N o city in America claims a more distinct cuisine than New Orleans, full stop. The wide mouth of the Mississippi River has served as a home to the Creole and Cajun people; Caribbeans galore; Americans of black, white, and Native persuasions; French explorers and governors; Acadians; and every influence east of the Continental Divide that gravity eventually pulls here.
Together they've virtually perfected eating. "New Orleans food," Mark Twain said after one visit, "is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin." And that was long before so many of the other influences were felt in the Crescent City, including a strong influx of Vietnamese and Thai immigrants who have left their own mark. New Orleans food, ever-changing, must be world-class even to survive in such a well-fed city.
What to eat when you're here? The short answer is, everything. The longer answer is, everything you can’t get somewhere else. Which, come to think of it, is an extraordinary number of the city's favorite foods. New Orleans casts a strange spell, truly: Almost nothing we cook translates to the outside world with the same vividness or richness. If you want to truly experience these mainstays, you've got to get them here.
Supposedly this sandwich earned its name from a couple of guys who served sandwiches to streetcar workers on strike -- that's the legend anyway. What's clear is the sandwich has endured in part because of its architecture, built as it is with a French bread this city so prides itself on, that finds the perfect middle between crunchy and pillowy. The sandwich endures as well because of its sheer mass -- traditionally as long as 15 or 20 inches, piled with meat or seafood, lettuce, tomatoes, and all the dressings.
In the French Quarter, you have to stop by Verti Marte. It looks like a convenience store inside, but in the back is a group of the finest sandwich craftsmen New Orleans has ever known. Their masterpiece: the shrimp and oyster po-boy.
Killer PoBoys and its second stand-alone location, Big Killer PoBoys, serve the sandwich with a New Age eye: expect to taste pork belly, smoked salmon, and sweet potato.
Endear yourself to your waitress by mispronouncing this famous pork sausage (or get it right: BOO-dan). Liver and heart meat are mixed with rice, then stuffed into a pork casing to create this savory delicacy. Though it might not sound particularly appetizing, it's more than worth a try. Boudin is served simmered, braised, or, increasingly, fried. There's nothing better than a couple of boudin balls and grainy mustard to purge that last lingering bit of boozy regret.
If you're aiming to try some boudin, or any other sausage, Toups' Meatery is your port. Run by Isaac Toups, a favorite contestant in a recent season of Top Chef, the restaurant focuses on the best of the Cajun boucherie. Boudin is well within his wheelhouse.
Cochon serves up traditional yet upscale seasonal Cajun dishes using fresh, locally sourced pork, produce, and seafood, but most importantly: the tried-and-true techniques that chef Donald Link has resurrected from his childhood.
Build your ultimate meaty sandwich at this hybrid butcher shop, deli counter, and wine bar. Inspired by Old World meat markets, Cochon Butcher specializes in house-cured meats, terrines, and sausages. The lines can get long at lunch, making the simple pleasure of sitting at the bar with a drink and a bite feel like a luxury.
Like every Creole or Cajun food, andouille sounds French but is influenced by various immigrant groups. The French and Acadians had their say, sure, but the Germans of Louisiana’s German Coast brought the strong sausage-making tradition, and the Native Americans, Spaniards, and Africans all brought their own spices and flavors to the local staple. You're looking at butt or shank meat moistened by fat and seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic. Once it's stuffed in its casing, it's smoked over burning sugar cane and pecan wood for seven or eight hours at 80 degrees. Expect to find it in every gumbo you ever order. Toup's and Cochon are perfect places to pick up some andouille while you're munching on boudin, but there are a couple other spots worth checking out (where you can likewise find boudin).
If you're willing to drive for some quality sausage, head to Gretna on the other side of the Mississippi River. Gourmet Butcher Block is a classic Cajun butcher shop that serves up sausage with respect to the old meat traditions.
This broth and rice noodle dish has been a part of New Orleans cuisine for decades -- a fact that may surprise some who come to the city expecting only Cajun and Creole classics. A large Vietnamese community, migrating here after the Vietnam War in search of familiar coastal living -- and, like NOLA, deeply influenced by the historic presence of French colonizers -- has integrated itself in the food culture.
Pho here is known as a hearty, inexpensive meal, great for hangovers and light lunches. Restaurants here fuse flavors, some offering pork belly, duck confit, or oxtail pho -- traditional proteins in Southern barbecue and French cuisine. Traditionally, it's beef-based soup, served with a choice of thinly sliced steak, beef flank, brisket, or even tripe and Vietnamese meatballs. You can get chicken and vegetarian pho, but most Vietnamese will tell you to judge good pho by the quality of its beef broth.
This full-bodied, gingery, and aromatic soup is interactive, too; it's up to you to add Thai basil, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeños, hoisin, chili paste, and as much lime as you can squeeze. While there are many Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans, if you want good pho, the trick is to look for a place that doesn't purport to specialize in any other dish.
Pho Tàu Bay, family-owned and a local favorite, recently reopened its doors in the Central Business District. Sometimes it has caramelized flan for dessert, the perfect counterbalance to a satisfyingly salty broth.
