Looking to Eat in Louisiana: The State’s Most-Iconic Foods

Find the best versions of the state's iconic gumbo, beignets, jambalaya and more.

Photo By: Danielle Adams ©Danielle Adams

Photo By: Lisa Kyle Young ©Lisa Kyle Young

Beignets and Beyond

Nobody visits Louisiana on any sort of diet — unless it’s a po’ boy diet or a beignet diet, or really an anything-fried diet. This is a state that knows no boundaries when it comes to rich, deep-fried flavors. Whether you’re driving through Cajun country hankering for some roadside cracklins or spending a Friday afternoon at a neighborhood fish fry, these are the fried delights on the must-eat-while-in-Louisiana list (along with some non-fried local specialties, too). 

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Jambalaya

Noticing a theme of rice-and-meat combos here? Yep, Louisiana loves its rice-and-meat combos. Jambalaya is like a Cajun paella, with roots going back to when the Spaniards were in control of New Orleans in the late 1700s. Jambalaya was the Spaniards’ attempt at making paella, but since saffron wasn’t readily available, tomatoes became a cheap, flavorful substitute. The best version is made at home (in mass amounts, it loses something) but you can also find it all over the French Quarter, including a reliable version at Mother’s Restaurant

Photo courtesy of John Amato

Go to: Mother's Restaurant

Beignets

Pillowy fried dough coated in a blanket of powdered sugar: Is there anything to argue with here? Nope. Café du Monde sets the global standard for puffy, hot-out-of-the-fryer beignets. Open 24 hours a day, the French Quarter cafe serves beignets around the clock to satisfy cravings whenever they strike. You’re probably not going to leave without a powdered-sugar mustache — and let’s be honest, powdered-sugar pants, too. Chicory coffee is practically mandatory for beignet-dipping bliss. 

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Schreiter

Go to: Cafe Du Monde

Ya-Ka-Mein

Commonly served in a Styrofoam cup from a corner store, this Asian-ish-inspired soup comes with a little bit of everything. The salty, rich broth is filled with spaghetti noodles, then beef, sometimes shrimp, sometimes chicken, sometimes pork and always a hard-boiled egg and chopped green onions; it’s really just a mishmash of whatever you have lying around. And boy, is it a solid hangover cure — hence its nickname, Old Sober. Try to find “The Ya-Ka-Mein Lady,” Linda Green, who hawks her famous ya-ka-mein around New Orleans. If you can’t find her, you can always rely on your trusty corner store. 

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Po’ Boy

In other parts of the country, it’s a hoagie or sub; in Louisiana, it’s a po’ boy. This sandwich staple can be found at gas stations, sit-down eateries and really everywhere in between. The feather-light bread is traditionally stuffed with fried seafood like oysters, shrimp or catfish, or meats like gravy-soaked roast beef or hot sausage. For a quintessential po’ boy, head to the historic Parkway Bakery & Tavern, where you can’t go wrong with a fried shrimp po’ boy (or the fried oyster one, available only on Mondays and Wednesdays). 

Photo courtesy of Eric Leath

Go to: Parkway Bakery & Tavern

Crawfish Boil

“They big? They nice?” Come armed with these two most-important questions when calling up your local seafood market during crawfish season (from late January to May). The biggest, nicest crawfish can be found in and around the capital of Cajun country, Lafayette. Some swear by Cajun Claws, while others say Hank's Crawfish is the best. But your best bet is to befriend locals who throw crawfish boils and score an invite to their backyard. The steamy pot of mudbugs gets dumped out on a long, communal table, which is soon swarmed by hungry folk with their koozie-hugged beers, ready to pinch out the tail meat and slurp down the juicy heads. It’s a lot of work for small morsels of meat, but once you hit your rhythm, there’s no better way to spend an afternoon.

Photo courtesy of Erin Zimmer

Muffuletta

Louisiana is a sandwich-loving state (hello there, po’ boys), and the muffuletta is right up there on the priority list. It’s a deliciously salty, olive-y, meaty sandwich, built on a round sesame seed-studded loaf that soaks up all the oily goodness from the olive salad like a sponge. Central Grocery in New Orleans is a classic Italian market and go-to muffuletta stop that’ll even wrap sandwiches for anyone headed directly to the airport.

