10 Things My First Month in New Orleans Taught Me About Food

10 Things My First Month in New Orleans Taught Me About Food

Exploring the culinary differences between the Midwest and the South.

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New Orelans Muffuletta sign
Photo: Elliott Cowand Jr (Shutterstock)

When I walked into Zara’s grocery on a weekend in June, the first thing that greeted me was a big plastic boat. It was filled bright red cooked crawfish. If I wasn’t in the mood to suck heads and pull tails, another container of Gulf shrimp sat underneath, ready to be carried to the checkout.

Welcome to New Orleans, baby. This is not the Midwest.

I recently moved down here from Ann Arbor, Michigan, taking a 1,000-mile road trip through Chicago and then south. I knew Nola well, having visited multiple times and being a member of a Mardi Gras krewe, one of the organizations that puts on the parades. But compared with other big cities where I’ve lived, such as Chicago, Phoenix, and Boston, it’s far different to move to New Orleans than to visit—and that includes my findings about food.

Sadly, Zara’s crawfish are finished for the season (although you can still find them elsewhere), but there’s plenty more to eat in this city. Here are some observations based on my first month in New Orleans.

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People drink a lot of iced coffee

People drink a lot of iced coffee

New Orleans iced coffee
Photo: Meghan leber (Shutterstock)

And iced tea and lemonade. Because of the heat and humidity, I’ve learned you need to drink iced coffee quickly if you want it to remain an iced beverage. Multiple times, I let mine sit forgotten at home, only to wind up with a cup of irreparably diluted beverage.

Interestingly, I don’t see as many people drinking soft drinks or fizzy water the way I constantly did up north. Even though Coca-Cola hails from Atlanta, iced coffee is far and away the caffeinated beverage of choice, whether conventional or with chicory, New Orleans style.

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All the produce seasons are sped up

All the produce seasons are sped up

Fruit stand at French Market, New Orleans
Photo: William A. Morgan (Shutterstock)

I had to smile looking at the Instagram account from Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, declaring in early June that Michigan strawberries had arrived. Strawberries from Ponchatoula, Louisiana begin arriving in New Orleans around February, sometimes sooner. I managed to nab the last few weeks of them in May. They were quickly replaced by blueberries, which grow in abundance here. They’re fatter and juicier than many of the varieties we get from western Michigan.

Peaches are now at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, accompanied by Creole tomatoes, a variety unique to this area. In fact, the Creole Tomato Festival was held the second week of June, when people back in Michigan were still looking longingly at the plants they put in the ground around Memorial Day.

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Fried chicken is everywhere

Fried chicken is everywhere

Tuesday is fried chicken day at the High Hat Cafe, which has fast become my local hangout. It sells four pieces plus a side dish for $16. But really, every day is fried chicken day here. You can find it at famous places such as Dooky Chase’s or Willa Mae’s, and at lots of gas stations. (I’m partial to the Brothers brand, which is as treasured as Harold’s in Chicago).

I had a fine fried chicken po’boy at Gus’s Po’Boys, where the banter is as fun as the food. While Monday is known for red beans and rice, many spots serve it accompanied by—what else?—fried chicken.

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Gas stations and corner markets are worth exploring

Gas stations and corner markets are worth exploring

Fried oyster po'boy
Photo: Jean Faucett (Shutterstock)

Besides fried chicken, any decent gas station can make a po’boy of any style, including fried shrimp, catfish, and oysters. If you prefer meat, there’s roast beef, ground beef (a friend swears by the cheeseburger po’boy from the Danny and Clyde’s brand), tuna, and turkey.

Corner markets like Zara’s also have sandwich corners, and I found an excellent banh mi at Hong Kong Market, a vast Asian supermarket in Gretna, for just $4.95. This shop also sells po’boy sandwich bread, three for $1.

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The Asian food is some of the best anywhere

The Asian food is some of the best anywhere

Hong Kong Market in New Orleans
Photo: Micheline Maynard

I could have spent three hours in Hong Kong Market, which is the size of a Target, with aisle after aisle of packaged food, an enormous produce department, a long meat and seafood counter, and prepared dishes, such as cold shrimp rolls and fresh noodles.

