Thinking of a trip to Louisiana? Make sure you pack your big boy pants with the stretchy waist. For years New Orleans has had haute cuisine cornered, but the state’s lesser known nooks and crannies are also teaming with must-try treats.
Tucked into the northwest corner of Louisiana, Shreveport produces 90 per cent of the nation’s crawfish. The freshwater crustaceans are celebrated every May at the Mudbug Festival and just about any restaurant in town serves them (resident aficionados eat around four pounds a sitting). Crawdaddy’s Kitchen and Crawfish Tyme are two of the best places to dive into a mound of the spicy, boiled crawlers.
The city’s connection to grub is famous. Bonnie and Clyde almost met their end in a Shreveport diner. Elvis got hooked on local Southern Maid Donuts between appearances on the Louisiana Hayride show at the Municipal Auditorium. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Papa Fertitta’s has been gratifying gargantuan appetites for 50 years. The Blue Goose District Italian grocery-turned-lunch spot is best known for its Muffuletta sandwiches. Not to be confused with the Muffuletta invented in New Orleans, this one is trademarked “Muffy.” What is a muffy? A big round pillow of Italian bread that is sliced in half and filled with provolone, mortadella, mozzarella and olive salad. They also serve roast beef and turkey versions. Agatha Fertitta McCall and her husband Robert run the homey shop that has changed only slightly since it was opened by Agatha’s dad, Sam. Living upstairs for her whole life, Agatha cheerfully remembers, “Some ladies used to like to have a beer with their sandwich. My mom always gave them teacups so their church friends wouldn’t know what they were drinking.”
Across town, Strawn’s Eat Shop is a favorite blue-collar lunch spot for BLTs and plate specials. You’ll know you’re there when you see the sign, a giant hand drawn strawberry pie. Heaping mounds of chicken fried steak, scalloped potatoes, pinto beans, mustard greens and cornbread can be had for a mere $7.25. The savory, spiced chicken sticks to your ribs (and lots of other places), the cornbread melts in your mouth and the rich, creamy potatoes deliver enough calories to power a line backer. Strawberry icebox pie, big as a UFO and topped with real whipped cream, will set you back $3.50 a slice.
At the other end of the spectrum is posh Ernest’s Orleans Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, run by the Palmisano family for more than 60 years. This Shreveport institution is famous for its marinated crab claws and filet of red snapper slathered with crabmeat. Old school in every way, the red-velvet-lined eatery is also known for tableside flambé and to-die-for gumbo, served in a bowl surrounded by blue flames. Frank Sinatra would definitely approve.
Drive an hour south and you’re in Natchitoches, La., pop. 18,000. Don’t even try pronouncing it until one of the natives tells you how. “Nack-a-tish,” where Steel Magnolias was shot, is chock-a-block with picture-pretty B&Bs (around 40 at the last count) and mouth-watering fare. At Antoon’s Riverfront Restaurant the signature appetizer platter is Lagniappe, a Creole term meaning “a little something extra.” Fried green tomatoes, mini meat pies, fried catfish fingers and fried crawfish tails leave little room for much else. A few streets over, Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant is a magnet for visiting celebs such as Daryl Hannah, who popped in during the filming of the magnolia weepy. Butcher James Lasyone, who used to supply the filling for plantation workers’ meat pie lunches, opened the storied spot in 1967. Originally a Masonic hall, the restaurant is now run by Lasyone’s two daughters, Angela and Tina. Forget counting calories here. The steaming pockets of flaky pastry stuffed with a mildly spiced pork/beef mixture or crawfish étouffe are addictive. Wildly popular with townsfolk, there are usually lineups on weekends. “The recipes are as secret as Coca-Cola’s,” says Angela, who sells around 100 of the mouth water morsels a day, including take-out.
At Carriageway Deli, on Natchitoches’ main drag, free samples draw locals and visitors like flies to honey. Owner Tim Brogen hovers over a stack of what looks to be pastry strips. He takes a pair of tongs and starts selecting some of the chunks. “These are gooeys, they still have the grease on ‘em. These little nuggets are called clinkers and the big long ones are called twistees,” he explains. More universally known as crackling or pork rinds, they cost $5 for ½ pound. “People eat ‘em like jerky,” says Brogen. The fried pork bellies taste just like bacon. A few mouthfuls send you into hog heaven and cardiac arrest.
Drive south towards Lafayette for another hidden gem. Café Des Amis, in Beau Bridge, La., used to be a casket factory with the first elevator in town. The contraption’s hand crank mechanism now serves as a hostess stand, where friendly Cajun staff welcomes hungry diners. Owner Dickie Breaux, a bayou boy, state politician and fierce preservationist has worked hard to help protect downtown’s architectural treasures. His menu is pretty flavorful as well. Dinner mains include crawfish pie, catfish, steak and pasta. The shrimp kidder appetizer for $10 is a meal in itself. Crispy fried shrimp is tossed in honey aioli, sprinkled with hot-spiced pecans and served over lettuce. A decidedly delicious way to get your greens.
Now that’s how fried oysters oughta taste, …
Head east to the Northshore of Lake Ponchatrain in Mandeville, La., for fried oysters at Louie and the Redhead Lady’s. The comfy roadside diner belongs to Louie Finnan, a gregarious chef who came to the Northshore from New Orleans with his late mother, the original redheaded lady. These days people get a little mixed up since Louie’s wife Ginger has hair to match her name and runs a jewelry boutique in the restaurant. Order the oysters and they come piping hot, crispy on the outside, delicate and sweet on the inside. Finnan, who likes to chat with his customers, pops one in his mouth. “Now that’s how fried oysters oughta taste,” he says with a wide grin.
Abita Brewery, superstar chef Emeril Lagasse’s favorite, makes frosty beverages perfect for washing down platters of homegrown grub. Located in the Northshore’s Abita Springs, the brewery offers free tours and tastings. If you miss the tour, nearby Abita Brew Pub offers a sampler of six beers including Turbodog, a toasty dark brown ale and Purple Haze, a wheat beer with a dab of raspberry puree — for fans, there are T-shirts to match.
For an upmarket experience on the Northshore, head to La Provence, one of local celebrity chef John Besh’s establishments. Uber chef de cuisine Erick Loos IV helms the kitchen, producing plates that are awash in Café de Paris butter and feature succulent, home-grown ingredients. Check out the back yard where resident black pigs are fattened up. Another sensational spot in nearby Covington, La., is LOLA, where husband-and-wife team Keith and Nealy Crawford-Frentz work magic from a converted train caboose. The couple met when working at Brennan’s in New Orleans, but when Katrina swept away their jobs, they decided to open their own operation. The menu features classy comfort food, including shrimp and grits, risotto du jour and veal lasagna. “Our food is homey and the location is casual and upbeat. It just happens to be an old train depot,” explains Keith.