The Big Easy – home of jambalaya, gumbo, pralines, Hurricanes and hurricanes and all other manner of diet destroyers. What’s a poor low carber to do?
My husband and I just returned from a vacation in New Orleans. Because we were only there for five days and would have paid out the wazoo to get our car out of the purdah that is valet parking and put it back again, we pretty much stuck to the French Quarter and environs. However, in many ways our situation represents a worst-case scenario because obviously someone more mobile has a lot more choices in dining and shopping. So if we can low carb successfully under our particular circumstances, anybody can do it.
Disclaimer: My husband and I have a low-carbing-on-vacation policy which we call “vacation reasonable.” What this means is that, for example, although I’ll stick to generally low-carb-friendly salad dressings like bleu cheese or caesar, I don’t ask how many carbs the dressing has. I may drink a diet Coke even though it’s sweetened with aspartame. We don’t have a specified number of net carbs to consume per day. The hubby and I allow ourselves a specified number of off-plan meals within particular restrictions; for example, we’ll take starch cheats (never ever pasta, but that's another story!), but never sugar. We limit ourselves to the off-plan meals (if any) that we’ve planned in advance. For instance, on this trip, we both wanted some jambalaya and some gumbo; Paul wanted red beans and rice, and I wanted fried crawfish tails. Those were our planned off-plan meals. (The gumbo actually ended up not being a cheat at all, but more on that later.)
At any rate, our goal on vacations is to stay reasonably on plan but NEVER feel deprived. To us the second part of that sentence is every bit as important as the first, because both of us are very susceptible to falling off the wagon if we start having dinner plate envy. Regardless of how paranoid you plan to be on your own trip to the Big Easy, however, there should be something useful for you in the information to follow.
Breakfast – Or, The Eggs That Ate New Orleans
There’s no doubt about it. Eggs have taken over New Orleans. I swear, it’s true. Since we were in the Big Easy about five years ago, suddenly everybody has eggs everywhere. And they ain’t just for breakfast, sugar. You can’t walk a single block in the Quarter without encountering at least one specials board proudly proclaiming “Omelets served all day.” There are also a stunning number of poached-egg dishes (if you like poached eggs; I don’t) that seem to be ubiquitous. (If you don’t like poached eggs, you can order one of those yummy dishes anyway, risking the raised eyebrow by requesting your egg fried or scrambled instead.) Nevertheless, I’ll give you just a few fantastic breakfast spots.
The Ruby Slipper. This cafe is just outside the quarter, just off of Canal Street at Magazine and Common Street. All their breakfasts look luscious, but do not miss their Three Little Pigs omelet, with applewood smoked bacon, ham, andouille sausage, swiss cheese, and any of a number of veggies you may want to add. The thing is monstrously big. You can walk and shop all day on this puppy. http://www.therubyslippercafe.net/
Jimmy J’s Cafe. This small, ultra-friendly cafe is more than worth the walk to 115 Chartres Street and the somewhat slow but devoted and attentive service (to be fair, it's not their fault that they're slow. The cafe is tiny, they have only one cook and a couple waitresses, and they're popular). I had the seafood and spinach omelet. My husband had the italian sausage omelet. Both were incredible. www.jimmyjscafe.com.
Camellia Grill. This is, yes, a diner! And what a wonderful diner. Right in the middle of the Quarter at 540 Chartres Street, it’s open at all hours. Bring a big appetite because their omelets are hearty and ginormous. The Mexican omelet was meaty, cheesy, spicy omelet-y goodness at its best.
But don’t stop there. There are omelets everywhere. Shrimp creole omelets. Crawfish etouffee omelets. In the French Market, Alberto’s Cheese offers four-cheese omelets made with gourmet cheeses.