The Asian restaurant scene is dominated by Vietnamese restaurants, reflecting the community that arrived to work in the fishing industry. There’s also terrific choices of Thai food, such as the khao soi served by Pomelo, a 10-table restaurant on Magazine Street, and the chicken with eggplant from Thai Mint on Carrolton. I’ve had wonderful dumplings from Wishing Town Bakery Cafe, whose multi-layered crepe cakes are equally delicious.

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People LOVE pastry

People LOVE pastry

beignets
Photo: Ruben Martinez Barricarte (Shutterstock)

From farmers markets to bakeries, you can find all manner of baked goods, and people scoop them up. I went into Gracious Bakery, a small local chain, in search of a croissant at 11 a.m. one day, only to find its pastry case almost bare. It wasn’t the supply chain; someone came in and bought them out.

Lately, bagels have grown in popularity, led by artisanal spots such as Humble Bagel and the brand new Flour Moon, which began as a pop up. My favorites are at Laurel Street Bakery, where you can reserve a half dozen of your favorites on line and pick them up the next day (it saves being disappointed by a sellout).

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Sides are as good as mains 

Sides are as good as mains 

side dishes
Photo: Micheline Maynard

I’m one of those people who likes Thanksgiving side dishes as much as the main course, and New Orleans is a place to indulge myself. I discovered a tasty, spicy jalapeno slaw at The Company Burger. I couldn’t finish the serving, so I took it home and assembled it into another meal with rice, chopped peanuts, and some honey drizzled on top. High Hat has a list of sides from which you can build a meal, such as mac and cheese, stewed okra with tomatoes, and grits with pimiento cheese. The Larder, a gourmet market in suburban Metarie, has a full salad case with offerings like Mexican corn and sesame noodles.

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Soup is amazing, from gumbo to chowder

Soup is amazing, from gumbo to chowder

bowl of gumbo
Photo: Elliott Cowand Jr (Shutterstock)

The Larder has one of my favorite soups, Wilson’s Chowder, which is as good as any version I ever had in Boston, without being as gloppy as some. There’s usually a soup on the menu at Bevi Seafood, which is known for its crawfish, crabs and shrimp.

The real star, of course, is gumbo. You can find it in critic-praised restaurants like Maypop, long-lived spots like Liuzza’s, and humble shops like Parran’s, known for its po’boys. There’s a saying around here, “gumbo weather,” which is basically when the temperature falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But people eat gumbo when it’s roasting out anyway.

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Drinks are everywhere

Drinks are everywhere

Image for article titled 10 Things My First Month in New Orleans Taught Me About Food
Photo: Jack H. Boles (Shutterstock)

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been to an outdoor accordion concert at the Alliance Francaise and a cookbook presentation by Southern Food and Beverage Museum founder Elizabeth Williams at the offices of the New Orleans Advocate and Times-Picayune. Both events served wine. It’s rare to go anywhere without encountering at least wine and beer, if not spirits.

The area abounds with drive-through daiquiri spots, where you can get a big plastic go cup for under $10. Yes, these boozy drinks are legal to have in your car, due to Louisiana’s quirky liquor laws. I asked if I could get a zero-alcohol version, only to be told no, the drinks were pre-mixed.

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Cold desserts abound

Cold desserts abound

Strawberry snowball
Photo: Britton Strickland (Shutterstock)

Luckily for those of us who live sober, there are lots of other frozen options besides daiquiris. New Orleans is known for snowballs (or sno-balls), big mounds of shaved ice topped with every flavor you can imagine. Breaux Mart, the supermarket chain, sells them packed in pint ice cream containers if you’d rather take yours home.

There are also many great spots for gelato and ice cream. Piccolo Gelateria offers an affogato the size of a diner coffee cup. Lucy Boone Ice Cream is a weekend popup inside Port Orleans Brewery, with flavors like Cold Brew and Peaches and Cream, available in scoops or pints. The current flavor lineup is posted to Instagram. In short, there’s always a way to cool down with something sweet.

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