Down on the Bayou: Eat Your Way Through New Orleans

By: Lee Anne Wong
Lee Anne Wong

Happy Fat Tuesday everyone!

Jambalaya”, one of my favorite Hank Williams songs, plays in my head every time I visit lovely New Orleans, where I recently ventured to stuff my face for Unique Eats. I’ve been to NOLA numerous times, but this was my first time witnessing the beginning of Carnival/Mardi Gras season. I was there with the Unique Eats crew, Amanda Freitag, Dave Mechlowicz, and my friend Camille Becerra.

One word, two syllables: “Crazy”. Or “festive”. Certainly both. The other word that comes to mind is “tasty”.

Mardi Gras is French for “ Fat Tuesday”, and the tradition of Mardi Gras dates back almost 3 centuries, when Louisiana was a French territory. Secret societies and clubs paraded and masqueraded in costume in celebration. Today, carnival season is celebrated worldwide, and New Orleans’ Carnival season is nothing to shrug at. Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, and it’s a day dedicated to eating your heart’s desire, before the Lenten fast. There are floats, parades, picnics, live music, and generally high levels of revelry everywhere.

The cuisine of New Orleans isn’t exactly health conscious, but it is full of history, culture, and flavor. A mixture of many international influences, it's both old fashioned and progressive, many times at the same time. Every time I visit New Orleans there are certain food rituals I indulge in myself. I MUST have this food. I HAVE to go eat here, and so on. This most recent visit for Unique Eats had me on the usual aggressive eating schedule, with double lunches and double dinners, so I couldn’t get to some of my favorite spots.

I landed in New Orleans on Saturday morning, visited Boucherie for first lunch, Squeal BBQ for second lunch, and then a gut busting dinner at my favorite spot in NOLA, Cochon, with the crew. For the record, I am “The Orderer”, meaning whenever I go out with a big group of people they leave the ordering for the table up to me. It is both a gift and a curse. I pride myself on ordering just the right amount of food so everyone has to unbutton the top button on their pants, but it becomes problematic when the chef decides to send out additional dishes.

This most recent dinner at Cochon, we essentially had the entire menu dropped on our table of ten. Other diners stared. I could swear the waiters were smirking at us. As plate after plate hit the table, we just looked at each other with incredulous eyes, almost crying in hysterical laughter with just HOW much food it all was. And for this reason, I deemed this day “Fat Saturday”. Thank goodness we are hearty eaters, and I knew taking the leftover twice-baked potato in my purse would save me at 3:00 a.m. after bar hopping with everyone following dinner.

Sunday was the crew’s day off and we headed down to the bayou for some fishing and a New Orleans style seafood feast, cooked by Camille and me. Just trust me when I say it was “Fat Sunday” too.

Monday was rough, but rough by choice. My day began at one of my very favorite spots in NOLA, Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Simply the best fried chicken in the country. Period. Juicy, crunchy, crumbly, greasy in all the right ways, it puts all other fried chickens to shame. I didn’t have to eat the entire plate, but I did.

Second lunch was at Cochon Butcher, the sister restaurant next door to Cochon. Another lunch time feast, complete with pork sandwiches and duck and bbq brisket sandwiches. What’s so cool is operates as both an informal dining spot and as a butcher shop of sorts, so of course I had to buy myself a pound of bacon. And some of the Sweet Potato Habanero Sauce, spicy good!

One of my favorite traditions this time of year is devouring a generous slice of King Cake. Thankfully, Cochon Butcher makes individual sized King Cakes, about 8 inches in diameter. I waited until I got on the plane home to begin slowly consuming this face-sized delight all by myself, piece by sugary piece.

After I left Cochon Butcher with both leftovers and take away treats, I made my friend drop me off at Popeyes Chicken. Yes. Fast food. I happen to love Popeyes Chicken (a guilty pleasure which I only indulge in about once a year), and whether or not Popeyes in Louisiana was better than East Coast Popeyes had been the burning question inside me since I landed in NOLA. So I got two piece meal with a side of dirty rice to go. It sat on my hotel desk for an hour before I got into it. Verdict? Popeyes in Louisiana is FAR better than East Coast Popeyes.

Dinner was at Domenica. Chef Alon Shaya covered the table with food, charcuterie, delicious pizzas, a selection of pastas, and then he brought over all the bottles of house-made limoncellos, and let us pour freely, while he shared an after-work drink with us. New Orleans hospitality at its best. I finished my day out with a night cap at the famed Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone. “Fat Monday” indeed.

I flew out Tuesday morning, sated and yet missing some of my favorite foods, like the best Reuben on the planet at Stanley, and the Crawfish Cheesecake at Dick and Jenny’s. I even missed Acme Oyster House this time around. So I shall return, but not just for the food. Every time I visit New Orleans I meet more of the people who make New Orleans so special. I make more friends and have more smiling faces and likened souls to visit each time. New Orleans is such an awe-inspiring, resilient community. To talk to people who have been first through Katrina and now are still enduring the effects of the BP disaster, in addition to the overall economic downturn, is both humbling and endearing.

I love New Orleans. I love the people who keep its spirit and culture strong. I love the food, with all its richness and distinctive flavors. And I love the culinary community, for making every visit to NOLA exciting, heart warming, and delicious. The spirit of Mardi Gras is one of complete celebration. It’s essentially the biggest party of the year, next to New Year’s Eve. I didn’t get see the all of it, but will be eating my fair share today, as should you.

Wishing everyone a hearty “Cheers” and Happy Fat Tuesday!

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