There’s something magical about New Orleans and the way it gets under your skin. It’s the one city that keeps me coming back, year after year. And the food… oh, the food. I have a crush on that food. When I’m away from New Orleans too long, I begin daydreaming about Cajun flavors: dishes prepared with buttery roux and fiery hot peppers, basketfuls of boiled crawfish and dozens (and dozens, and dozens) of plump, briny oysters on the half shell.
Last spring, I had planned a Foodie International trip to New Orleans when the Gulf oil spill occurred. In the past few years, the city has faced unimaginably difficult times, beginning with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Most recently, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico delivered a brutal blow to the region’s seafood industry. Though the debate continues regarding the contamination and safety of local seafood, I chose to return to the Crescent City one year after the oil spill, to feast on old favorites and experience new flavors in one of the most unique and exciting foodie destinations in the United States.
Due to scheduling conflicts, and a frustrating lack of supernatural ability to bi-locate (does anyone have a Tardis?) I was on borrowed time – only in New Orleans for two short days. I had to make them good. I decided to visit some of the French Quarter’s “Old Standards”: classic, sometimes over-commercialized, eateries that have survived the test of time, through natural (and man-made) disasters and economic downturns. Through so much adversity, these restaurants have served as the culinary backbone of New Orleans’ tourist industry. Night after night, people line up outside for a chance to experience a taste of classic N’awlins flavor.
Whether I’m coming to town for two days, two weeks or two hours, I haven’t officially arrived in New Orleans until I’ve eaten at Acme Oyster House. If I’m going solo, I’ll rock up to the oyster bar where (if I’m lucky) the seasoned shuckers might slip an extra half-shell or two onto my sandy tray. Today I’m with friends; we slide into a checkered booth and I order up a dozen salty, freshly-shucked oysters before even thinking about opening a menu.
I passionately love raw oysters, so please don’t take it the wrong way when I say they are NOT the reason I keep coming back to Acme. The oysters are fantastic, but to taste the restaurant’s seafood étouffée is almost a religious experience. To this day I haven’t found a better-tasting étouffée in New Orleans (I think this might be an official Foodie International culinary challenge for all you local folks!) or anywhere else in the world.
I’ve been told I make a pretty mean étouffée at home – inspired, of course, by Acme’s. The (backbone) of a great étouffée is in the roux, a caramel-colored concoction of flour and butter, stirred continuously for so long (over a heat so low) that you think your arm will fall off. At Acme, the étouffée is richer than a stick of butter in Donald Trump’s hands. It’s made so slowly and with such culinary care, you can actually taste the love of food in each heavenly bite. Go there. Try it. Tell me what you think.
The next stop, clear across the French Quarter on Decatur Street, is Coop’s Place. I’ve never been here, but my friends swear I’m going to freak over the restaurant’s famous fried chicken. The place is completely packed. We’re instructed to wait outside in a line, behind a sign, for nearly 45 minutes. By the way, this is on a Wednesday night after 9:00PM. Thankfully the food is worth the wait.
Coop’s Place offers one of the more interesting menus I’ve seen in New Orleans, putting a gourmet/cajun twist on tavern classics. We begin with a cheesy, smoked duck quesadilla. This is what drinking food should always aspire to be.
I’m also an instant fan of the marinated lamb ribs, served with a tangy red pepper jelly. The sauce is sweet, peppery and fiery hot. Coop’s Place should bottle the stuff and sell it, if they don’t already. I’d put it on just about anything.
The fried chicken at Coop’s Place is so famous, it has it’s own menu section. You order the “Cajun Fried Chicken,” by quantity (two pieces or more). It is served with perhaps the other most famous menu item, rabbit and sausage jambalaya. The jambalaya is prepared with boneless rabbit and pork sausage, flavored with tomato, onion and bell pepper. Really, really good. The chicken tastes homemade; the batter is salty and crisp. I don’t know that it’s the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, but I’m most definitely enjoying this meal.
Just a few doors down from Coop’s Place is the Original French Market Restaurant and Bar, known specifically for serving up some of the Quarter’s best seafood. We drop in for a few of my favorite (basic) New Orleans’ eats: boiled crawfish and raw oysters.
Though crawfish are just barely coming into season, I can’t help but order myself a pound. Spicy, shiny and fire-engine red, they’re just how I like them. Here’s where I consider myself a wannabe-local; I always make sure to “suck the heads” for that extra burst of juicy flavor.
This is my final dozen oysters of this short trip, so I make sure to savor each salty bite. Sometimes I douse them in tabasco, sometimes I throw on a bit of cocktail sauce. These oysters are firm and sweet, perfectly rounding out my high-speed foodie romp through one of the world’s most delicious cities.
ACME Oyster House
724 Iberville Street
1109 Decatur Street
The Original French Market Restaurant and Bar
1001 Decatur Street
2011 Mileage Total: 20007