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For its character and spice, traditions and diversity, white linen tablecloths and bright purple food trucks, and most of all for the unrivaled gastronomic enthusiasm of its citizens, New Orleans is America’s number one dining city. Aside from its culinary treasures, the Big Easy is also the gateway to Cajun country, which has a personality all its own. A road trip west of the city wanders through the bayous and up into the prairies of Evangeline Parish, where rollicking zydeco music sets the beat and the sweet perfumes of pig roasts and crawfish boils waft through the evening air. No need to dress up or make reservations: The best food hereabouts is country-style, and the memorable eateries are roll-up-your-sleeves casual (not to mention very gently priced). The only problem? Too many good things to eat—enough for four or five road trips.
Any excursion out of New Orleans must begin in the city’s French Quarter, on the open-air patio at Café du Monde ($ 800 Decatur St., New Orleans; 504-525-4544; cafedumonde.com), where café au lait is served with beignets still hot from the deep fryer. Savvy eaters know not to wear dark clothes here; the beignets are served in threes under a snow pile of powdered sugar that wants to scatter everywhere.
Heading west out of New Orleans, Highway 90 makes its way through swamps and marshland dotted with lurking alligators. Two and a half hours away in New Iberia, where sugarcane and tabasco peppers grow, is the modest home-kitchen restaurant Brenda’s Diner ($ 409 W. Pershing St., New Iberia; 337-367-0868). Here the local peppers turn red beans pyrotechnically hot, and Brenda Placide’s fried chicken and pork chops are soul-food paradigms.
A bit north of Brenda’s is the foodie destination Breaux Bridge. This self-proclaimed Crawfish Capital of the World is home to Café des Amis (140 E. Bridge St., Breaux Bridge; 337-332-5273; cafedesamis.com), where the zydeco breakfast on Saturdays sees regulars enjoying crawfish étouffée omelets and andouille cheese grits, then dancing to tunes played on accordions and fiddles. The restaurant’s lunch and dinner menus are a primer in Cajun cooking, offering such classics as crawfish pie, shrimp and okra gumbo, and gâteau de sirop, a spice cake made with cane syrup and roasted pecans. Breaux Bridge is also the site of Champagne’s Breaux Bridge Bakery (105 S. Poydras St., Breaux Bridge; 337-332-1117; champagnesbakery.com), which sells spicy ground-beef pies and elegant French bread; ten minutes east, in Henderson, Robin’s Restaurant (1409 Henderson Hwy., Henderson; 337-228-7594; robincajunfood.com) makes the most of crawdads and peppers, including ice cream flavored with—are you ready?—Tabasco.
If any city can claim to be Louisiana’s Cajun capital, it is Lafayette, home of Prejean’s Restaurant (3480 N.E. Evangeline Thrwy., Lafayette; 337-896-3247; prejeans.com), a bastion of local fare with live Cajun music every night and a 14-foot taxidermied alligator standing guard over the kitchen’s panoply of cooking-contest medals. Lafayette is the heart of boudin country, and the dozens of humble local markets that make this unique pork-and-rice sausage serve it hot and ready to eat—either at home or off the hood of one’s car in the butcher shop parking lot. There is no big-name brand; each source makes and sells its own boudin, and locals’ debates about which is best are more fervent than New Orleanians’ about po’boys and Sazeracs. Earl’s Food Center (510 Verot School Rd., Lafayette; 337-237-5501) is a boudin connoisseur’s favorite, its peppery links packed so tight that the insides fairly burst as soon as their natural casings are breached with a knife. Don’s Specialty Meats (730 I-10 S. Frontage Rd., Scott; 337-234-2528; donsspecialtymeats.com), just west of Lafayette in Scott, is also known for its excellent boudin as well as great daily plate lunches, including the legendary Saturday-only barbecued pork chop sandwich. Many say that the cream of the boudin crop, however, comes from T-Boy’s Slaughterhouse (2228 Pine Point Rd., Ville Platte; 337-468-3333; tboyscs.com), just northwest of the city of Mamou, deep in grazing-cattle country. T-Boy’s boudin is so succulent that it cries out for contrasting crunch. That need is perfectly filled by a brown paper bag full of hot cracklins, pop-in-the-mouth chunks and squiggles of deep-fried skin, fat, and shreds of meat that shatter when you bite into them, then dissolve into a savory pork and pepper wave—the flavor of Cajun Louisiana in bite-sized pieces.
