Eatin’ our way through N’awlins: Part I

So my buddy Brian came to New Orleans to meet us for New Year’s Eve, but for the three of us, fireworks, beads and Bourbon Street were only part of the draw. You see, N’awlins was founded on music and fun, but its real draw is its food; true soul food, Creole specialties that make your mouth water and your heart happy. Brian told us he wanted to sample the food, and that’s exactly what we did.

Four days, eight N’awlins specialties and non-stop bliss.

The MUFFALETTA – at Central Grocery

Our binge began as soon as Brian got off the airplane. We drove to Decatur Street and after finding a parking space hopped in line at the famous Central Grocery. There, a sandwich so massive, so delicious was invented in 1906 that people, both locals and tourists, have been waiting in line since.

The muffaletta as it is known is served on an 10-inch round loaf of Italian bread that is piled with provolone cheese, Genoa salami and Cappicola ham, and topped with olive salad (chopped, green un-stuffed olives, pimientos, celery, garlic, cocktail onions, capers, oregano, parsley, olive oil, red-wine vinegar, salt and pepper). So simple, so salty, so wonderful. But we had to pace ourselves so we shared one… which was literally as big as my head.

RAW OYSTERS – at Acme Oyster House

Brian wanted oysters, I’d never had them, and Victoria had a bad experience the last time she tried them. But like so many other things on this trip, we were ready for another shot. Raw oysters are literally on every corner in New Orleans, so you must choose wisely. A place that has been shuckin’ raw oysters for over a century seemed like as good a place as any, and we weren’t disappointed.

Acme Oyster House, like so many other restaurants in N’awlins, had a line pouring from the front door, so we walked across the street for three beers to help us pass the time. We were inside within 30 minutes, and thanks to Brian, I can report that oysters are not nearly as disgusting as I had thought, and heck, with enough cocktail and Tabasco sauce, they were actually pretty good.

JAMBALAYA and a Sazerac – at Coop’s Place

Nothing says New Orleans like jambalaya. This traditional Creole rice meal is basically a pot full of almost everything cooked absolutely perfectly. In fact, as the story goes the dish was spawned when a starving traveler arrived at a New Orleans Inn long after dinner had been served. The inn’s cook, a man named Jean, was told to “balayez” – French for “throw something together” to feed the man. The results stood the test of time and became “JeanBalayez” and later Jambalaya.

After much research, we settled on Coop’s Place – a favorite amongst the locals – and got started with the Sazerac. Made from a potent mixture of rye whisky, the Sazerac is often referred to as the oldest American cocktail appearing in print earlier than the Civil War.

Unlike traditional jambalaya which contains seafood, sausage and chicken, Coop’s jambalaya features boneless rabbit meat and smoked pork sausage. The supreme portion, which we sprung for, also included shrimp and tasso (Cajun seasoned ham) and it was amazing!

CRAYFISH – at The Pickin’ Box

Just down the street from our campsite was a tiny seafood shack called “The Pickin’ Box” that announces its specialties on hand-painted red and white signs: “CRAYFISH” “BOILED CRABS” “HOT BOUDIN.” Simple signage, but effective enough to get your attention.

The Louisiana crayfish, or crawdad, or mudbug as they are sometimes referred, crawls their way – reluctantly I’m sure – into many Cajun dishes. But the proper Louisiana Bayou of eating crayfish is quite similar to munching on their larger, more intimidating ocean cousins – the lobster.

We were greeted by the young Cajun owner Tate Lefort. After telling him we were tourists in need of the Louisiana Crayfish, he proceeded to teach us how to eat the bugs.

“Ya twist the tail like dis, squeeze da end of da tail to get da meat and then ‘suck da head’ cuz that’s where all dem juices ah.” It’s that last step, beloved by crawdad fans and unmistakably revolting to those unaccustomed to sucking the Creole juices trapped inside the animal’s body cavity, that made us leery from the beginning.

For just under $15, we bought 3.4 pounds (which they say is enough for one man) pushed our way through just under two pounds (the three of us) and finally deemed them the “pistachio of the sea” – pretty good, but too much work to get them open. But, it is without question a required experience for any Louisiana visitor.

Check out Part II too for Po’ Boys, Beignets, Gumbo, Red Bean & Rice and Bread Pudding.