Carnival season temporarily redraws the New Orleans map each year with parade routes, surging crowds and parking issues. Locals have grown adept at adjusting their plans accordingly, and that includes dining. A similar spirit of improvisation and adaptability will be especially valuable for anyone interested in dining out this week as Super Bowl XLVII rolls into town.
The entire week leading up to Sunday's game in the Superdome should play out like a giant convention/networking event and photo op for the sponsors, celebrities and high rollers who inhabit the NFL off the gridiron. As any local tourism official will tell you, New Orleans makes a great Super Bowl city because so many of the hotels, restaurants, events halls and attractions are within walking distance of the Superdome. That means all of this action is clustered there, too.
Some streets will be closed (see traffic maps on p. 48), the parking lots that you (and restaurant employees) normally use will be filled with stages, event tents and trailers, and every limo available across the Deep South will be in town, angling for turning radius.
Getting to dinner downtown is only part of the issue. You've heard about all these hot restaurants in New Orleans? So have the VIPs, who are arriving with a taste for the best and the personal assistants to set it up. Some reservation books were filling up long before the contending Super Bowl teams were determined, and in some cases, entire restaurants have been bought out for corporate events.
For people seeking a nice meal without much fuss, all of this essentially turns the downtown area into a "no fly zone." Looking at it another way, this week also is an invitation to explore the deep and increasingly diverse range of eateries spread farther around the metro area. What follows is a primer on a few categories, areas and themes to help get a handle on the options. With these reliable, if off-the-radar places, the local dining obsession need not resign itself to a hangar because Super Bowl crowds are blitzing downtown.
The pipeline of shiny black limos that will be shuttling between Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and downtown New Orleans this week will pass two of the great ethnic dining hubs of the region: Williams Boulevard in Kenner and Fat City in Metairie.
Williams Boulevard is the de facto culinary home of the area's Latino community, with a multitude of grocery stores and restaurants representing an array of tastes and traditions. For Brazilian food alone, the boulevard offers different choices. There's Churra's Brazilian Grill (3712 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-467-9595), where you pick your own meats from a big rotisserie holding everything from sausage links to chicken hearts (don't miss the picanha, a classic Brazilian cut of beef). You're charged by the weight of your haul. A dozen blocks down the street, Brazilian Market & Cafe (2424 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-468-3533) is more of a deli, with Brazilian plate lunches, grab-and-go meat pies and "tudo" burgers crammed with bacon, eggs, hot dogs, corn and fried potato sticks.
Celina's Restaurant (3601 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-712-8690) is tucked into the side of Celina's International Supermarket and has a pan-Latin menu covering Salvadoran pupusas, plantains with crema, carne asada and large bowls of Mexican soups. Meanwhile, Latin-style seafood is the specialty at Chilangos Seafood (3617 Williams Blvd. Kenner, 504-471-6104; www.chilangosseafood.com), where you can wash down tart ceviches, tomato-sluiced seafood cocktails and squid ink rice dishes with margaritas served in huge, bowl-shaped mugs from a neon-trimmed bar.
Home-style Asian cooking gets some representation on the Williams stretch, too. Imperial Garden (3331 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-443-5691) looks like a standard-issue Chinese takeout joint, but the specials board marked with Chinese lettering is a clue to ask for the separate "Chinese" menu, which has soups, noodle bowls and stir-fried meat and seafood platters revved up with traditional oils and seasonings. Hong Kong-style cooking is presented front and center at Little Chinatown (3800 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-305-0580), where most of the menu is devoted to dishes that appear more often on travel shows than local menus. Try the short rib hot pot, the snails with garlic or the "salt toasted" quail, which isn't toasted or all that salty, but instead fried and studded with garlic and jalapenos.
Similar finds await a few miles down Interstate 10 in Fat City. At China Rose (3501 N. Arnoult St., 504-887-3295) you must again request the "Chinese" menu to bypass the General Tso's chicken and such and instead delve into the hearty, sometimes electrifying Sichuan dishes. This menu lists page after page of pot stickers and steamed buns, pork-laden Chinese greens and eggplant, and clay-pot cauldrons of simmered beef pulsing with "wild and hot" peppers that literally tingle on your tongue.
Elsewhere in the densely developed Fat City district, there's Korea House (3547 18th St., Metairie, 504-888-0654), where you can cook your own garlicky, marinated bulgogi-style beef on table-mounted grills; Cafe Equator (2920 Severn Ave., Metairie, 504-888-4772; www.cafeequator.com) for Thai cuisine; and Kanno California Style Sushi Bar (3205 Edenborn Ave., Metairie, 504-455-5730), a hidden gem for Japanese food. Though his tiny sushi bar is short on creature comforts, chef Hidetoshi "Elvis" Suzuki assembles unique plates like swordfish sashimi and Dijon tuna.
Some New Orleans neighborhoods have the feel of enclaves — separated from the city's connective grid by the flow of waterways or roadways — and Algiers Point is one of them.
Spend part of your morning at Tout de Suite (347 Verret St., 504-362-2264), a cafe tucked along the West Bank riverfront neighborhood's winding streets, and it feels like you've stumbled upon an artsy breakfast club where beautiful baked goods line the counter, children occupy themselves in a play area and parents follow their whims to dishes healthy (granola, fruit and yogurt) or hearty (boudin patties, poached eggs and Steen's cane syrup). Later in the day, walking into Vine and Dine (141 Delaronde St., 504-361-1402; www.vine-dine.com) is like discovering the neighborhood's speakeasy. Vine and Dine occupies an unassuming storefront across from the ferry landing, but venture in and the place unfolds room by room into a combination wine shop/wine bar. The staff will open any bottle from the retail racks for a small corkage fee (or go by-the-glass from a short menu) while you nosh on fresh salads, huge cheese boards, antipasti and thick slabs of crusty focaccia that are topped like pizzas.
