The first time I went to New Orleans I was 19, had a shaved head and had been living on canned corn during a whirlwind road trip with my high school boyfriend. We were young and poor, so the only food I splurged on while in the Big Easy for that 24 hours was a succulent strip of blackened catfish, which, a decade later, still makes my mouth water.
Ever since that meal, I have wanted to head back to New Orleans and do it right. So, when my roommate invited me to come to her hometown for the French Quarter Festival, I jumped on the opportunity. In the first of three days we saw a white alligator and then had fried alligator, downed numerous Sazeracs under blossoming jasmine bushes, and I sucked the head from a fresh crawfish for the first time at a crawfish boil.
Of all the food and drink I managed to down in that weekend between jazz bands and po’ boys from the food tents, these are the things that have me craving to get back to that wonderful Southern city.
1. Fried alligator at Cochon
Alligator can be one of those foods people eat to demonstrate how daring their culinary adventures can be. Because of this, you mainly see fried alligator that resembles and tastes like popcorn shrimp — but not at Cochon. Here, chef Donald Link managed to take the often chewy and slightly watery reptilian meat and made it a firm, substantial bit of joy. He perks up this dish by tossing the crisp chunks in a lively chili-garlic aioli, making it something to truly brag to your friends about, which naturally, I did. 930 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, LA, 504-588-2123, cochonrestaurant.com
2. Bloody Mary at the Old Absinthe House
The Old Absinthe House has long been famed for their absinthe frappe, created in 1860 by Cayetano Ferrer. But after one look at my friend’s giant plastic cup filled with Bloody Mary, brimming with dilly beans, pickled okra and olives, I forwent history and went for brunch. After all, the clock (with its incorrect numeral four) had just struck noon. Some decisions you regret, but with one sip of the spicy, vodka-heavy, tangy concoction, I knew my path aimed true. The salad on top proved an added bonus both to cut the heavy pour of vodka and fill my belly. 240 Bourbon St., New Orleans, LA, 504-523-3181, oldabsinthehouse.com
3. Sno-Ball at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz
In 1939, Ernest and Mary Hansen opened this shack to serve what many people know as a sno-cone. Though it runs along the same principal, the sno-balls here get made with a special ice-shaving machine invented by Ernest, which gives the treat a creamy mouthfeel without actual dairy. The company still produces the flavors the shop opened with including bubble gum, coffee, cardamom, strawberry and the iconic New Orleans option — cream of nectar. This sweet, floral, and purple syrup went perfectly with the tart and citrusy Satsuma that I chose for my icy treat. But no matter what taste direction you go, all combinations are winners. 4801 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, LA, 504-891-9788, snobliz.com
4. Fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade at Liuzza’s
We capped off our first night in New Orleans near the French Quarter at this laidback dive. They’re best known for their giant iced goblets of rotating draft beers, and, what better to chase a frosty brew than deep-fried, tangy green tomatoes covered in hot, creamy shrimp remoulade.
This knockout combo had me waddling out the door completely satiated, at least for day one. 3636 Bienville Ave., New Orleans, LA, 504-482-9120, liuzzas.com
5. Strawberry harvest lager by Abita Beer
Abita has been brewing in Louisiana for over 20 years, so they must be doing something right. Their strawberry-laden seasonal wheat beer not only has a fresh berry taste, it’s made with actual Louisiana-grown fruit. The brew remains refreshing, not syrupy, and certainly not overly sweet. We found this beer all over New Orleans, and, whether it came in a pint glass, bottle or plastic cup (used at convenient stores so you can sip while walking down the street), I savored every drop. abita.com
6. Beignets at Café Du Monde
All the hype surrounding the French doughnuts and steamy mugs of café au lait served at this 150-year-old establishment proved completely warranted. Admitting that is easy, the hardest part we faced was finding a table among the locals and tourists also hunting for a spot. As soon as we saw a vacated seat, we pushed past the fanny pack-clad women and grabbed it, despite the piles of discarded powdered sugar and empty coffee cups littering the table.
Within 15 minutes of sitting down an apron-clad woman cleaned it off, took our order, and delivered a plate full of beignets coated in an exorbitant amount of airy confectioners sugar. All the chaos proved totally worth it as the delicate fried dough just melted in my mouth, I didn’t even mind the crushing line staring in hungrily as I indulged. 800 Decatur St., New Orleans, LA, 504-525-4544, cafedumonde.com
7. Shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake at Jacque-Imo’s
We went to this eclectic Creole and Cajun restaurant for one thing: alligator cheesecake, a dish my roommate’s sister drooled about. She wasn’t wrong, though the name is misleading. This isn’t actual cheesecake — instead, owner and chef Jacques Leonardi makes this crustless quiche to cradle firm, slightly spicy alligator sausage. The egg part comes out so creamy that it easily justifies the name. After one bite we couldn’t stop, especially with the encouragement by the proprietor himself who was waltzing around, drunk and happy. So, we ordered another one followed by a classic NoLa dinner of blackened red fish, collards and a salad laced with fried oysters. 8324 Oak St., New Orleans, LA, 504-861-0886, jacquesimoscafe.com
8. Arrow in the Gale cocktail at Cure
You can get a Sazerac or absinthe drink all over New Orleans, and the Cure cocktail bar is no different. The Sazerac was great, but the real star of the cocktail menu was the Arrow in the Gale, a cocktail created by bartender James Ives. Ives combines Buffalo Trace bourbon, almond grappa, lemon, ginger, strawberry and black pepper. The result is a summer drink that’s light and fresh with the bright notes of berry and subtle butterscotch-tinge of the bourbon. It also boasted a satisfying bite of dark pepper that said, “I’m sweet on the outside, but watch out.” Hence, I had two. 4905 Freret St., New Orleans, LA, 504-302-2357, curenola.com
9. Crawfish sausage at Dat Dog
If you go to New Orleans the phrase “who dat” is thrown around without a care and often gets chanted by Saints fanatics. The fans of Dat Dog get just as excited — so much so, that the once-tiny shop decided to relocate across the street to a space 10 times its original size in order to cater to the masses. No wonder, their plump sausages bring meat into a new game, one I want to play again and again. The crawfish version was particularly pleasing with its piquant kick and savory juices that flowed out of the crisp skin, only to get soaked by the buttered, toasted bun. Plus, you can get any topping under the sun including cheese, guacamole, sauerkraut, jalapenos, wasabi and more. If you can’t decide, I suggest going for the chef’s choice. Just make sure to snag a pile of napkins. 5031 Freret St., New Orleans, LA, 504-899-6883, datdognola.com
10. Muffaletta at Central Grocery
The muffaletta is synonymous with New Orleans and there is no finer place to get it than Central Grocery, where it all started. This grimy little market has been serving these sandwiches for over a century and they are so popular, often times the shop runs out of the special rolls. No wonder, the soft round bread goes wonderfully with thinly sliced salami, pepperoni, ham, coppa, Swiss and provolone, and briny bite green olive salad that decks the sandwich. It’s like an Italian hero, with a sweet, southern kick. 923 Decatur St., New Orleans, LA, 504-523-1620, centralgroceryneworleans.com