It’s just basic table banter in New Orleans to talk restaurants, chefs, and dining during any (or every) meal. If there are cooks at the table, the conversation can quickly turn to cooking gadgets (Spiralizer anyone?) and ingredients -- specifically where to find this spice or that rice -- that are elusive, unique, and exotic.
By now, most local food fanatics have hit Hong Kong Market on the Westbank to get fish sauce or fresh, locally grown herbs (they have purple and green shiso!), rice noodles, and more for recreating pho. They’ve likely meandered out to Metairie’s International Market to shop through the store’s enormous stash of Indian foods (frozen and shelf-stable), spices, curry pastes, and chutneys to do an at-home feast. Yet, there are new flavors on the culinary scene that have become the subject of some serious table talk.
New Orleans has historically had a lot of love for Latin cuisine, with a substantial population and many Central and South American restaurants already in place in suburban Kenner and New Orleans Westbank. In the days following 2005’s hurricane, an even larger number of Latino people arrived to help with the city’s rebuilding efforts. These folks brought with them a little taste of home for comfort and sustenance. To continue feeding family, workers, and locals who developed a taste for deeper, homier flavors of Central and South America, more specialty stores opened across Metro New Orleans: small convenience stores to serve a neighborhood, and larger stores with even more products, herbs, and specialty ingredients (cuts of meat like tongue, pork skin, and tripe) to accommodate restaurants, chefs, and the dining/cooking community at large.
A couple recent meals at newly opened Meril (an intriguing culinary tour of ramped-up street food with a noticeable Latin flare via cumin-dusted turkey necks in mojo and Brazilian cheese bread); and Del Fuego (straight-up Mexican-style goat stew and red posole) fueled a desire to find these harder-to-find ingredients. Chefs at both restaurants discussed a growing number of small Latin markets, which fuel their culinary fires.
We sat down with Chef Wilfredo Avelar -- Meril’s chef de cuisine and native son who has Salvadoran roots, once lived in Costa Rica, and practices Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) -- and Chef David Wright, chef-owner of Del Fuego and New Orleans transplant from California with long-standing love for Mexico’s food and culture. Both shop for ingredients at the city’s Latin markets, most of which are in Kenner. These smaller shops sell produce, fresh meats, foodstuffs, and homemade prepared foods including curtido, pasteles, pastries, and tamales. Most of the time, though, the chefs shop at the bigger places, which tend to have a broader array of products.