While many visitors dream of finding "real New Orleans" flavor, preferably at a down-home joint like you read about, few ever make it to Gentilly. This largely residential neighborhood is not known for its restaurant scene, but in the past few years a number of new restaurants have opened, and pre-Katrina stalwarts have been revived to give Gentilly a range of low-key but highly satisfying neighborhood spots.
The Munch Factory (6325 Elysian Fields Ave., 504-324-5372; www.themunchfactory.net) has a memorable name but even more memorable cooking. The strong suit is familiar comfort food addled by both culinary school tweaks and a strong dose of Creole flavor. That plays out in dishes like roast chicken with fines herbes, beef short ribs — braised and practically glazed with a deep, rich jus — or bright, spicy shrimp remoulade over green tomatoes. Nearby, Sassafras (2501 Leon C. Simon Blvd., 504-288-3939) is a relatively new spot that carries on its owners' long Creole family restaurant tradition. This is a place for dark, full-flavored file gumbos, stewed okra with shrimp and sausage, liver and onions in a rich brown gravy, fried chicken and stuffed peppers with gooey mac and cheese.
Zimmer's Seafood (4915 St. Anthony Ave., 504-282-7150) is more seafood market than restaurant (there are no seats), but it's still an essential part of the Gentilly food scene. Run by longtime commercial fisherman Craig Zimmer and his family, this place sources immaculate shrimp for the boiling pot and the fryer, and the po-boys are made on seeded Italian loaves baked around the corner at John Gendusa's Bakery.
New Orleans has always been a great bar town, but more recently it's been growing into a town with great bar food, too, as young chefs take over tavern kitchens and explore the possibilities.
There's often little indication from the street of what might be cooking inside these finds, and that's certainly the case with Siberia and the Hi-Ho Lounge, two St. Roch music clubs that are practically next door to each other. Inside the hard-rocking Siberia is a Slavic soul food window called Kukhnya (2227 St. Claude Ave., 504-265-8855), which serves pierogi, blini, beef Stroganoff and vegetarian beet Reubens. A few paces down the street, the Hi-Ho has the look of a vintage New Orleans barroom, but it has a very modern food focus thanks to the Wandering Buddha (2239 St. Claude Ave., 504-945-9428; www.-thewanderingbuddha.com), which serves all-vegan Korean cuisine. Order a pint, peruse flyers for upcoming gigs and get dishes like scallion pancakes, ssambap lettuce wraps and stir-fried rice cakes with kimchi.
Mid-City has become another hotbed for great but unheralded bar food. Proceed to the rear of Holy Ground Irish Pub to find Edible Alchemy (3340 Canal St., 504-252-0343), where Thomas Mack makes "Irish nachos" from hand-cut potato chips and chorizo burgers that ooze spicy juices. A few blocks away, very much off the beaten path, the bar Twelve Mile Limit uses a door buzzer to control the entrance, while Shortall's BBQ (500 S. Telemachus St., 504-488-8114) stokes a kettle smoker out back for a distinctive brand of barbecue. Smoked-then-fried chicken quarters and brisket prepared confit-style go into sliders or are loaded onto towering platters of potato tots, along with a number of cheeses, sauces and fried vegetables.
The smoker and fryer also make great companions down the street at Boo Koo BBQ (3701 Banks St., 504-202-4741) inside Finn McCool's Irish Pub, where barbecue meat nachos and Cajun-style banh mi share billing with boudin pistolettes, mac-and-cheese balls and — during Carnival season — fried king cake. Meanwhile, Grits in Uptown has become another bar-based haven for barbecue. Past the pool tables and dartboards, Blue Oak (530 Lyons St., 504-621-9837; www.-blueoaknola.com) smokes pork for tacos, sandwiches and nachos and makes a mean blackened fish taco, too.
Casual eats, bar food and ethnic adventures aren't your only options for dining away from the Super Bowl din. While they are rare birds, a few spots in the suburbs can stage a culinary show on par with restaurants of more acclaim in the city proper.
One is O'Brien's Grille (2020 Belle Chasse Hwy., Gretna, 504-391-7229; www.obriensgrille.com), which is all but hidden in a utilitarian-looking building behind a daiquiri stand. Inside, though, O'Brien's reveals a small but first-class steakhouse with an elegant interior evoking a Jazz Age supper club and a menu of He-Man-size steaks and chops done with verve.
Regional Italian cooking is a hot trend now, but the very particular foods of northern Italy's Romagna region have always been the focus for owners of the family-operated Ristorante da Piero (401 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-469-8585; www.ristorantedapiero.net). Housed in a cottage in Kenner's Rivertown, this cozy spot turns out handmade strozzapreti, a short, irregular noodle finished with cream sauce and bits of smoky speck or arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Carpaccio, gnocchi with Gorgonzola, grilled lamb leg and a lavish list of Italian wines are among other draws.
Traditional French bistro fare is the calling card for Chateau du Lac (2037 Metairie Road, Metairie, 504-831-3773; www.chateaudulacbistro.com) in Old Metairie, while a few doors down, Vega Tapas Cafe (2051 Metairie Road, Metairie, 504-836-2007; www.vegatapascafe.com) takes a global approach to small plates and frequently has attractive wine specials. Cafe B (2700 Metairie Road, Metairie, 504-934-4700; www.cafeb.com) initially opened with a gastro-pub theme, but this Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group property has evolved into a contemporary Creole bistro with a lock on local tastes. Scallops dressed with satsuma chile vinaigrette, fettuccine strung with crabmeat and speckled trout surrounded by wilted greens and brabant potatoes are all standouts.