Photo courtesy of Goldbelly

Go to: Central Grocery

Blackened Fish

There’s arguably no Louisiana chef more iconic than Paul Prudhomme, and many of the city’s best chefs got their start in his kitchens. Prudhomme brought Cajun cuisine to national prominence, along the way popularizing blackened redfish. It’s the almost-burnt crust, made up of a melange of spices, that makes the redfish so famous. This dish is popular enough that it nearly wiped out the redfish population from the Gulf fisheries map back in the 1980s! You can still find it on the menu at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, the late Prudhomme’s namesake restaurant in the French Quarter, but locals also love the version served at Jacques-Imo’s uptown. 

Photo courtesy of Brenda Prudhomme

Go to: K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen

Doberge Cake

The many-layered doberge (pronounced “dough-bash,”) cake looks so celebratory, it’ll conjure the spirit of a birthday. Traditionally a six- or eight-layered yellow cake with chocolate and lemon pudding between each layer, the whole shebang is usually encased in a fondant shell. The owners of Debbie Does Doberge in New Orleans get creative with their flavor combos at their storefront, Bakery Bar (yes, that would be a place that’s a bar and a bakery at the same time), where they serve a towering rainbow cake and a Key lime riff on doberge. 

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Go to: Debbie Does Doberge

Cracklins

Another Cajun roadside specialty, cracklins, are Louisiana’s version of pork rinds. Fatty pork bits that puff up into something special, these savory morsels provide some crunchy bites, some chewy bites and some melty edges. It’s an altogether beautiful experience, especially when it happens at Don’s Specialty Meats in Scott, La. These are the ultimate road-trip snack. 

Photo courtesy of Bob Carriker

Go to: Don's Specialty Meats

Crawfish Monica

About as important as any band playing Jazz Fest is a bowl of Crawfish Monica, best enjoyed while festin’. Creamy, rich pasta (usually corkscrew rotini) is blended with lump crawfish meat and plenty of butter, heavy cream and spices. It’s kind of like mac and cheese took a wrong turn and ended up in Cajun country. The creators of Crawfish Monica, the folks at Kajun Kettle Foods, have crazy lines each year at Jazz Fest, and unfortunately they aren’t restaurateurs, so they don’t have a location you can visit. Could there be a better excuse to book your Jazz Fest tickets today?

Photo courtesy of Zach Brooks

Cochon de Lait

If you ask anyone in Cajun country, cochon de lait is French for “a pig still sucking on his mama.” (Outsiders know this creature as a suckling pig.) When cooked over a raging wood-fueled fire for hours, this pig becomes juicy, tender pulled pork. Many people have their first cochon de lait experience at Jazz Fest from Walker’s Southern Style BBQ, where the lines never die down. Thankfully, you can go to their smokehouse at any time of year for their Cochon de Lait Po’ Boy (and you should).  

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Go to: Walker's BBQ

Gumbo

Oh, gumbo. Served from a big ol’ pot, it’s the kind of food that warms your heart, your soul and your belly, all at the same time. It starts with a roux, the flavorful base of fat and flour, which gets added to the holy trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery). From there, gumbo can go in many directions, most popularly chicken and sausage or a seafood medley. Around Easter, there’s a special bowl of Gumbo Z'Herbes served at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans, made with bright, verdant greens. The rest of the year, you can’t go wrong with the seafood rendition from Li’l Dizzy’s (also in New Orleans), which makes a regular appearance on the lunch buffet (along with killer fried chicken and mac and cheese).

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Go to: Li'l Dizzy's Cafe

King Cake

During Mardi Gras season, it seems like just about everyone in Louisiana is on a king cake-fueled sugar high at any given moment. You’ll find king cakes at grocery stores, bakeries, gas stations, offices and pretty much any gathering of people. Covered with purple and green sprinkles, the cake is ring-shaped and has a little plastic baby hiding inside. Whoever finds the baby is said to earn good luck and prosperity. Plenty of great versions abound, but the best might be from a Vietnamese bakery out in New Orleans East called Dong Phuong, where it’s available in cinnamon, cream cheese, blueberry and strawberry flavors.   

