The city's food heritage runs deep and wide, and exploring it is part of the experience of living in New Orleans. There is plenty of great food to taste, even if your budget doesn't allow visits to some of the city's most famous restaurants (save those for when your parents visit and are paying the tab). If you do a little digging, you'll find inexpensive culinary adventures within reach.
Here are some leads to get you started, ranging from bona fide no-strings-attached free dinner to opportunities to sample famous cuisine at upscale Creole restaurants (without your parents) at deeply discounted prices.
You can't get any cheaper than free, and that's the dinner offer from the folks at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (2936 Esplanade Ave., 486-3583; www.iskconneworleans.org). Each Sunday, the temple doles out its prasadam, or "love feast," an outdoor buffet of Indian-style vegetarian dishes. People begin gathering outside the temple's garden around 6:30 p.m., mingling with regulars, backpackers, people in need, and, yes, many college students. There is a bit of music and chanting from Krishna followers, then dinner is served. Donations are accepted but not required.<p>You Better Shop Around
Every Tuesday, the Crescent City Farmers Market (www.crescentcityfarmersmarket.org) brings area farmers together from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 200 Broadway St. just down the road from the campuses of Tulane and Loyola universities. You can always find fresh, inexpensive prepared foods among the market booths. For instance, farmer Maria Isabel Mendez brings loads of hot, cornhusk-wrapped vegetarian tamales, which she sells for $1 each. Two make a fine light meal.
The Tuesday market also features the Green Plate Special, a to-go meal prepared by guest chefs and restaurateurs from around the city. They use lots of market produce in these quick and affordable lunches, which run about $6 to $9 a serving. The Green Plate Special guest for August is Beaucoup Juice (4719 Freret St., 430-5508; www.beaucoupjuice.com), which is serving dishes like cold carrot-ginger soup, chilled Vietnamese noodles and snowballs made with fresh juice. Other weekly editions of the Crescent City Farmers Market are on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon at 600 Magazine St. in the Warehouse District and on Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Mid-City at 3700 Orleans Ave., where the adjacent wine shop Cork & Bottle (3700 Orleans Ave., 483-6314; www.cbwines.com) hosts free wine tastings on market days beginning at 5 p.m.
New Orleans cooks are renowned for their ability to craft memorable meals from modest foodstuffs, and the city's Creole soul traditions of beans, greens and chicken provide prime examples. For family-sized portions of this New Orleans-style soul food, head to Dunbar's Creole Cooking (501 Pine St., 861-5451), which now operates from Loyola University's Broadway Activities Center after its original home was flooded after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Dunbar's serves enormous cups of super-sweet, country-style tea, which students have been using as an energy drink long before Red Bull. It's good to have such stimulation before tackling daily specials of red beans with fried chicken, cabbage with smothered chicken or mustard greens with turkey necks.
Farther downtown in an up-and-coming part of Central City is Cafe Reconcile (1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 568-1157; www.cafereconcile.org), a weekday breakfast and lunch spot that also serves as a second-chance training school. This nonprofit cafe works in conjunction with area hotels to find internships and future employment for its staff once they learn the ropes. None of this will matter, however, when you taste the gumbo served there. Hardly anything on the menu is priced more than $8, including po-boys and daily specials like Thursday's white beans with shrimp. You'll find similarly soulful bargains and educational training missions at the nonprofit cafe Liberty's Kitchen (422 S. Broad St., 822-4011; www.libertyskitchen.org) in Mid-City and Cafe Hope (1101 Barataria Blvd., Marrero, 756-4673; www.cafehope.org) on the West Bank.
All You Care to Eat
There are foodies who turn up their noses at buffets, but all such big-feed opportunities are not created equal, and some are as appealing to the palate as to the wallet. For instance, while dinner entrees are in the $20 range at the colorful, contemporary Creole restaurant Mat & Naddie's (937 Leonidas St., 861-9600; www.matandnaddies.com), the sweet spot for the cost-conscious is the $10 weekday lunch buffet there. It looks like the spread at a wealthy friend's house party as cooks continually fill a sideboard with salads and pastas, grilled vegetables, meats, fish, cheese, quiches and soups. For a buffet with more bite, try the weekday lunch at Boswell's Jamaican Grill (3521 Tulane Ave., 482-6600), where $8.50 buys all the jerk chicken you can handle.
The menu at Joey K's Restaurant (3001 Magazine St., 891-0997; www.joeyksrestaurant.com) is stocked with inexpensive standards from the comfort food tradition, with most blackboard specials less than $10. But the best deal for big eaters has to be the nightly all-you-can-eat fried catfish special for $13.
Po-Boys for Hard Times
The po-boy has grown more ambitious since its purported origins as a portable meal for striking New Orleans streetcar workers, and today it's hard to find one that costs less than the hourly minimum wage.
But they are out there, and if you can handle the less-than-splendid retail environments of some neighborhood meat markets, corner stores and gas stations, you can bring back sandwiches big enough to ration out for a weekend's lunches.
One example is Banks Meat Market (325 S. Broad St., 301-9171), conveniently located near the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse, where whole-loaf po-boys stretching to the absurd length of 32 inches are prepared behind a busy butcher counter stocked with pig tails and stew meat. The roast beef po-boy is $9.99, and hot sausage or hamburger versions are $7.99 — or 25 cents per linear inch.
Even the city's best po-boy shops can offer bargains. The french fry po-boy is a common enough example, but Parkway Bakery & Tavern (538 Hagan St., 482-3047; www.parkwaybakeryandtavernnola.com) brings things to another level with its gravy po-boy, consisting of meaty sauce, condiments and nothing more. A small is less than $4. Cheaper still, the humble lettuce and tomato po-boy is a mere $2, no charge for extra mayo.
Back-to-school time is still deep summer for New Orleans restaurateurs, which means there are special offers intended to lure customers during the lull in tourism and convention traffic. Dozens of restaurants are participating in the city's COOLinary New Orleans promotion, which continues through the end of September with three-course meals for $20 at lunch and $34 at dinner. Find menus and details online at www.coolinaryneworleans.com.