Most Iconic New Orleans Food & Drinks
A confluence of influences from French, Spanish, African American, and indigenous peoples, New Orleans is considered a “gumbo pot” of cultures. The combination of all these different societies has made New Orleans one of the most significant food destinations in the United States.
We’ll take you through the Big Easy’s best traditional savory and sweet treats, and even take a stop at the local bars to try the best cocktails the city has to offer! Let’s discover some of the most famous New Orleans foods.
Nothing explains New Orleans quite like gumbo. Defined as “a mixture, melange,” gumbo is essentially a pot of whatever was leftover. This less-than-elegant description does no justice to what this amazing New Orleans dish is today, although there is much contention about what makes a real gumbo recipe.
Claiming both French and West African roots, gumbo is classified as a stew. It starts with simmering a roux of butter and flour, then adding the New Orleans’s “holy trinity” of flavor, green bell pepper, onion, and celery.
Next comes garlic, Cajun seasoning, andouille sausage, and chicken or seafood, depending on preference, and now the gumbo starts to come to life. Finally, top it off with a thickening agent, either gumbo File or okra.
Gumbo is eaten all year round, but you’ll definitely smell those amazing flavors around the city whenever the temperature drops below 70 degrees.
Best places to get gumbo in New Orleans:
Dooky Chase: This iconic New Orleans restaurant is known for amazing fried chicken and, of course, gumbo. Leah Chase, the world-renowned chef and owner before she passed in 2019, is most famous for slapping President Barack Obama’s hand when he went to put hot sauce in his gumbo before tasting it. “You don’t put hot sauce in my gumbo,” she explained.
Liuzza’s by the Track: This gumbo is filled to the brim with chicken, sausage, and seafood. The chef’s secret ingredient? He sautées shrimp for every order. You won’t find a heartier gumbo in the city.
2. Red Beans and Rice
Red beans and rice is a New Orleans staple, reflecting the city’s Caribbean and West African influences. You’ll find menu specials featuring red beans and rice every Monday.
Why Monday? That was laundry day, and doing laundry used to take the whole day. Once the red beans are set to a simmer, they don’t need much attention for the next eight hours – so time to do the laundry. The clothes would be hung and the beans ready pretty much at the same time.
As with all good New Orleans food, red beans and rice start with the trinity of bell pepper, onion, and celery cooked down with Creole seasoning. Then you add whatever meat you want, ham hocks or sausage being the usual choice. Next, cloves, red kidney beans, and water and that’s when you leave it to simmer, stirring once in a while.
When the red beans are nearly finished, half of the beans are crushed against the side of the pot, creating the creamy consistency that makes this dish famous.
Best places for red beans and rice in New Orleans:
Mandina’s Restaurant: Mondays at Mandina’s are perfect! The restaurant offers a generous portion of rich, thick, and creamy red beans. It’s topped with your choice of veal cutlet, pork chop, or Italian sausage.
Napoleon House: Offered to Napoleon as a refuge when he was exiled from France, Napoleon House offers a history almost as rich as its food. Though Napoleon never made it, the French influence is obvious in the architecture and recipes.
Their red beans and rice, along with other New Orleans classics such as the Muffelatta sandwich, are some of the best the city has to offer.
3. Crayfish (Crawfish)
Like its larger cousin the lobster, crawfish was considered a poor man’s food (not unlike most of the food on this list). In fact, French-speaking Acadians who moved down from Canada to settle along the bayous brought along their lobster recipes, modifying them to accommodate crawfish.
Crawfish are delightfully salty and rich in Creole flavors. They are boiled in a large pot with a menagerie of seasonings, including lemon, onions, garlic, and Creole spices found in the famous “crab boil” you can buy at local supermarkets.
Crawfish boils are largely social, too, with newspaper-covered tables covered with crawfish, potatoes, corn, and whatever other goodies you want to add to the boil. The guest’s job is to peel the crawfish and sip the refreshing local beers.
Local tip: Check out neighborhood bars or breweries, such as Bayou Beer Garden or Urban South, on the weekend during crawfish season. Crawfish boils are usually a big undertaking, so these are usually bigger events and can happen a few times a week.
The best places to get crawfish in New Orleans (if you can’t get invited to a local crawfish boil!):
- Clesi’s Seafood Restaurant & Catering: One of the few places that boil crawfish during the season, Clesi’s also offers amazing seasonal seafood items such as fried and raw oysters, freshly caught fish, and tons of other dishes.
- Deanies’s Seafood: This is one of the more popular restaurants in New Orleans, and if there is no boiled crawfish on the menu, you will surely find Crawfish Etoufee, a rich buttery blend of the holy trinity,
4. Po Boy
Po boys are a sandwich favorite with something to suit everyone, from vegans to picky eaters. Soft, flaky French bread stuffed to the brim with fresh local ingredients such as fried oysters, roast beef and gravy, fried shrimp, and even fried green tomatoes.
