Heading to Essence Fest? Don’t eat that restaurant gumbo. Do. Not.
Don't get caught in the tourist traps set for Essence Fest. Skip the French Quarter. Stay off St. Charles Avenue. Find the food that makes you not want to floss, so you can keep that taste in your mouth. Just kidding—please floss.
The following opinions are of a writer who makes good food, eats good food, and was reared up in New Orleans—not a food critic. She just doesn’t want y’all Essence Fest attendees to waste good money on bad food.
So no one questions my roots or culinary recommendations, let’s get my pedigree out of the way:
I entered this world in Flint- Goodridge. If you know, you know. So short of being born in that now defunct dusty grey, dilapidated, towering death trap on the corner of Tulane Avenue and LaSalle, (and that description was as accurate when the hospital was open, as it is now) you can’t get more New Orleanian Black, and I said what I said. I grew up in Algiers—not the white part close to the ferry with the colorfully painted gingerbread houses and high rent, or the Black part by Teche Street under the GNO (brand new people call the bridge the Crescent City Connection…eyeroll!) and close to All Saints—but the part down the street from Todd Shipyard with no sidewalks, open ditches and two miles from the Cut Off, the Black one that’s home to Second Baptist, not the one in Lafourche Parish.
I know the difference between Back a’ town and Gert Town, went to Benjamin Franklin High School when it was in the unheated, leaning-to-the left, warped-floor courthouse at the bend of the Mississippi and not on Lake Pontchartrain. And till I was 11, all of my birthday cakes came from Gambino’s. That’s settled, so let’s get it, Essence Fest attendees.
As the tourists flock to New Orleans this weekend for the Essence Festival of Music and Culture (also known as Essence Fest), they might feel inclined to consult Zagat’s, Yelp, Frommers, or (*gulp*) whatever Google serves up when you type “best po’ boy in New Orleans” or “best New Orleans restaurants” to find good food.
One word: Don’t. M’kay, two words: Just. Don’t. Natives know where the good food is—and shocks of all shocks, it is NOT in the French Quarter. Periodt. The Quarter is where people like Emeril Lagasse and others who aren’t even from there set up shop, let your food get black and call it “Cajun.” Other hint: don’t eat food at a restaurant that sells “Cajun food.” Natives don’t say that the same way they don’t say “NOLA.” Seriously? NOLA?
Essence Fest attendees, here’re five things all natives know if you want to eat good when in New Orleans:
First, don’t buy po’ boys in restaurants, and do not waste time standing in line at Mother’s (psst—, tourist trap) The best po’ boys come from the corner store, or “cawnuh stow” (again, if you know, you know) or the gas station. My faves were always the Shell station on Franklin Avenue in Gretna or Brother’s Exxon on Behrman Highway, where you can get a 12-inch shrimp, dressed (that means lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise), large fries and drink, for $7, probably $10 now.
In a restaurant, it won’t be as good and will cost you three times as much. I haven’t been home since pre-pandemic, but this will help. Ask anybody waiting at the bus stop where to get a po’ boy, and they will not steer you wrong. They also won’t steer you to Mother’s. If you think you’re ready, get a Patton’s hot sausage po’ boy.
Second, get chicken wings from Manchu Food Store. I’m telling you now, it looks dodgy as (you know the word I won’t say here), but hungry Essence Fest-ers will thank me. Many. Times. It’s underneath the Claiborne Avenue bridge (or overpass if you’re siditty). Some chicken bones will be littering the parking lot and depending on the time of the year, maybe some crawfish heads, too. Just look past all of that, and enter the store with the bulletproof glass to get the wings that will give you life. The floor will look like it hasn’t been mopped since Moses parted the sea. There are four flavors of Thunderbird in the cooler, right next to the Mad Dog and blue juice. You know the little jug juice that still costs 50 cents? That blue juice. But you can get 75 thank-the-Lord good wings for about $45.
PSA: Don’t look for the health food score. I always felt like if I did, I might leave. So I haven’t. But I’ve never gotten sick! Final tip: do not, I repeat, do not close the foil corner covering the pan of chicken wings. If you do, the Vietnamese man who hands the package to you will smack your hand and yell, “No! Make chicken wet!” I’ve only been hit once—okay, twice. Because I forgot about that first time.
Third, if you want catfish, Barrow’s is the ONLY place to go. ONLY. Unlike Manchu, it’s for us and by us. Do not tarry. Go! Years ago, “Cap” and his family only sold catfish and potato salad. The menu had two items on it. They’ve branched out. It’s still all good. You want the catfish. Trust and believe. You want the catfish.
Next, put on comfortable shoes and prepare to stand in a long line, and get thee to Neyow’s on Bienville Street. It is not in the French Quarter, and it describes itself as a “Creole Cafe.” Remember, no French Quarter, no Cajun. I don’t eat oysters because to me, they look like phlegm, and I can’t get past that. But the people who do eat oysters swear they are amazing.
I love the “breaded pork chops.” The menu says “breaded” to help the people who are not from there. Natives know it’s a “paneed pork chop.” And maybe if you say “paneed,” you might get lagniappe. Pay attention now. It’s “PAH-naid”—naid, like laid, as in laid edges. Pronounce it correctly so you can secure the lagniappe bag. Try it. Order the “Pasta on the Bayou.” If you just can’t help yourself, get a po’ boy. It’s less than $15. I am philosophically opposed to paying that much for a po’ boy when you can’t go wrong at the gas station.
Sadly, the absolute BEST beignets are gone, Essence Fest-ers. They were at Morning Call in Metairie. All of us knew not to get beignets in the Quarter. Since you don’t know what the good stuff is, you might be impressed with the clumps of dough in the French Market or worse yet, Café Du Monde. If you’ve never had perfection, “‘meh” is delicious. I mean, it is true that you can’t miss what you never had, right? If you think you need a beignet, I have a colleague who has eaten the French Market beignets, but I mean, this Flint-Goodridge baby would nev-uh. Nev-uh! (Editor’s note: It’s me—and having had a great aunt who taught cooking at the University of Louisiana, I vouch for the French Market’s offerings as superior than Café Du Monde—on a relative scale, so no shade. Also, the grilled oysters there were legit.)
Final tip: don’t bother eating gumbo anywhere other than somebody’s great auntie’s play cousin’s house. Restaurants can’t afford to reproduce what you can get at Carla an ‘nems. It takes me 10 hours and close to $600, pre-inflation, to make the Christmas gumbo for my family of 18 to 22. I made a small pot for my son’s a capella buddies in April—a small pot. Spent $350. Restaurants are not doing that, nor are they including my secret ingredient that makes it feel like velvet on your tongue. No New Orleanian eats gumbo in a restaurant. None. Of. Us. That’s just a mouthful of disappointment. You’re better served by trying to make friends with somebody from New Orleans, and then in three to five years, after we sort of trust you (we’re an insular group), we might invite you to our house or to accompany us on a trip home. And that’s when we will give you the good stuff.
In the meantime, enjoy Essence Fest!
Christy Oglesby is the Managing Editor for Original Content at theGrio. She’s spent years as an enterprise, beat and investigative reporter in New Orleans at The Times-Picayune and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before becoming a newsroom manager and audience growth manager for CNN Digital and Cox Media Group. She joined theGrio in January 2022.
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