Turning back east from T-Boy’s, a stop at Bourque’s Supermarket (581 Saizan St., Port Barre; 337-585-6261; bourquespecialties.com), in Port Barre, about a mile off Highway 190, offers a different kind of snack. Sure, the butchers here make great boudin, but the bakers make a fantastic jalapeño-sausage cheese bread that comes in a foil cake pan and is a joy to tear into, puff by puff. Bourque’s Supermarket has been making its jalapeño-sausage cheese bread since 1978 and now sells 400-plus loaves a week. Baked until golden and gooey, each loaf is filled with Cajun Chef–brand jalapeños, American cheese, and homemade smoked pork sausage. A half hour beyond Port Barre awaits the esteemed Joe’s Dreyfus Store Restaurant (2731 Maringouin Rd. West, Livonia; 225-637-2625; joesdreyfusstorerestaurant.com). New management has given the old country-store restaurant a crash course in Cajun excellence with a menu listing eggplant stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat, shrimp and crawfish étouffée, fried chicken, and rum-sauced bread pudding. For one last taste of superior boudin (which just cannot be found in New Orleans), there’s Jerry Lee’s Cajun Foods (12181 Greenwell Springs Rd., Baton Rouge; 225-272-0739), whose motto is “If it’s not Jerry Lee’s, it’s not boudin.” The sausage here is mildly spiced, all about the duet of sweet pork and fluffy rice.
Now a big decision must be made: Where to go for dinner? There are three wonderful beacons of southern Louisiana this side of New Orleans. Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant (30160 U.S. Hwy. 51 S., Akers; 985-386-6666; middendorfsrestaurant.com), far from anywhere, attracts folks from hours away for its unique thin-fried catfish, which comes in pieces scarcely thicker than potato chips but manages to remain profoundly juicy. Bozo’s Restaurant (3117 21st St., Metairie; 504-831-8666; bozosrestaurant.com), between the airport and the city, is the sort of plain place most casual passersby wouldn’t even notice. But those who have boned up on regional cooking know that this simple, bare-table tavern is a bonanza of seafood: redfish, trout, barbecued shrimp, hugely hearty gumbo, and fresh oysters either on the half shell or fried up for a magnificent po’boy on fragile French bread. Then there is Mosca’s Restaurant ($ 4137 U.S. Hwy. 90 W., Avondale; 504-436-9942; moscasrestaurant.com), a one-of-a-kind roadhouse with a film noir mise-en-scène. Despite a forlorn exterior and a rough gravel parking lot, the dining rooms are a continuous party, filled with pilgrims who come for the ultimate in Creole-Italian fare. That includes oysters Mosca, a tsunami of garlic, olive oil, Parmesan, and breadcrumbs, all cosseting nuggets of sweet oyster meat; and chicken à la Grande, wine-sautéed pieces of white and dark meat that arrive in a pool of rosemary-perfumed gravy studded with whole garlic cloves. In fact, those who are allergic to garlic should cross Mosca’s off their list.
Time for one more true Louisiana meal? That should be a po’boy back in New Orleans at Parasol’s Restaurant & Bar (2533 Constance St., New Orleans; 504-899-2054; parasols.com), an old Irish Channel bar where regular customers order by stepping up to the kitchen window in back and telling Chef Jeffrey Carreras what they want. The two standouts are roast beef—it’s really more like pot roast, falling into tender, gravy-sopped shreds—and crisp fried oysters, which not only taste great but sound great when they crunch.
No matter what time of day the road trip ends, it can (and should) be topped off with a return visit to Café du Monde. Except for Christmas Day and a couple of hurricanes, it has been open round-the-clock since 1862.
Real Cajun (Clarkson Potter), by New Orleans chef and restaurateur Donald Link, won this year’s James Beard Foundation Book Award for American cooking.