New Orleans is well-known as a culinary town. The mash-up of cuisines that's taken place here over the years, which includes major contributions from Native American, French, Cajun, Spanish, German, Sicilian, and West African cultures, has resulted in an array of local delicacies that are very appropriately deemed "exotic" by visitors from around the world. Even the local versions of "normal" food (like sandwiches) are different -- partly because of the ingredients and methodology, but also partly because of a little bit of je ne sais quoi, a little bit of mysterious something-or-other that just makes everything taste better here.
How to say it: Just how it looks, but not "Crayfish."
What it is: A freshwater crustacean that is both trapped wild in the swamps of Southern Louisiana and farmed as an off-season product in the state's thousands of watery rice fields, the crawfish was once looked down on as a poor man's dinner, but like so many other formerly un-fancy foods, it's now a beloved delicacy around the state (which both harvests and consumes 95% of the crawfish in the country).
You'll see 'em lots of ways on menus all over town, from the rich and decadent crawfish étouffée (a spicy stew, served over rice) to crawfish pie, but to really get a feel for the tasty little guys, go pure: boiled crawfish.
Boiled crawfish usually come in three-pound or five-pound orders, and they'll arrive on a big tray, having been boiled with spices, chunks of potatoes, corn on the cob, onions, and sometimes mushrooms or chunks of smoked sausage. Three pounds is a good serving for a reasonably hungry adult, five pounds for big eaters (remember that most of the weight is in the inedible shell).
It's not a bad idea to put in one three-pound order at a time for the table to share, especially if you're not sure you like them or you're a new (slow) peeler. That way, each round is hot and fresh, and you won't accidentally over-order. A dipping sauce may be served, or the server will bring you a little bowl, a few packets of mayonnaise, and a few bottles of hot sauce, and you'll mix your own.
If you don't know how to peel crawfish, your server will be happy to show you. It's no harder than peeling shrimp, and you'll be an expert in no time. Beer helps.
If you've never had crawfish and you're not sure what they might taste like, try them fried first. Everything tastes better fried. But their flavor is not a difficult one to enjoy: texturally, they're like a very tender shrimp, and flavor-wise, they're like lobster tails, but a little bit sweeter. Unless you really dislike seafood in general, you'll love them.
Where to eat it: For the best boiled crawfish, you have to jump in the car and head out to Cajun country, but if in New Orleans, you'll do quite well to make your way to Franky and Johnny's, Uptown. It's a neighborhood joint, and you'll get to quietly listen in on some fun local gossip if you're so inclined. Other good options are Deanie's, in the French Quarter, and Zimmer's, out towards Gentilly. And try other crawfish dishes at restaurants all over town. New Orleans chefs and home cooks alike have come up with a thousand different ways to serve them, and they're all worth trying.
How to say it: "BEN-yays"
What it is: These crispy little pillows of fried dough are sometimes called "French Donuts," but texturally, they're closer to a miniature elephant ear or funnel cake. Served alongside a creamy café au lait, they'll arrive at your table fresh out of the fryer with a heap of powdered sugar on top.
Where to eat it: At the world-famous Café du Monde, right at the edge of Jackson Square. If there's a line for tables, you can walk around to the back and order a sack to go -- there are hundreds of benches within a stone's throw where you can sit and enjoy them. Eat them quickly, though, because they really are best at the hottest temperature that you can stand them.
How to say it: "PRAW-leens" (not "PRAY-leens")
What it is: Made of pecans hardened in a caramelized sugar and cream base, these crumbly little confections, with a consistency that's closer to fudge than to caramel, will be your new favorite. They're terrible for you (especially your teeth), but worth every sweet bite.
Where to eat it: You'll find these all over the place, and as long as they're handmade (hint: the ingredients list won't contain high fructose corn syrup if they are), they're worth sampling and comparing. You know, for science. But start with Leah's Pralines or Southern Candymakers right in the French Quarter, for both ultra-traditional pralines and some clever twists on the theme. They travel well, so bring some home for later, too.
What it is: At the end of fall, when the cool damp days that mark the state's winter begin to roll in, Louisianians cheerfully greet each other by saying, "Looks like gumbo weather!" Indeed, this rich, earthy stew is just the right thing to warm your bones, but it's readily available all year round, and just as tasty in any season.
Popular varieties include chicken (or duck) and andouille thickened with roux, chicken and smoked sausage thickened with filé, seafood thickened with okra, and a few dozen more combinations of those ingredients and some others. In New Orleans, tomatoes are a standard gumbo ingredient; the Cajun cousins to the South and the West disagree.
There's no gumbo in any restaurant in the state that holds a candle to the gumbo of any given local's Mama, though, so don't even bother trying to argue that point. Gumbo will always be served with rice, and often with a scoop of eggy potato salad on the side.
