“In America, there might be better gastronomic destinations than New Orleans, but there is no place more uniquely wonderful. … With the best restaurants in New York, you’ll find something similar to it in Paris or Copenhagen or Chicago. But there is no place like New Orleans. So it’s a must-see city because there’s no explaining it, no describing it. You can’t compare it to anything. So, far and away New Orleans.”
— Anthony Bourdain, in a CNN interview
New Orleans is home to a rich and varied culinary scene, which is by no means limited to such iconic staples as beignets, gumbo, crawfish etouffee and jambalaya. There’s way more to eat than what Zatarain’s offers. Culinary tours are definitely a thing, and it would take far more than a weekend to fully appreciate the local food. However, after a Saturday spent wandering through several of the city’s famous districts, including the French Quarter, Central Business District, the Arts (Warehouse) District, and a streetcar ride down Saint Charles, I was looking for some legit gumbo.
If you ask Google Maps for gumbo in New Orleans, Gumbo Shop is at the top of the list. It rates 4.3 stars, and two dollar signs. Located on St. Peter Street, right in the French Quarter, it was a fairly easy walk from my hotel. At least, it would have been an easy walk, it if didn’t involve crossing Bourbon Street, which at around 7 or so p.m., was already choked with
On my way to Gumbo Shop, I passed a gentleman with a menu, who was inviting folks into Old Coffee Pot. They hadn’t come up in my search results for gumbo, so I continued on. Alas! The line just to be seated at Gumbo Shop was too long for my empty stomach to handle. “Stupid,” was my adjective of choice. Back to Old Coffee Pot, then.
“You’re back,” noted the gentleman at the door. He led me into a quaint cafe with whitewashed interior clapboard walls, and a large American flag displayed opposite the bar. I was very happy to sit at a quiet little table close to the bar, directly under the coffee menu. Leave it to me to find coffee, while looking for dinner. Happily, Old Coffee Pot had both.
Café au lait, with chicory in the coffee, has to be the most well-known coffee drink in New Orleans. My café au lait at Old Coffee Pot didn’t include chicory. Regardless, I liked it. The roast was smooth and pleasant, with perhaps a bit of nuttiness. Why coffee, and not beer? Exhaustion. I wanted to explore more, and beer would have tempted me to go to bed early, instead.
Though he was fairly careful not to try to guide my tastes, the waiter seemed to consider the chicken and sausage gumbo a better choice than the seafood. It arrived in a large bowl, accompanied by a large serving of garlic buttered French bread.
For the record, a mild-tasting café au lait is a decent pairing for chicken and sausage gumbo. The gumbo was well stewed, all the flavors melding into a robust and only moderately spicy meal that was quite welcome, after navigating the French Quarter crowds. The bread was good, too.
My quiet haven didn’t stay that way for long. A birthday party was in progress in the back room, and soon a large family came in and took up the central tables in the modest dining room. As they were quite near me, I had the pleasure of hearing the younger waiter explain about Lent, and the origins of Mardi Gras as Fat Tuesday, a big festival (and, one might say, celebration of excess) right before Lent. It surprised me that the family weren’t already familiar with the tradition, since there are similar festivals in other parts of the world (Carnaval do Brazil being one of the most famous), but I also had no idea where they were visiting from. Regardless, it’s usually interesting to hear people who live in a place explain its traditions and festivals.
Old Coffee Pot may not top the list of places to eat gumbo in New Orleans, but their chicken and sausage version is a melange of Cajun spices and thick, savory goodness. Is it better than other examples to be found in the area? Hard to say. I’ll have to let you know, the next time I visit NOLA.