2014 brought innovations in tacos and tiki, as well as more raw, gluten-free and vegetarian options for New Orleans diners. Will 2015 be the year of next-generation Chinese food?
In New Orleans' culinary yearbook, 2014 will likely go down as the year of the taco — but not the crispy-shelled, drive-thru variety. While authentic Latin cuisine has long been an underground staple across the city, this year bolder Latin American flavors began to bubble up to the mainstream with a slew of tortilla-enthusiast openings. Grabbing the torch from 2013's swarm of new Vietnamese joints, each fresh space attempted to carve out a niche in a suddenly competitive market. The diverse landscape took many forms — from pomegranate seed-speckled guacamole at Del Fuego to insect-topped salads at Johnny Sanchez.
Vegan dining options (including health-conscious cold press juice shops) continue to expand at an admirable clip, particularly with the arrival of Seed early this year in the Lower Garden District. The menu not only makes the case for omnivores to occasionally go animal product-free, but offers a striking number of raw options. The expansion of dining that's sensitive to all dietary preferences shows no sign of slowing, with the city's first gluten-free ice cream shop, Ice Cream 504, opening this autumn and a healthy number of vegan and vegetarian-friendly pop-ups providing interesting and unexpected options around town.
This year, New Orleans also found its way squarely onto the national tiki drinks map, with a venerable "tiki main street" developing along Decatur. Anchored on one end by Tiki Tolteca and the other by Cane & Table, the trifecta was completed last month by the much-anticipated arrival of tiki mastermind Jeff "Beachbum" Berry's Latitude 29. While we've likely reached our quota of dedicated tiki bars, mai tais and Fogcutters are sure to become more widespread on menus across the city in the coming months.
With more than 40 reviews under my belt this year (and my fair share of tiki drinks), there were a few standouts from the class of 2014 — notable for their creativity, attention to detail and across-the-board commitment to crafting memorable dishes.
Ladies and gentlemen, this year's superlatives.
If your idea of a romantic date night is a little bit Casablanca, a little bit rock 'n' roll and might involve drinking through a marrow bone, then Meauxbar should be your destination. This French-inspired bistro is playful enough for a first date, but sultry enough to be the perfect environs for staring longingly into the eyes of your beau.
Almost every element of Pagoda Cafe is whimsical, down to the very shape of the building, and the mood so consistently jovial that it inspires an "I'll have what they're having" sort of attitude. On most days, Pagoda feels like the best backyard party you've ever attended, with one-of-a-kind dishes (try the Indian banh mi) and coffee concoctions that leave diners with satisfied, goofy grins.
Carrollton Market feels downright regal in its presentation and dining room demeanor. Various plays on oxtail — from a lush terrine to a lighter, sweet-savory gnocchi — and caper-butter-doused sweetbreads highlight the culinary chops of Chef Jason Goodenough, whose brainy, classically-inspired dishes are on full display.
Old Arabi Eats
The hidden gem of St. Bernard Parish, Old Arabi Eats offers warm, welcoming cuisine that's equal parts accessible and learned. Whether feasting on a behemoth pork chop while listening to Billie Holiday or snowy, flaky pan-seared sheepshead to the sound of The Replacements, it's difficult not to feel welcome here.
Tie — Doris Metropolitan and Kebab
Artistry comes in many forms, and the tie between Doris Metropolitan and Kebab for this creative superlative illustrates both sides of the coin. The dishes at Doris Metropolitan — the French Quarter's premier new wave steakhouse—arrive like intricately arranged modernist creations, with each plate a Joan Miro tuna or a Georgia O'Keeffe beet. St. Claude Avenue doner hotspot Kebab veers in a more literal direction, combining some of the city's finest budget dining with a rotating curated art collection that spotlights local artists.
Most Likely to Succeed
Ox Lot 9
Ox Lot 9 is poised to launch a Northshore dining explosion, with its unmatched combination of rustic fare (strap on a bib for the frog legs) and sophisticated surroundings.
So what's next for 2015? The swell of innovative Latin restaurants seems to be dying down just as next-generation Chinese food picks up the slack. The arrival of small plates shop Bao & Noodle and the trippy, Mission Chinese-inspired newcomer Red's Chinese plants a flag for the St. Claude corridor as fertile soil to experiment with the likes of ginger milk custard and pig ear terrine.