Saturday, April 11, 2015

chewing through Louisiana: the itemized post

I went to New Orleans for the Popular Culture Association conference, but I went to Louisiana for the food. Out here in California, we have the best vegetables in the US, we have Italian-American food to match anyone's, we have every Asian cuisine from Afghan to Korean in profusion, but foods from the Southern US are thin on the ground. In particular, I haven't found anyone in this state who knows how to cook a catfish.

But I love Creole and Cajun cooking, even though I can rarely find it at home. This was only my third trip ever to southern Louisiana, and I was determined to make up for lost time. I researched in advance. I even dug up the bible from my first trip, George Alec Effinger's legendarily detailed restaurant guide for the 1988 New Orleans Worldcon, and checked to see which places are still there (most of them in the French Quarter are).

For a full week, aside from a few light breakfasts, I ate nothing but Cajun and Creole cuisine, a couple places rather poor but most excellent, and I went nowhere twice. Counting all six stops on the Tabasco food tour, I ate at 24 purveyors of food.

Half were at New Orleans (9 in the French Quarter; 2 downtown; 1 at the airport), and half out in Cajun country (7 in New Iberia, where the food tour was; 2 in Lafayette; 2 in Houma; 1 in Abbeville). I've put up quick reviews of most of them on Yelp.

And among the things I ate - some in very small sampler quantities - were:

7 jambalayas. The local spiced rice casserole dish, and my default choice of food. Most things called jambalaya out here are a thick tomato broth ladled over white rice or, worse, pasta. That's not jambalaya, which should all be cooked together and not so heavy on the tomato, or (if it's Cajun instead of Creole style) without tomato altogether. I like the dish best baked. By that account, the best I've ever had was my first meal on this trip, the Jambalaya Supreme at Coop's Place in the French Quarter. At least two others I tried in NOLA - the Cajun style at Bon Ton Cafe and the one that tasted like brown rice (though I don't know if it was or not) at Chartres House - outdid my previous all-time favorite, which I also had again, the Creole jambalaya at Mother's.

7 bowls of gumbo. A dark-broth soup with either chicken and sausage or seafood. I got tired of the coffee-like gumbos in New Orleans, but found that Cajun gumbo is lighter and tastier. (I was told in Cajun country that in New Orleans they burn the roux which is the basis for the dish.) The best was probably the award-winning gumbo at KK's Cafe in New Iberia, because the smoked chicken worked perfectly with the broth.

3 other soups: French onion (which in New Orleans is like gumbo with onion in it), crab and corn bisque (delicious), and "loaded baked potato soup" at KK's.

5 types of boudin. An unpronounceable (at least, I can't pronounce it well enough for natives to have any idea what I'm talking about) sausage of pork or crawfish with rice. The casing is basically inedible, and you sort of squeeze the filling out. It's a purely Cajun dish, rare in New Orleans and I've never seen it out here. Most of the boudin I had was rather crumbly, but not the rich and creamy ones from Legnon's Boucherie in New Iberia, claimed to be the best boudin in all Acadiana, and certainly the best I had.

2 types of rice dressing, as it's called at the little country shack (Bayou Delight outside of Houma) which had the better one, or "dirty rice" as it's better-known elsewhere, a dish of rice mixed with bits of chicken giblets and local vegetables.

Other meat dishes: fried chicken, which I somehow managed to avoid until my last dinner, at Bayou Delight; sweetbreads (oh, yes, I know what those are, and I've had them before, though not for many years), lightly sauteed for breakfast at Brennan's in the French Quarter; and pork cracklins at Legnon's, really amazing.

5 dishes of fried fish (catfish, flounder, or just "fish"), probably best the catfish nuggets at Bon Ton Cafe in New Orleans, which definitely beats the nevertheless good fried flounder at the famous K-Paul's.

3 pan fish dishes, 2 supposedly blackened catfish (I don't think it's possible to get blackened redfish any more), one not very blackened but very good, the other more blackened but not well cooked, and one at Arnaud's, one of the top dining establishments in New Orleans (which I went to because why not, just once), where the fish of the day was drum, which it turns out I dislike the taste of, because there surely wasn't anything wrong with the way it was cooked. All three were topped with a shellfish sauce, the catfish with crawfish etouffee, the drum with crab that was most excellent, although it had bits of shell still in it.

3 fried shrimp, the best the meaty shrimp with an ever-so-light breading at Shucks in Abbeville. They also had a superb crabcake that was seriously all-crab. Shrimp and grits (a Southern rather than Louisiana dish) for breakfast at Vacherie in New Orleans was the tastiest shrimp I had on the trip.

Tried some boiled crawfish at R&M's Boiling Point in New Iberia. Crawfish is to lobster as Cornish game hen is to chicken: it's identically built, but much smaller and you don't get much out of it. Once you've removed the tailbone and extracted the meat (there's a trick to doing this, which the Tabasco guide taught us), it's best to just throw the other 95% of the beast away. It's Sturgeon's Law applied to food.

One big favorite in NOLA is the local submarine sandwich, called the po-boy. I'm not a sandwich-eater, but I had one of these. It had fried shrimp, which I took out and ate separately.

There's not much vegetable here, you'll notice. At Arnaud's I had asparagus as a side dish, and I was glad of it. Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette is really a general-American coffee shop with a lot of Cajun dishes rather than a Cajun place; the food was general-Americanized but very good, and that came with a side of veggies. Otherwise I was stuck with onion rings, surprisingly bad (considering how good the seafood was) at Shucks but really excellent at R&M's.

I'm not a big dessert eater, and all I had was the bread pudding that came on the tasting tour (Clementine in New Iberia: very good and not too rich, with a whisky rather than rum sauce), and ice cream at Arnaud's, which they call glace.

Well, that's what I ate. And you know what? After a week of it nonstop, I was yearning for a change. I came home, and went out for Chinese.

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