New Orleans is one of my favorite eating towns. Granted, San Francisco is where my heart is, but New Orleans speaks to me. New Orleanians seem to just eat life up with gusto. And I love that they have managed to preserve a culinary history and food culture that is so distinctly their own. I jump at every chance I get to visit NOLA, and with Mardi Gras festivities in full swing, this is a prime time to be in town.
There are just too many good things to eat and not enough hours in the day to digest the story of my life. So, let's just get right down to the good stuff: fried seafood.
NOLA fare is not light. Things like butter, cream, and duck fat are used with joyful abandon. The deep fryer has a special place of honor in any given kitchen. With tons of fresh, local, seafood at our fingertips, our meals naturally skewed heavy towards oysters, shrimp, crawfish, and fish with an amphibious friend or two thrown in the mix.
On that note, let's start with the Frog Legs.
First off, these were the beefiest frog legs I've ever seen. They were huge -- the size of chicken drummettes! Our Crispy Frog Legs on steroids were served over a baby spinach salad with pickled red onions and apple-bacon-sherry vinaigrette. If you've never tasted frog legs before, what you've heard is true: tastes like chicken. Kind of. The texture is a bit different, like a cross between chicken meat and fish meat. These legs were succulent, with a thin, crispy crust. The freshness of the greens and tang of the dressing were great complements. Café Degas is a little off the beaten path so you will likely find more locals than tourists enjoying the tree-house charm of this spot.
Eggs Stanley is pretty much my idea of a perfect brunch dish. It is essentially Eggs Benedict (perfectly poached eggs, Canadian bacon, Creole hollandaise on a toasted English muffin) jazzed up with big, fat, cornmeal-crusted, fried oysters scattered on top. Decadent and full of happy calories, this is my preferred way to start the day. Stanley is the kind of spot I would go to multiple times in a trip because everything on the menu looks amazing. It's a bright sunny spot on historic Jackson Square with a retro diner feel to it.
Borgne is chef John Besh's latest addition to his restaurant empire in New Orleans. The restaurant is named after Lake Borgne, the saltwater estuary that surrounds eastern Louisiana and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Besh and his executive chef Brian Landry grew up fishing on Lake Borgne, and it is the inspiration behind the seafood-driven menu. As you can see, we feasted on an embarrassing amount of food. The dish I kept going back to was the Crabmeat Croquetas (those little fried balls in the lower center of the pic, see them?). In honesty, I've never met a croqueta/croquette/kroket I didn't like. There are many versions around the world, and they are all usually deep fried, creamy, and delicious. Borgne's version was no exception. Theirs starts with a blonde roux that develops into a rich bechamel seasoned with spices. The sauce is then mounted with cream cheese and parmesan, with lumps of blue crab claw meat added in. After this cools, the croquetas are formed and rolled in panko, then deep-fried for a homerun on the satisfaction scale.
You can't visit New Orleans without gettin' down with a po'boy. We headed to Mother's, always bustling with tourists and local businessmen alike, for our fix. Mother's is well known for their all-day breakfast (they serve a quarter of a million biscuits per year) and their Famous Ferdi Po'Boy made with baked ham, roast beef, debris, and gravy. But, if you ask me, the Oyster Po'Boy is where it's at. It doesn't get soggy like the Ferdi can get, and it is chock full of juicy, plump, golden-fried oysters. Get this and let everyone else have food envy.
So, in case you were wondering, the answer is yes, if there was a fried oyster on the menu, we had to have it. Mike's on the Avenue had the most interesting iteration of the fried oyster with their Oyster Tacos. Featuring fat oysters, beer-battered in local Abita brew, the tacos are loaded up with an Asian slaw of cabbage, carrots, cucumber, and onion dressed in olive oil and rice wine vinegar, Cotija cheese, sesame guacamole, tomato-ginger salsa, and a drizzle of Sriracha-spiked aioli. Despite the fried element, the fresh crunch of the slaw and bright flavors gave this dish a light feel to it. After many meals featuring the same New Orleans-style flavors, this Asian/Mex fusion was a welcome change of pace.
Brunch Brennan's is an elegant affair with bow-tied waiters setting things aflame tableside, and dining rooms dripping with old-NOLA style. Brunch at Brennan's is also sure to be a tasty affair, especially if you opt for the Shrimp Sardou, a generous portion of spicy fried shrimp served over sliced artichoke bottoms and creamed spinach. A blanket of Hollandaise sauce completes the dish. Light as a feather? Not so much. But light isn't the name of the game here. You can diet when you go home.
And now, the #1 Best Thing I Ate in New Orleans, the single dish I have not been able to shut up about, the stuff culinary dreams are made of: Middendorf's Thin Fried Catfish.
The catfish is sliced unfathomably thin, to the point where it is as if you're eating fried fish chips, or fish filet chicharrones (if something like that existed). I know the term "fried to perfection" is cliché and thrown around all too often, but trust me when I say, this is the epitome of the perfect fry. There is not a trace of grease, and the cornmeal-crusted fish is left impossibly light and crispy, so thin they curl up into ribbons of gold.
To complete the blissdom, the dish is served with hush puppies, French fries, and coleslaw. I was able to find out that the catfish is sourced from Biloxi, Mississippi, but the owners of Middendorf's are so protective about the secrets of Grandma Josie's famous thin fried catfish that not even the employees are privy to knowing how they get it so thin.
Middendorf's is about 45 minutes outside New Orleans, but it is well worth the pilgrimage out to Cajun Country. Even getting there is part of the fun, as you drive past swamplands and drive over a highway that is essentially one long bridge, with lakes on either side of you. And of course, there is promise of the best fried fish you'll ever have at the end of your journey.
Here are ways to celebrate Mardi Gras in the Bay Area.