There I was, cradling an oyster as big as my face. I have consumed a lot of raw oysters, but I had never needed to bite one in half to get it down. And never had any oyster been the 15th I’d consumed in not many more minutes, accompanied by a Bloody Mary and lively dialogue with the oyster shucker.
This is the scene at Pascal’s Manale, a New Orleans restaurant known for its barbecued shrimp and oyster bar, — and for its oyster shucker, Uptown T. He is a captivating, crowd-pleasing man who has shucked at Manale’s for 25 years. He stands behind the counter, shucking and talking seamlessly — unhinging the oysters without looking and sliding each half-shelled mollusk over.
I have been to many oyster-serving venues, and none beats Manale’s. One tip: Take advantage of their weekday happy hour. At a dozen oysters for $7, it’s a great deal and a unique experience.
That’s typical of the food in New Orleans. The city has its own gastronomic culture — French panache, Southern tradition, and Cajun and creole spice. Across the country, we indulge in that flavor this time of year, as Mardi Gras approaches. But it’s a way of life in the Big Easy.
When a friend and I recently visited, we didn’t have one bad bite — and we had a lot of bites. We did have some guidance from New Orleans Times-Picayune food writer Brett Anderson, and other folks who live in or have lived in New Orleans.
So, what is there in addition to raw oysters? Well, fried oysters. And fried alligator, fried catfish and crawfish and shrimp, and — one of my favorites — fried soft-shell crab. Of course, there’s also fried chicken. It is the South.
At most places, you can get seafood on a po’ boy or a plate. Po’ boy sandwiches, filled with fried seafood or meat (commonly roast beef), are as representative of New Orleans cuisine as raw oysters. What surrounds the filling, though, makes them distinctive: New Orleans French bread, the size of a sub but crispier on the outside. Po’ boy bread is like the perfect chocolate chip cookie, crunchy on the outside but soft — the better for soaking up juices — inside. This combination gives each bite a satisfying crunch that gives way to a soft, flavorful mouthful, because the true genius of po’ boy bread is that it showcases what it surrounds.
You can opt for seafood on a plate, but I’m not alone in saying you can’t visit New Orleans without getting a po’ boy. There are plenty of places to get good ones, but if you want a quintessential New Orleans experience, check out Casamento’s. This iconic restaurant, the width of a shotgun house and two rooms deep, is covered in classic white and yellow tile; you’ll think you walked into a diner from a ’50s sitcom. Aesthetics aside, the food at Casamento’s would draw me no matter how it looked. It’s famous for the “oyster loaf” (sub Texas Toast for po’ boy bread — it works just as well, I promise) and a raw-oyster bar. We also shared fried soft-shell crab and gumbo, and both were delicious. But whatever you get, don’t skip the oyster loaf.
Speaking of gumbo, get it. A lot. Anywhere you want, it won’t be bad. But it will be different at each place. Gumbo, a Louisiana staple, is essentially a stew — stock, thickener and either meat or seafood. New Orleans serves two principle varieties: Cajun and creole. Cajun gumbo typically has a dark base of roux and okra, whereas creole gumbo employs a lighter roux and tomatoes.
Everyone has a preferred variety (I’m a fan of okra), but each restaurant does it differently. Many restaurants have meat (chicken and/or Andouille sausage) and seafood options. Those choices, combined with varying roux, vegetables and amounts of cayenne pepper make for quite a mélange of gumbos. So try a few. They’re always available in cup-sized portions for about $5.
Gumbo may be on every menu in New Orleans, but another regional stew, jambalaya, is not.
We searched fruitlessly for the best jambalaya, only to hear from several locals that the creole rice dish is really a home-cooked rather than restaurant meal (a la grits in Kentucky?). So save the jambalaya for post-trip nostalgia. Concentrate instead on the rich, soupy gumbo, the crispy fried shellfish tucked into a warm loaf, and oysters on the half-shell bursting with the flavors of the Gulf.
If you’ve devoured sandwiches and slurped oysters and are looking for something a bit nicer, try Pêche, a newcomer to New Orleans that serves the basics, but with a spin. The seafood is exquisite — fresh, local, cooked to perfection — and is transformed into inventive dishes without departing too far from local gastro-culture. It has a relatively small menu (yes, there’s gumbo), but everything is tempting. We ended up sharing two specials: smoked drum with grilled radish, fried peanuts and chili aioli, and royal red shrimp grilled with garlic butter. I would get either again in a heartbeat; they were flavorful but didn’t lose the quality of the fish itself. And what’s more, our ticket — three small plates (we also got a decadent side of beets), two beers and delicious key lime pie — came to about $50. Given the quality of food and warm atmosphere (lots of wood, nice but not stuffy, open kitchen), I’d call that a steal.
That key lime pie was sensational, but you can’t bring up sweets in New Orleans without talking about Café Du Monde, the venerable French market coffee stand. It serves only beignets and coffee, is open 24/7, and is phenomenal. Yes, it’s crowded and touristy, and yes, you will get powdered sugar all over yourself. But where else can you get warm, fluffy, doughy, perfectly fried fritters — three for less than $3 — with a cup of equally inexpensive chicory coffee while contemplating the daiquiris and oysters awaiting you? And the beignets really, truly, do taste the way we all thought funnel cakes would until we actually ate them.
Emma Guida is a Lexington native who now lives in New York City. Reach her at Emma.Guida@gmail.com.
Going to visit?
1838 Napoleon Ave., New Orleans
4330 Magazine St., New Orleans
Café Du Monde
800 Decatur St., New Orleans
800 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA 70130