skeptically ordered an orange dreamsicle and strawberry cheesecake sno-ball.  Our server scooped a gigantic mound of shaved ice into a styrofoam cup with an automotive funnel no less (!), held it over a trough, and poured copious amounts of sugary syrup over the ice.  One taste and we were believers.
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TO MARKET, TO MARKET
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We visited the French Market to snag a table at the world-renowned Café du Monde and, while the beignets and café au lait were delicious, a trio of jovial fellows stole our hearts at Cajun Café located next door.  The café is both a store and eatery, selling the obligatory varieties of hot sauce and serving up traditional Cajun fare.  They fawned over us (every girl needs a little fawning) and fed us the most flavorful, well-seasoned dirty rice I’ve ever tasted.  Did I mention that the owners sent us home with a bottle of Red Rooster hot sauce?  Now that’s Southern hospitality.
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IN SEARCH OF THE MUDBUG
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Even ‘up North’ we eat crawfish étoufée, but a trip to The Gulf isn’t complete without rolling up your sleeves and actually getting your hands dirty with a plateful of crawfish.  Also known as mudbugs, crawdads, and crayfish, the tiny lobster-resembling creature is Louisiana’s official state crustacean and at Perino’s Boiling Pot just off of Westbank Expressway in Harvey, the humble mudbug is given the royal treatment.  Delicious boiled seafood is the house specialty and one would be wise to order a jumble of shrimp, potatoes, corn, and crawfish.  The spice blend used to season the boiling water infiltrates every nook and cranny and if it’s spice you seek, it’s spice you get.
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THE GREATS
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After spending a couple of days scouring neighborhood eateries and grocery stores like Frank’s in Des Allemands for true Gulf eats, it was time to visit the greats.  Over the years, Louisiana has churned out standout chefs like Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, Susan Spicer, and Tory McPhail and they are known for their innovative takes on Louisiana cuisine while maintaining a steadfast commitment to tradition.  These chefs are celebrities in their own right and their restaurants inject a new life into the greater New Orleans area.  Dining at John Besh’s brasserie Lüke is to take a Franco-German food journey with dishes like cochon de lait, redfish court-bouillon, and homemade spätzle gracing the menu.  A croque madame arrived with an organic fried egg atop a layer of gooey Emmenthaler cheese and bechamel and a cone of crispy, salty frites.
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A traditional Sunday jazz brunch at legendary Commander’s Palace elicited the most satisfied sighs as we dined on Chef Tory McPhail’s Louisiana fig salad, fire-grilled white shrimp, eggs couchon de lait, and bread pudding.  Elegant and refined, the food pays homage to its roots with locally-sourced ingredients.
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THE LAST BITE
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Louisiana is a place whose culture and food are inextricably linked; from Bourbon St. to the bayou, traces of its French, Spanish, African, and Creole heritage is seen (and tasted) in every facet of its rich landscape.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Christine DeCuir of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau for arranging many aspects of this trip.  Meals at Commander’s Palace were comped but in no way influenced this post.

About Iris "The Palate Princess" M.

I like to write. I like food. I like to write about food. Simple enough, right?

One comment

  1. September 12th, 2011 17:37

    I enjoyed reading about your food adventures in Louisiana.

    Reply

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