photo: Jim Frost/Sun-Times
Few menu items embody the rich melding of cultures in New Orleans quite like red beans and rice.
Every year around this time, I find myself longing for a trip to New Orleans. This wanderlust is likely due to my youthful penchant for packing up the car and carting it down south for a few weeks, but may also owe a debt to humid weather and an incurable craving for some Bayou comfort food. Unable to arrange a vacation, I decided to build my own Creole menu—right here in Chicago. With a wealth of Creole, Cajun and Southern comfort spots to work with, I've built a day's culinary itinerary for faking it like you're on the Mississippi Delta:
Nothing embodies the spirit of the Crescent City like a leisurely breakfast at the French Quarter's Cafe Du Monde. The open-air Decatur Street coffee shop has been doling out cafe au lait since 1862, but it's not just the coffee that keeps this place crammed with tourists, locals and flocks of opportunistic pigeons year-round; it's the beignets. Piping hot and doughy, these French doughnuts come loaded on a plate under a pile of powdered sugar. I've searched high and low in every city I've ever lived in for beignets that can hold their own against Du Monde's, and the closest ones I've found are at Chicago's own Harmony Grill. Close doesn't even begin to describe it; these sugary little puffs are near-ringers for New Orleans' most beloved pastry, and the price is just as sweet: A small order, perfect for two, is only $2.50, while a table-size portion rings in at only $4.25. Served with a raspberry dipping sauce (which isn't quite authentic, but it's still very tasty), these fritters are the perfect start to a long, leisurely brunch at Schubas' resident eatery.
As for that trademark Du Monde cup of joe, head to Uptown's Ba Le Bakery and order up a Vietnamese coffee. Iced or cold, the Argyle-district java is startlingly similar to the French Quarter brew—in the tastiest bout of colonial camaraderie around, Ba Le uses Du Monde's own chicory beans.
If there's anything more iconic down south than that plate full of fried dough, it would have to be the timeless working-man's lunch of po' boy. A baguette of French bread, stuffed with fried seafood and dressed in iceberg lettuce, ripe tomato and a smear of mayo. Boasting a trio of New Orleans' most popular po' boys, Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe in Burbank offers the closest thing Chicagoland has to the real stuff. Catfish, crawfish or shrimp in regular ($5.50-$7.25) or Dixie ($7.95-$9.75) sizes are lunch staples at Chuck's—each served in a chewy baguette with the requisite toppings and roasted red pepper mayo.
On cooler days, the lunch of choice is a steamy bowl of gumbo, a New Orleans mainstay and a menu item that's tough to judge: every chef, grandma and amateur cook has his or her own unique version of the stuff, and there's really no way to properly compare. My favorite is Lagniappe's traditional take, which is available in chicken ($2.75-$4.75) or seafood ($3.50-$6.75). This South Side Cajun joint serves up a slow-cooked roux based in the trinity (green bell peppers, onion and celery) with just the right amount of kick and a depth of flavors that just keeps going.
It certainly wouldn't be New Orleans without Happy Hour—or, in the case of most Bourbon Street locals, "Happy Half-a-day." While frozen hurricanes might satiate Mardi Gras tourists and spring-breakers, nothing says "N'awlins" like a classic, pre-Civil War cocktail. The Sazerac is America's oldest cocktail, and packs some serious bite with cognac, whiskey, absinthe, pastis and a heavy-hand of regional bitters. Big Jones' take on this 19th-century tipple offers a contemporary spin on the official cocktail of New Orleans.
Big Jones' Original Sazerac offers a twist on the classic New Orleans drink.
Two versions are served up at the Andersonville eatery—one with rye whiskey ($9) and another with brandy
($10). The rye take comes with Herbsainte, Peychaud's Bitters and Cane Syrup, while the brandy model offers up a touch of true absinthe.
Happy Hour just wouldn't be Happy Hour without sliding some mollusks down your throat, but instead of opting for the half-shell-on-ice platter, go for the region's most luxurious specialty: oysters Rockefeller. So named because a patron dining at Antoine's (The French Quarter institution that invented the dish) proclaimed the concoction to be "as rich as a Rockefeller," these decadent treats were invented as the southern city's answer to escargots. Nick's Fishmarket's take on the classic app includes smoky Boursin cheese, creamed spinach, bacon and the essential splash of Pernod for only $14.
The geography (undeniably Southern, smack on the Mississippi Delta and possessing one of America's most prominent ports) and history (colonized by the French, ceded to the Spanish Empire and populated by Haitian refugees) of New Orleans are both paid tribute in the city's unique Creole cuisine. Few menu items embody this rich melding of cultures, niches and circumstance quite like the simple classic of red beans and rice. Traditionally made on Mondays with the leftover meat of Sunday dinners, this dish is all about simple flavors mingling into a heartening cornerstone of Creole kitchens. The version served up at the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop (with locations in Evanston and Hyde Park) has all the makings of the regional favorite: an intoxicating roux made with the trinity (bell peppers, onions and celery), aromatic spices and Andouille sausage for a bit more heft ($6.25, $8.49 w/ sausage).
Much like the iconic staple of red beans and rice, etouffee is a staple of bayou life. Similar to gumbo, albeit with a substantially thicker consistency, etouffee's ingredient roster is more rigid than that of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink formula for making gumbo. One of the best bets in Chicagoland is at the Davis Street Fishmarket, whose signature etouffee ($19.99) boasts a complex, earthy roux with just a touch of heat, arrives brimming with shrimp and the requisite crawfish and is crowned with a filet of blackened catfish.