But before we leave breakfast, let’s touch briefly on brunch and the ultimate low-carb brunch indulgence in the French Quarter:
The Court of Two Sisters. This place is the ultimate. You must go at least once to their infamous Jazz Brunch. Served seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., this will be your one meal of the day. Guaranteed. Make a reservation, because the best seating near the live jazz band is reservation only. It’s served buffet style, but don’t let that fool you, because they keep the food fresh and refilled faultlessly. There are plenty of carby temptations here, but there are so many wonderful low carb offerings that you’ll have no trouble staying on plan. Their chicken salad is supernaturally delicious. Pig out on cold boiled shrimp with remoulade sauce. There are plenty of other low carb choices on the cold/salad buffet line. Their omelet station turns out numerous omelets (the seafood orleans is heavenly) and Eggs Benedict (just slide the whole thing, ham on the bottom, off of the slice of french bread and eat it up – I don’t like poached eggs, but this was good). There was sliced-to-order prime rib on the hot buffet line, braised veal (generally served as “grillades and grits,” but there’s no rule saying you have to take the grits!), chicken, eggs, sausage, bacon, you name it. But let me point you to one magical offering on the hot buffet: The infamous Gumbo Ya-Ya (also known as chicken and sausage gumbo). This is smoky, spicy, long-simmered, delicious, not thickened, and, glory! The rice is served separately so you can have low carb gumbo! Tank up on your gumbo here, because it’s all you can eat and you’ll look long and hard to find better!
Lunches and Dinners
The hardest thing to do in the Big Easy is find a light meal. I think it’s against their religion. You may well end up eating two big meals instead of three smaller ones. That, or carrying a lot of leftovers around with you. But whatever you do, you’re going to enjoy it.
Po-Boys and Muffulettas. These infamous sandwiches can be enjoyed one of two ways. One easy technique is to bring low carb bread or, even better, Joseph’s Middle East pitas (www.netrition.com) with you. Purchase your sandwiches and transfer the contents to your pitas for a sloppy good time meal, although some juice and “debris” will necessarily be lost in the transfer. If you don’t want to do a sandwich transplant, however, there’s another option. I saw several restaurants offering muffuletta salads! However, you can always do it yourself. Order your sandwich, order your salad, combine them. The best Po-Boy/Muffuletta spot we’ve found is Johnny’s PoBoys (www.johnnyspoboys.com). It’s crowded, fair warning. Plan to wait in line and probably carry out because it's very popular, seating is very limited, and because of the lines and crowds running through the place, you wouldn't want to sit there anyway.
Go green – salads. Trust me, you will not be "settling." You will never taste such wonderful salads as you can get in New Orleans. At Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, I had the most amazing seafood salad, with boiled shrimp and a ton of fresh-picked crabmeat on top of the tenderest, spicy baby greens. Tossed with remoulade, it was incredible. Or try Oceana Grill and do not miss their caesar salad with blackened shrimp.
I don’t know whether this counts as a salad or not, but at the Napoleon House I tried what sounded like an unlikely combination: Shrimp remoulade served over two avocado halves. It was unbelievably good and sinfully rich.
Just the Seafood, Ma’am! If you like oysters, boiled shrimp and/or crawfish, you’re in the right place. Numerous establishments offer boiled crawfish (break off the tails, pinch out the nugget of meat, dip it in cocktail sauce or remoulade and eat, and then make like a local and suck da haid! And no, that is not an off-color comment!) and even more offer oysters on the half shell, char-grilled, etc., etc., etc. You can sit down and eat literally pounds of raw or boiled seafood and nobody will blink an eye at you. Although they might cheer you on. Bootleggers generally has good prices on boiled crawfish, and I’d send you back to Felix’s Restaurant for oysters – you can slurp down several dozen in the time it takes the line to move across the street at the more famous Acme Oyster Bar.
Blackened, not stirred. Whether or not you eat blackened redfish, New Orleans is brimming with wonderful fresh fish prepared in a variety of manners. If you like spicy, by all means have blackened. If you like it tamer, try meuniere. But you can’t swing a stick without hitting some wonderful blackened, grilled or baked fish dish. Shrimp and crawfish tails are also incredible. Hit busy restaurants at off times so they have the time to accommodate special requests and substitutions. Redfish Grill on Bourbon Street is one of our favorites.
Snacks and Nibbles
You’ll have no trouble finding the usual low-carb snacking fallbacks, such as jerky, nuts and pork rinds. You can often find them coated with fiery cajun seasonings. Yum!
Woman Eating Gator! Two snacks you need to track down and enjoy are alligator-on-a-stick and blackened gator bites. The two are entirely different. Gator-on-a-stick is the body meat of the alligator. It’s rich, slightly tough and rather beefy and good. Gator bites, served either fried (not low carb friendly!) or blackened, are bite sized pieces of the tender, white, juicy tail meat. Both are delicious and eminently low carb. You’ll also find gator sausage readily available.