Local tip: When your server or cashier is asking if you want your po boy “dressed,” that means with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayonnaise. Of course, you can ask them to leave out anything you don’t want, too.
Best places to get Po Boys in New Orleans:
Parkway Bakery & Tavern: Located just off Bayou Saint John, this neighborhood restaurant is considered to serve the best po boys in town. Your sandwich will come stuffed to the brim, with sauces dripping out the side. Don’t worry about making a mess, just enjoy.
Mother’s Restaurant: This is one of the most popular restaurants in the city, and you’ll find lines around the corner for lunch. Best to get there early to enjoy these amazing po boys!
Often described as “powdered sugar pillows,” these fritters are French-inspired fried dough, flash-fried on a high heat until light and fluffy, then covered with white powdered sugar. These are amazing for breakfast, a mid-day snack, or a post-dinner dessert.
Local tip: Don’t wear black. Though you could save the glass of water served with them to clean the powdered sugar off your clothes.
Best places to get beignets in New Orleans:
Cafe Du Monde: This is probably the most famous name on the list, with locations in the heart of the French Quarter and in City Park. They sling out thousands of these puffy delicacies while also offering a variety of coffees, hot chocolate, and more. Open 24/7, too.
Get Stuff’d: A bit of a wild card pick here, Get Stuff’d combines the delicious classic beignet dough with sweet or savory stuffing. With fillings from brownie and walnuts to beef, onions, and peppers, you’ll find anything you’re in the mood for.
6. King cake
This delicious, seasonal pastry is named after the Biblical story of the three kings who bring gifts to the baby Jesus. With flavors similar to a cinnamon roll, this soft, flakey cake has yellow green and purple icing, the colors of Mardi Gras.
There is also a simple version, a cinnamon cake, but king cake comes stuffed with tons of flavor such as cream cheese and various fruit compotes!
The bad news? Technically, real king cake is only available during Mardi Gras season, which starts from January 6, known by locals as 12th Night, to the beginning of Lent, both Catholic holidays. If you’re in town during Mardi Gras, get as much king cake as you can!
Local tip: Inside king cakes are small plastic babies. Whoever gets the baby in their slice has to buy the next king cake for the party!
Best places to find king cake in New Orleans:
Manny Randazzo’s: This bakery is dedicated solely to king cakes and there are usually lines around the block waiting to get hold of one. They offer unique flavors such as pecan praline, apple, and so much more.
Dong Phuong: This Vietnamese bakery is open year-round, but they are busiest during king cake season. Their king cakes are huge, not the traditional ring shape, and are filled throughout. Additionally, their fillings are some of the freshest and most delicious the city has to offer.
They are so renowned, they won a James Beard Foundation award in 2018.
Famous New Orleans Cocktails
Story has it that Antoine Peychaud invented the sazerac in 1838, the first-ever cocktail. Throughout the years, the drink morphed into what it is today.
A sazerac starts with a chilled rocks glass rinsed with absinthe. In a separate glass, a sugar cube is crushed up with three dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters, then American rye whiskey is added. Then the cocktail is poured into the absinthe-coated glass. Finally, a slice of lemon is twisted over the surface, then dropped in the drink.
- Sazerac Bar: It’s all in the name! The bar inside the Roosevelt Hotel is known for their classic New Orleans cocktails.
- The Sazerac House: This bar starts with Peychaud’s Bitters, dashed on top of a sugar cube, then crushed.
8. Ramos Gin Fizz
This is not a drink you want to order in a packed bar as it takes between three and five minutes to properly put together.
It was invented in New Orleans by Henry C. Ramos and is made with lemon and lime juice and orange flower water, which gives it the sour flavor, egg whites and powdered sugar, for the creaminess, and, of course, gin to finish it all off. The longer it is shaken, the frothier the Ramos Gin Fizz becomes.
- Bar Tonique: This craft cocktail bar makes amazing drinks, all from scratch. You’ll have to be patient while they fix up your drink, as they’ll freshly squeeze the lemons and limes and crack open an egg right in front of you, but the wait is worth it!
- Carousel Bar: This bar is a must-visit no matter what you order! Located in the historic Monteleone Hotel, this bar slowly rotates as guests sit in carousel-themed seats. They’re known for the New Orleans-specific cocktails, too.
This list covers just eight of the best New Orleans-made food and drink. But this unique city has so much more to offer! Don’t forget to visit some amazing local music halls for traditional and modern jazz, Mardi Gras exhibits, and all kinds of local festivals around the year! Happy exploring!
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