Vietnamese New Orleanians charmingly market the bánh mì as the "Vietnamese po-boy," maybe a nod to their shared dependence on a flaky, warm baguette -- a souvenir of French colonialism in Southeast Asia. While the hallmark of a great bánh mì sandwich is the quality of its bread, if any of its other necessary parts are missing, it won’t hit the right note. Bánh mì is an options-based meal.
The classic bánh mì dac biet contains a variety of cold cuts, jellied pork, and pâté. Other varieties include lemongrass chicken bánh mì, roasted pork bánh mì, or charbroiled pork bánh mì. While bánh mì is usually made with pork or chicken, New Orleans' proximity to the coast allows for lots of local and fresh seafood. You may find Cajun-seasoned gulf shrimp or blackened fish at certain Vietnamese restaurants in the city interested in capitalizing on the city's local produce. The sandwiches are then stuffed with cold cucumbers, Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, jalapeño peppers, and mayonnaise. Certain establishments will make the sandwich their own in the details, with alterations like garlic aioli, homemade chili paste, or specialty pickles. It’s the local bread, though, that makes this mainstay such a point of pride.
Dong Phuong Bakery is worth the trip to New Orleans East for bánh mì. It supplies its trademark French loaves to many other Vietnamese restaurants throughout the city, and bakes everything fresh daily. A lot of times where good pho is found, a well-made Vietnamese sandwich accompanies.
Some of the best bánh mì can be found in an unassuming strip mall at Hong Kong Supermarket, an Asian grocery with a deli and barbecue. Every day, the market whips up crispy roasted duck and pig in-house, the makings for great bánh mì.
This spicy beef-based soup is in the midst of a resurgence since Katrina shuttered many of the stores that once served this cheap street food in humble foam cups. Yet it remains under-regarded among characteristic New Orleans dishes. Perhaps that owes to its humble, opaque roots: its recipes orally passed within families, its sale traditionally occurring in corner stores and mom-and-pop shops.
The soup -- found, too, in chicken, seafood, and veggie variations -- may have come over with Chinese immigrants and was co-opted by African-American neighbors in the 19th century. This fusion is evident in the mix of soy sauce, Creole spices, and the holy trinity of green bell pepper, onion, and celery. Spaghetti noodles are the most common, but variations of ya-ka-mein have ramen or udon. Most consistently, your bowl will have a hard-boiled egg and plenty of chopped green onion. Locally, it's also been dubbed Old Sober for its prized reputation for curing hangovers. Ms. Linda Green, known as the "Ya-Ka-Mein Lady," can be found during festivals. You might also try her famous family recipe on Thursday evenings at the Ogden, or on Sundays at the French market.
Eat-Well Food Mart, another small convenience store that serves hot lunch, also offers this warming noodle soup.
You can get soft-shell crab a lot of places, but none of them are as good as in New Orleans. Plus, like with everything, the city's chefs tend to put their own spins on it. There's the basic fried version enveloped in the dressing and crunchy French bread of a po-boy. The advanced version is a preparation called meuniere -- doused in fine-slivered almonds or toasted pecans. Regardless, in upscale joints in the French Quarter, this is a defining New Orleans dish.
At the Old World establishment Galatoire's, crab is king. If you're lucky enough to go on a night when soft-shell crab is on the menu, it'll be one of the best damn pieces of food you'll ever put in your mouth.
Clancy's offers its famous cold-smoked soft-shell crab. Topped with meuniere and even more crabmeat, this is one of the city's most legendary seafood dishes.
Turtle soup is a perfect example of the importance of New Orleans cuisine -- the city serves as a culinary time capsule. (Likewise you see it in preserved drinks like the Sazerac and gin fizz, which otherwise succumbed in the havoc that was Tom Cruise in Cocktail.) This sumptuous dish -- a silky-smooth potage with plenty of onion, garlic, green peppers, celery, and a heap of spices that is set off with a blast of sherry -- survives thanks to restaurants like Commander's Palace sticking to their traditional menus even as American tastes have shifted in the 80 years or so since turtle soup was a cherished staple nationwide.
The restaurants on the pricier side are worth visiting for this one-of-a-kind appetizer. And, to reiterate: Commander's Palace's turtle soup is legendary. Go for lunch, order a series of 25-cent martinis (you read that right), and slurp from your glass and a bowl.
New Orleans gets hot, so it's worthwhile to mark a few sno-ball locations on your map. After all, there's nothing more refreshing than some ice, cane sugar syrup, and -- if you're into it -- condensed milk. Every place has a deliriously confusing number of flavors to choose from, and you can mix and match from the self-explanatory (cotton candy, raspberry) or the ambiguously named (nectar, silver fox). Be sure to add soft serve, Marshmallow Fluff, and any other toppings the location might carry that day.
Hansen's is the legend in these realms. Open since 1939, this location still uses the same ice-shaving machine its owner invented in 1934. Expect the lines to be long, even on those oppressively hot days.
The shaved ice here is beloved for its smooth, soft texture (not an ice chunk in sight), and comes in a miles-long list of flavors, including options like plum (of course), strawberry, piña colada, mocha, and passionfruit. Remember to bring some bills, as this spot is cash-only. And put your phone away when you approach the counter (or else).