Alberto’s Cheese. Located in the beautiful French Market, they offer omelets, salads, and, glory! Cheese plates. Order a cheese plate, grab a table and people watch. I saw cheese plates available in other restaurants, including the Napoleon House, as well.
Lagniappe, in N’Awlins parlance, means “a little something extra” – a little bonus thrown in. And here’s some from me.
Nature’s Cupboard. In the French Market, stop at this booth for a snowball. They always have at least a couple sugar free flavors, and you won’t believe how wonderful this is on a hot day.
World Famous N’Awlins Cafe and Spice Emporium. Also in the French Market. Hot sauces, spice mixes, coffee, spicy nuts, gator sausage sticks for handy snacking.
Kitchen Witch Cookbooks, 631 Toulouse Street. Come to browse the enormous stock of new and used cookbooks, pet the two shop dogs, listen to the proprietors’ Hurricane Katrina story, but don’t leave without one of their homemade spice blends or their handmade vanilla extract (bottled in large-sized ex-Crystal Hot Sauce bottles). http://www.kwcookbooks.com/
The Spice & Tea Exchange, 521 St. Louis Avenue. Nothing but spices, spice blends, specialty salts, and a head spinning array of delicious teas. Go! http://www.kwcookbooks.com/
Okay, now for that off-plan meal.
One choice. Just one.
Coop’s Place. This little bar/restaurant near the far end of the French Market is the ultimate neighborhood dive, and it looks like it. The bartender will be snarky and rude. Relax, laugh and enjoy it, it’s part of the fun. Be sure to read the blackboard and the specials, but order the Jambalaya Supreme. There are two reasons why you should take your off-plan meal here and order this particular dish. One: You’ll never find better jambalaya. And two: It’s so brimming with boneless rabbit, chicken, andouille sausage, tasso (spicy seasoned ham) and shrimp that there’s a much smaller proportion of rice. You won’t miss it. Trust me. http://www.coopsplace.net/
Pitfalls, Pratfalls and Downfalls.
Beware of Bourbon Street and all those sugary specialty drinks. Just don’t do it. Even at best, hard liquor is a low carber’s downfall.
Beware the Brew. In New Orleans they make delicious, lovingly brewed iced tea. Just be sure to taste a small sip when you get it. Although I specified unsweetened tea, I was inadvertently brought sweet tea once. I took a big old swig before I realized.
Beware the Beignets. Everybody goes to Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait, but you might do better getting your cafe elsewhere because it’s hard to sit there and watch all those beignets go by. Here’s a tip: If you absolutely cannot resist the siren song of the beignets, ask for them plain, without the powdered sugar topping. Trust me on this. Break off a bit and dunk it in your cafe au lait. The plain beignet is so rich and lush that you won’t miss the sugar, and a bite or two will do you fine. I fell for this one, but thankfully we noticed someone else ordering the plain beignets, so we spared ourselves the sugar damage.
Pass on the Pralines. Just make a wide detour around those sugar patties. My husband, meaning well, pointed out Aunt Sally’s Sugar Free Praline Pecans. They were, literally, rather spongy and under-roasted pecans covered in a thick layer of pure white granulated maltitol. Ewwwww. Ate one piece and threw away the rest of the $10 5-ounce box. Skip it. Nothing in those sweetshops – just walk on by. Go have a snowball in the French Market.
If you do stumble, take some comfort in the knowledge that you're doing a lot of walking in the French Quarter. Even if you avail yourself of the riverfront trolley, chances are you're walking literally miles in one day.
And one last serious reminder . . . water, water everywhere!
Carry water with you and keep that bottle full. New Orleans is hot and steamy and you will sweat and sweat and sweat. Drink a lot of water. If you must (Louisiana tapwater is not yummy), flavor it with those handy little Mio water flavoring bottles. But drink it, and remember that alcohol and caffeinated drinks -- even iced tea -- will dehydrate you even faster. And keep an eye out for bathrooms, because public facilities are few and far between. As Napoleon said, go while you can, when you can, and keep that water coming!