Go to: Dong Phuong Bakery and Restaurant

Red Beans

The traditional Monday night meal of red (kidney) beans dates back to the 19th century, when the ladies of the house did laundry every Monday while the beans slow-cooked in a pot all day. It’s still a popular Monday night tradition, even if we stopped doing our laundry quite so regularly. The beans are served on a bed of rice and with the almost mandatory bottle of hot sauce. The best place to eat some is right at home, but the Creole Lunch House in Lafayette — open only for lunch — is also worth the trip.

Photo courtesy of John Amato

Pralines

So sweet they can make your teeth hurt, these pecan-studded candies — pronounced “prah-leens” in Louisiana, even if in the rest of the country calls them “pray-leens” — is made with plenty of cream and sugar. Back in the 19th century, pralinières were women who sold them on the streets of the French Quarter, and still to this day in the Quarter, you can’t get very far without finding some pralines for sale. Head to the French Market and look for the Loretta’s Authentic Pralines stall. Hint: They make a sweet souvenir.  

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Go to: Loretta's Authentic Pralines

Fish Fry

Visit Louisiana during Lenten season and you’ll see signs for Friday Fish Fries at local churches around town. Sometimes served with mac and cheese, other times with potato salad (or really whatever the church organizers want to throw on that plate), the thin fish fillets — usually fried catfish — are served every Friday between Mardi Gras and Easter. A notable one is from St. James Major Church in the Gentilly area of New Orleans: "Fish so good that if you put it on your forehead, your tongue will beat your brains out trying to get it!" 

Photo courtesy of Erin Zimmer

Etouffee

Another French word picked up by the Cajuns, étouffée means “smothered,” and it’s the smothering technique that gives this stewlike dish its thick, near-gravy texture. For locals, etouffee is one of those dishes where there’s no definitive recipe. Some folks make it with a dark roux, and others with a lighter roux; some use tomato, and others don’t. Sometimes crawfish is used, and sometimes shrimp is: It all depends on what’s in season. Bon Ton Cafe in New Orleans serves a solid plate of both crawfish and shrimp etouffee, to suit both tastes.

Photo courtesy of John Amato

Go to: Bon Ton Cafe

Snoball

When snoball stands start opening across town, you know it’s a sign that summer is here. But let’s get one thing straight: A snoball isn’t a snow cone. A snoball is made with feathery ice shavings, not rock-hard ice nuggets. You have your choice of umpteen different sugary syrups to squirt on top, including favorites like Satsuma, Wedding Cake and Praline Cream. Hansen’s and Pandora’s are two popular spots in New Orleans, but given the city’s subtropical temperatures, people will visit whatever snoball stand is closest to cool off during the never-ending summers.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Go to: Pandora's Snowballs

Turtle Soup

Is turtle soup made from real turtle meat? Yes sirree (though it’s possible to find mock turtle meat for the squeamish). When the first French settlers came to Louisiana in the late 1700s, they ate just about anything they found flying, swimming or crawling outside. That meant all sorts of seafood, gators and definitely turtle. The turtle soup at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans sets the standard: It’s a dark, rich, thick, stewlike soup that’s both spicy and funky, and is set off perfectly by the drizzle of sherry on top. 

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Go to: Commander's Palace

Grillades

Grillades, pronounced “gree-ahds,” are little medallions of pounded-thin steak smothered in a tomato gravy. Typically served over a bed of grits, grillades are a popular brunch dish, but there are no rules saying you can’t eat them for dinner, too. Though Louisiana natives tend to make them at home, there’s a great version on the brunch menu at Café Adelaide in New Orleans. 

Photo courtesy of Darla Fisackerly

Go to: Café Adelaide

Boudin

When driving through Acadiana (aka Cajun country), you likely won’t be able to miss highway billboards advertising boudin at the next butcher shop or gas station — and you’d be foolish not to pull over. Handed to you still steamy, boudin is made from all those good, unctuous spare pork parts, which get mixed with rice and spices and stuffed into a casing. A local obsession, it’s best tried at Best Stop market in Scott, La. The casing can be thick and chewy, so you’re better off squeezing out the filling. While you’re at Best Stop, be sure to order a boudin ball — its fried-orb cousin — too.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Strenio

Go to: The Best Stop Supermarket

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