Traveling along Louisiana's Culinary Trails is a good way to explore both the history of our cuisine and our fascinating past as a cultural melting pot. For many details about the trails, click Louisiana Culinary Trails. In the meantime, here's a look at the trails from the perspective of my own past.
As a native New Orleanian, I grew up surrounded by the classic Creole food “museums” of the Vieux Carre, where menus haven’t changed in more than a century. Now we have a great deal of new cuisine inspired by local ingredients and created by award-winning chefs like John Besh of Restaurant August, Luke and Besh Steak at the New Orleans Harrah's Casino; Susan Spicer of Bayona and Donald Link of Herbsaint Bar & Restaurant and Cochon Restaurant. In the French Quarter, it’s a hard choice between treasures like Arnauds Restaurant, Antoine's Restaurant and Galatoire’s. My lunch at Galatoire’s always begins with the magical pommes soufflé. Puffed-up, crispy fried potatoes are just the thing to accompany a Sazarac – the official cocktail of New Orleans made with rye whiskey, bitters and Herbsaint liqueur.
On Canal Street, Dickie Brennan’s Palace Cafe; serves a Sunday jazz brunch as only the Brennans, the family who created the New Orleans tradition, can. Two classic dishes are crabmeat cheesecake and Bananas Foster beignets. On days when I’m feeling nostalgic, I hop on the streetcar to Camellia Grill. The pecan waffle and chocolate freeze haven’t changed in 50 years.
In the 1970s, the food of Cajun country fused with the traditional Creole city food. To become an expert, take a class with one of the city’s finest chefs, Frank Brigtsen or Gerard Maras, at the New Orleans Cooking Experience. The class ends in a four-course dinner party. The Hermann-Grima House in the French Quarter, Destrehan Plantation on River Road and St. Francisville’s Audubon State Historic Site offer open-hearth cooking demonstrations that reveal 19th-century kitchen secrets, such as how to spit-roast meat over a wood-burning fire.
When I want a lunch or dinner combined with an escape from the city, I enjoy the short drive over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway to indulge in the restaurants in Mandeville, Covington, Lacombe and Abita Springs. John Besh has my greatest admiration for his efforts towards total sustainability, beginning with his French country auberge style restaurant, La Provence. What he can’t grow, the best north shore farmers provide.
On warm spring and balmy fall evenings, the winemakers at Pontchartrain Vineyards and Winery host Jazz’n the Vines, where picnicking is de rigueur and their wines are available. The brew masters at Abita Brewing Company and Heiner Brau are ready to share samples, too.
Capital Cravings to Prairie Home Cooking
Since 2005, New Orleans and Baton Rouge have grown closer in the culinary sense. Some New Orleans institutions opened branches in Baton Rouge, such as Galatoire’s Bistro. But, since 1998, New Orleans transplant Chef Peter Sclafani III has collaborated with former LSU lineman Ruffin Rodrigue in what is today’s Ruffino’s. Here, classic Creole Italian sauces finish veal, fish and pork entrees straight from Ruffino’s wood-burning oven. All are updated with authentic ingredients such as Creole tomatoes.
Outside of Baton Rouge, the Cabin Restaurant in Burnside is made up of several old buildings, including a schoolhouse. Cajun comfort food such as red beans and rice seems right at home there.
After crossing the Mississippi River bridge west of Baton Rouge, virtually every exit all the way to Lake Charles has a stop with steaming hot pork or crawfish boudin. Stelly’s Gas Station in Lebeau shows off prairie cooking at its best. If you ask me, the Billy’s in Krotz Springs may fry up the best cracklins in Cajun Country. The drive north on Highway 49 gives me time to work up an appetite. I stop in Natchitoches for a beef-and-pork turnover, or meat pie, at Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant.
Seafood Sensations and Bounty of the Bayou
Louisiana has the freshest seafood in the world. The state is the nation’s number one producer of blue crab, crawfish, shrimp and oysters.
I can celebrate my favorite Louisiana seafood just about any time of the year at one of the state’s many themed festivals, such as the fleet and shrimp festival in Delcambre, always the third weekend of August, and the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City, every Labor Day.
But every day is a seafood festival in Louisiana, from the catfish at Spahr’s in Des Allemands to the crawfish at Robin’s in Breaux Bridge; from the oysters at Black’s in Abbeville to the BBQ shrimp at Manale’s in New Orleans. A Bear’s Café in Houma has some of the best seafood down the bayou – but it’s their peanut butter pie that has made them famous.
When I need to get it “on the go,” Tony’s Seafood has the best boiled seafood, such as crawfish, shrimp, crabs and lobster, in Baton Rouge for take out.
West of Baton Rouge in Grand Coteau, Chef Jude Tauzin has gained national acclaim for his seafood dishes – seared scallops and seafood Napoleon, to name two – at Catahoula’s.
If you prefer sweets to seafood, we’ve got them, too. For more than 60 years, peach lovers have marked their calendars for Ruston’s Peach Festival in June. In Jeanerette, learn about cane sugar production at the Sugar Museum. At the Steen’s Mill in Abbeville, they still make open-kettle cane syrup, as they have since 1910.
Red River Riches with Delta Delights
For a southern Louisiana girl like me, I’m always amazed when mid-state, the swamps and bayous turn into prairie land and rolling hills of pine forest. The sublime pies at Lea’s in Lecompte call my name before I even get to Alexandria. Once I get there, a dark, romantic booth and the best meatballs and spaghetti are waiting for me at Giamanco’s Suburban Garden.
Since 1978 Tunk’s Cypress Inn, on Lake Kincaid in Boyce, has remained a favorite of Central Louisiana folks. Crickets and frogs provide the background music for an authentic Louisiana dining experience with “none of the good things left out,” as Tunk would say. Alligator, quail and frogs’ legs inhabit the menu.
Farther north, another water view can be enjoyed at Warehouse No. 1 Restaurant on the Ouachita River. This 100-year-old building in Monroe’s historic district serves specialties such as fried catfish alongside their famous hushpuppies. Dowling’s Smokehouse in Ruston smokes its pulled pork shoulder for 14 hours, making it as tender as can be.
Bella Fresca in Shreveport is earning a national reputation for its local take on food. The house salad is a tribute to Louisiana with goat cheese from St. Martinville, locally grown organic greens, spiced pecans and walnuts.
Anyone who knows me knows I love farmers markets. My favorite is the 13-year-old Crescent City Farmers Market. Every one of the vendors feels like a family friend and every bite of food from their farms makes dinner special. From Baton Rouge, north to Shreveport, there are more than 20 markets each with its own distinctive, seasonal flavors.
There’s an old superstition that the green file powder used to thicken and season gumbo is actually a form of magical “gris-gris” which, once consumed, compels a visitor to return to Louisiana again and again. There is no magic in the file, but once you have a taste of my state, our incomparable food and gracious hospitality, you’ll be back.