Yes, everywhere technically has fried chicken. Yet nowhere outside New Orleans will take a staple like this and change your life with it. Two legends rule here: Willie Mae's Scotch House and Dooky Chase's, both run by Creole women who have shaped the modern understanding of New Orleans cuisine.
The legendary Leah Chase, who recently turned 94, runs Dooky Chase's. A recent winner of a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Association, Chase has been churning out some of the best fried chicken in the South, as well as a number of Creole dishes that are not to be missed. Stop by for lunch and explore the menu via buffet.
Willie Mae's, meanwhile, has also earned a James Beard and serves some of the best damn chicken you'll ever find. It's juicy, tender, and spiced to perfection. Both are within blocks of each other and definitely worth a stop.
Of Louisiana's signature dishes, gumbo may be the most emblematic. The word comes from the Bantu word for "okra," and it represents the region's diverse cultural influences, from the Choctaw addition of ground sassafras (filé), to the use of roux from French Creoles. Most locals will brag that their mother, grandpa, or mawmaw has the best gumbo recipe, which speaks to the dish's large variance in ingredients and flavors. The most common gumbos are chicken and andouille, or seafood (itself a vague identifier which could mean crab, shrimp, oyster, or crawfish). Naturally, chefs all over the city have taken this classic and altered it to suite seasonal produce or public desire.
You can scarcely miss the stuff; every Southern cuisine restaurant will have gumbo. However, Galatoire's Restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter offers seafood okra gumbo as well as duck and andouille gumbo, plus a truly iconic New Orleans restaurant experience.
Commander's Palace offers trademark New Orleans dining in the Garden District. Go for lunch or dinner in the famous teal Victorian turreted mansion -- an anomaly in a neighborhood teeming with Greek Revival architecture.
Add a bowl of gumbo to complement Dooky Chase's lunch buffet in Treme.
Jambalaya is likely what happened when Spanish settlers tried to recreate paella with local Louisiana ingredients. But it also brings a French influence, specifically from the Provençal area, and while traditionally a Creole dish, it has morphed and adapted across cultural lines. The beauty of jambalaya, like gumbo, is that it is flexible -- you'll easily find a dozen slight variations in your travels here. It's popularly made in a large cast-iron pot for family or group gatherings, church functions or weddings, crawfish boils, or Easter. The basic flavors include the holy trinity of green bell pepper, celery, and onion sautéed with tomato, garlic, and other vegetables, meats, and spices.
If you don't have access to a backyard barbecue, Jacques-Imo's Uptown has a lively atmosphere and offers classic Creole jambalaya. It's nestled on Oak Street, a short walk to after-dinner drinks or live music.
K-Paul's Restaurant in the Quarter is the trademark establishment of the late chef Paul Prudhomme, whose Cajun jambalaya (culturally different from French Creole) has tasso sausage, chicken, and a jalapeño kick.
Variants of New Orleans' dishes the world over owe to the city's long history as a major port, where food, flavors, and people from all over came into contact. In the case of beignets, we can thank French colonists arriving in the 18th century.
The mark of a good beignet is its proximity to freshness: Immediate to serving, its yeasty dough should be deep-fried to form a warm brown crust on the outside, and be perfectly fluffy on the inside. While this treat covered in confectioner's sugar is often eaten for breakfast (it loves coffee and vice versa), it's a perfect late-night dessert after an evening of revelry.
The city’s most famous spot for beignets is, of course, Café du Monde. Its doors are open 24/7, so you can feasibly get a sobering plate of beignets and cup of coffee after the Quarter bars shut down, right before the sun rises. During the morning rush, brace yourself for long lines of tourists.
Cafe Beignet’s Royal Street location is exactly what you'd want in an intimate, European-style sidewalk bistro -- as are the Bourbon and Decatur Street locations.
Now a veritable national treasure, muffalettas owe their start in New Orleans to Italian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The massive sandwich took as its name the type of Sicilian sesame seed bread, similar to focaccia, that's traditionally used to gird a combination of ham, salami, mortadella, mozzarella, and, most distinctively, an olive salad spread. The spread is generally composed of diced and seasoned olives mixed with the carrots, celery, and cauliflower found in giardiniera, and adds a salty, rich flavor that cuts through the fattiness of the meats and cheese. Varieties may include fried shrimp, oysters, and even sometimes crab in the mix. Steel yourself accordingly. -- Andrew Paul, Thrillist contributor
The middle-ground muffaletta is over at Stein's on Magazine Street, which inversely keeps the sandwich's traditional innards while swapping the bread for a French roll used in po-boys.
The savory sweet known as a praline has a murky history. Supposedly it originated in 17th-century France, and originally included almonds or hazelnuts coated in caramelized sugar. Numerous variations evolved since; New Orleans lays claim to probably the best spin on the candy, which now generally involves pecans and cream and/or buttermilk to thicken the binding element. This results in a richer take on the treat, and has become ubiquitous not just in New Orleans but across the American South. The praline in this form is one of the city's sweetest and most variegated staples. -- Andrew Paul, Thrillist contributor