Where to eat it: If you're looking for a higher-end gumbo, Herbsaint, Chef Donald Link's fabulous mainstay in the Central Business District, has a really nice variety of gumbos on the menu, changing with the seasons but often including interesting game birds and rabbit and tasty house-made sausage. Liuzza's By The Track, in Mid-City, does a really excellent seafood gumbo, and in the French Quarter, try the chicken and sausage gumbo at the Gumbo Shop.
What it is: Simply put, a po-boy is just a sub, a grinder, a hoagie. But it's really not. This is one of those foods where je ne sais quoi is clearly an essential ingredient because po-boys are just plain better than their counterparts around the country.
Served on a hunk of French bread (which is a bit heavier in the crust and squishier in the center than a classic French-from-France loaf) topped with something absurdly delicious (fried seafood is popular, of course, as is hot roast beef, but cold cuts are also widely available) and "dressed" if you want it (that means lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayo), and yes, you do want it.
Where to eat it: Try the superlative "All That Jazz" from the French Quarter hole-in-the-wall Verti Marte -- grilled ham, turkey, shrimp, cheese, and the house-made "wow sauce." It's to die for, and if your hotel is in the Quarter, they'll even bring it right to you!
For fried seafood po-boys, try either Parasol's or Tracey's, situated just a block from each other in the Irish Channel. Just don't, er, mention them to each other. There's a bit of a rivalry going on. Best try one of each and choose your loyalty wisely!
How to say it: you'll hear it a few ways, most commonly "moof-uh-LET-uh" or "muff-uh-LOT-uh." Either's fine. You'll see it spelled a few different ways, too.
What it is: One of the most distinctive and delicious sandwiches in the world, the muffuletta is a ready reminder of New Orleans' rich Italian history. This hefty sandwich is typically served on a large, round, crusty, sesame-topped loaf of bread, sliced in half and layered with capicola, mortadella, salami, provolone, and swiss cheese (with slight variants here depending on the vendor), and topped with olive salad, which is basically the ingredients of the Italian pickled salad known as giardiniera chopped together with black and green olives and doused in olive oil. It's heaven for fans of the rich umami flavors of cured meats, pickles, and olives, and there's really no other sandwich quite like it anywhere.
Where to eat it: You can't go wrong with the original muffuletta from the Central Grocery, in the French Quarter, where the sandwich was invented in the early 1900s. One muffuletta is more than enough for two people, though they actually travel well and taste great later when some of the oil has oozed into the bread.
While you're there, pick up a jar of packaged olive salad to take home, so you can make earnest-but-futile attempts to replicate the sandwich at home until you can't take it any longer and are forced to return to New Orleans.
For an updated muffuletta, try Chef Donald Link's version at his outstanding Cochon Butcher in the Warehouse District.
Red Beans and Rice
What it is: So simple, so satisfying. Every Caribbean culture has a version of beans and rice, and New Orleans (classified by many anthropologists as the Northern tip of the Caribbean, since it's culturally and historically more related to the islands than the rest of the American South) is no different. Spicy and filling, a serving of red beans and rice is the city's best way to feed you lunch for under $5.
You'll find it on the dinner menu just about everywhere in town on Monday nights, the traditional night for this dish. Historically, Sunday was a day for church and rest, and Monday was washing day. Mama would make a ham on Sunday and then use the bone and scraps to season the red beans and rice, which would simmer on the back of the stove all day while she'd do the wash.
Vegetarians beware: unless it's otherwise specified, red beans and rice always contains ham or sausage or some other smoky meat in this town.
Where to eat it: Sammy's Food Service and Deli in the Seventh Ward has killer red beans and rice, served with a link of the house-smoked sausage. It ain't fancy, but oh man, it is good, and it's a nice local spot far from the madding crowds. Joey K's, right on Magazine Street in the Irish Channel, is another good neighborhood joint at the opposite end of town, and they've got red beans and rice on the menu every day.
What it is: Bananas Foster is a classic of New Orleans white-linen dining. It consists of a couple of sliced bananas, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, some rummy-buttery-sugary sauce, and fire! The tableside flambé is what makes this dessert so much fun, and adds that touch of New Orleans drama to any fine meal. It's also stupidly delicious.
Where to eat it: Brennan's, an old-line restaurant in the French Quarter, invented the dish, and they continue to serve the finest version in town. But it certainly won't hurt to try it at the Palace Cafe, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, or Arnaud's, or really anywhere that promises tableside flambé.
What it is: This slippery, briny delicacy, plucked from the Gulf of Mexico, has been a favorite food for crescent-dwellers for thousands of years, and it's the basis for many of the city's favorite dishes. The aforementioned po-boys and gumbo often bear oysters, of course, but there's also lots of higher-end fare, like the sinful classic Oysters Rockefeller (a local creation), and the elegant menu mainstay of chargrilled oysters.
Where to eat it: For oysters on the half-shell, Felix's in the French Quarter and Casamento's in the Irish Channel are both good bets. For chargrilled oysters, Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter is outstanding, though tends to be crowded, and Drago's, in the Riverside Hilton, has them down to an art. For Oysters Rockefeller, go to the source: Antoine's, where the decadent dish was invented.