Newcomers and visitors often arrive with the notion that jambalaya is some centerpiece of the New Orleans table and that it should be as prevalent in local restaurants as Tabasco bottles. I certainly did, and was rudely disabused of that notion on my very first meal as a New Orleans resident. I had absolutely no clue about local restaurants, so when I took a stroll to explore the blocks around my temporary Garden District lodgings that first night in town I was excited to find a place called Igor's Garlic Clove and see jambalaya featured prominently on its menu. The Garlic Clove was attached and related to Igor's Lounge & Game Room on St. Charles Avenue and, fortunately, it isn't there anymore, having morphed into several different configurations in the intervening years. I can still recall how wretched and disappointing was that first New Orleans meal of brick-red, brick-dust-dry jambalaya with its burned bits of sausage and choking surfeit of salt.
Needless to say, my relationship with New Orleans food quickly improved from there and has grown into a true love affair. But I still find it surprisingly difficult to get a good bowl of jambalaya. In this week's review of Ignatius Eatery, the jambalaya was my most serious qualm with the kitchen, which otherwise produces some great renditions of local comfort food. Coop's Place sometimes makes a good jambalaya with rabbit, tasso, shrimp and chicken, but it can be maddeningly inconsistent. And there just aren't that many other restaurants where the dish is even listed.
In fact, the best versions I've ever tried have come from people's home stoves or from gigantic vats cooked up at festivals and special event (like the example pictured above, a Cajun-style jambalaya served at Jazz Fest last year). Commenting on a pot of the stuff I made recently for a house party, a friend remarked that it tasted like "parish sheriff reelection fundraiser jambalaya," which I was flattered to accept as high praise. But that doesn't help the visitor who arrives with a hunger for this famous New Orleans dish.
Maybe there is something that makes this an especially difficult dish for restaurants to prepare, but I can't think of a reasonable excuse. If anyone out there has some insight into this or knows of a restaurant around town that makes a consistent, good jambalaya, I'd love to see some comments from you.
- Ian McNulty