Best New Orleans Food And History

The best possible way to explore the city's history

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The glory and allure of New Orleans is unparalleled—in terms of food and culture, I'm willing to name it the best city in the United States. Hands down.

Why? It has an original, definable cuisine that goes way beyond hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza. The deep roster of homegrown dishes, whether Cajun or Creole, help shape the city's identity—like impossibly buttery barbecued shrimp or the infinite delicious culinary manipulations of oysters.

Long-standing family-owned restaurants that dot New Orleans by the hundreds are the keepers of these recipes and are the staunch upholders of tradition. They are absolute musts to visit. Again, and again, and again. This visual guide shares some of our favorites—take a peek, then plan your own trip down South to try the beignets for yourself.

Tujague's, which opened in 1865, serves a rich, creamy gumbo du jour. In this case, it's a version of Paul Prudhomme's famous gumbo ya-ya, served with jauntily placed crab. The centuries-old layers and textures that surround you while you eat invariably transport you to another place and time.

Being a server at the storied Antoine's is a much sought-after career. Many of them seem to work as independent operators—like the one pictured, who had to memorize more than 100 menu items to get the job. Some, like the boyish-looking Charles Carter (my favorite waiter to request), are the third generation of their families to hold the position. They know you. They know your order. They're indispensable.

Casamento's, a temple of all things oyster, proves difficult on two fronts. First, it's often not open. And if it is when you decide to go, there's a line down the block that makes the one in Portlandia's brunch episode look like small potatoes. But the payoff is worth it. Opt for either the oyster dinner, in which the oysters are coated in cornmeal and fried in a small pot of oil like in so many homes—no commercial deep fryer here—or for the raw selection and watch as your pile of discarded oyster shells grows to towering heights.

The barbecued shrimp at Mr. B's Bistro are the stuff of legends. Despite the name, there's nothing barbecue-ish about them. They're masterfully whipped up in a flame-licked skillet by Skip Lomax Jr. (who's been cooking here for almost 40 years) and lathered with a buttery sauce laden with garlic and hot sauce. Each order comes with a sleeve of warm French bread; there will be no question as to what to do with it.

Frank Brigtsen is a walking, talking museum of Cajun food. He was at the epicenter of the great 1980s Cajun cooking craze, working alongside Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's. Blackened red fish has fallen off its pedestal a bit, but to eat at the eponymous Brigtsen's is to experience Cajun cuisine in true form.

Boiled crawfish is better experienced at a joint like Charles Seafood out in Harahan. Revived some years back by Frank Brigtsen to preserve the type of local places he grew up with, it's now under new management but still worth the trek.

In the brilliant Time Life book American Cooking: Creole and Acadian (Foods of the World), there's a gorgeous photo of an oyster po'boy, one of the pinnacles of NOLA cuisine. I decided to recreate the still life one day with a local, my friend Jenn Lotz Williams, along with my favorite version of the sandwich. It's the one at Ye Olde College Inn—complete with copious drips of hot sauce soaking the Times-Picayune beneath. (Please note the cheese—another strike against the dissenting no-cheese-with-seafood crowd.)

Chargrilled oysters are a more recent New Orleanian invention and have become the number three most popular preparation after, of course, raw and fried. The version at Casamento's is the best—its secret weapon is a grill set up out back, where pungent garlic butter gurgles in the half shell while a fire blazes underneath.

Morning Call is the other, lesser-known coffee and beignet place. It used to be located in the French Quarter but years ago moved across the river to Metairie. It retains many of the original details, including its illuminated mirrors. Order the chicory-flavored coffee for a dazzling performance, as they pour the milk and coffee from dueling giant kettles.  

Pascal's Manale (known locally on a last-name basis as Manale's) is most likely the originator of barbecued shrimp. Despite that, ordering this off-the-menu linguine with oysters will up your street cred exponentially.

Antoine's should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in itself. You can spend days touring its vast rooms, from the tunnellike wine cellar to the room reserved for the Krewe of Rex (pictured here), which is brilliantly green and so decked out in finery that it looks straight out of Versailles.

Yes, Café du Monde is incredibly popular with tourists, but it's way beyond a tourist trap. I've been frequenting this place for 30 years, and nothing has changed, thankfully. The marquee treat: hot beignets covered with fluffy piles of powdered sugar. Behind the scenes is where the predominantly Vietnamese servers pick the best just-fried beignets and use this machine to shower them with sugar.

This lesser-known oyster dish at Antoine's—where oysters Rockefeller was invented—is oysters Foch, named after the French WWI marshal, Ferdinand Foch. Rich doesn't even begin to describe it. In a rarely seen move, crispy oysters are lightly napped with a deep sauce that resembles a demi-glace but is actually a sherry-spiked hollandaise.