Newcomers often search New Orleans in vain for the Cajun cuisine they'd heard so much about. Creole flavors dominate here after all, while the home turf for Cajun cuisine is, naturally enough, the parishes that comprise Acadiana. For too long, a restaurant that touted itself as Cajun in New Orleans was more likely than not a tourist trap. But more recently, authentic Cajun cooking has been turning up in New Orleans itself. Here are four different spots to find it.
Crescent Pie & Sausage Co.:4400 Banks St., New Orleans, 504-482-2426
This hip Mid-City eatery is best known for its pizzas (the 'pie' in its name), but some serious Cajun flavor also runs through the menu, charged up by a devotion to in-house sausage making. This is one of the few restaurants in town serving a credible jambalaya, and it's also probably the best. They call it 'Bad Bart's black jambalaya,' a reference to sausage maker (and co-owner) Bart Bell and to the black eyed peas worked in with the braised pork, chicken and sausage. If there are at least two people at your table, the best way to start a meal is by ordering the mixed grill. This is a sampling of some of the sausages on offer that day, and a representative line-up might include a link of boudin, a link of spicy chicken sausage, sheets of thin-sliced coppa and a stack of 'little smokies' slathered by spicy-sweet sauce. You can also get a single 'link of the day' as a more modest appetizer. Finally, the gumbo is excellent. It is a thick, dark, smoky, convincing Cajun-style rendition.
Crabby Jack's:428 Jefferson Hwy., Jefferson, 504-833-2722
Crabby Jack's is well known as the spin-off of Jacques-Imo's Cafe, a chaotic and endlessly popular eatery on Maple Street. A few of that bigger restaurant's specialties turn up at this casual, counter-service joint. But the reason I include Crabby Jack's on this list is how closely it resembles some of the great lunchrooms of Cajun Country and how it channels some of the spirit of that region too. Plate lunches like pasta shells with fat shrimp and big hunks of smoky tasso with jambalaya crammed in around the sides are a prime example, and so is the blackened fish. The hugely over-stuffed duck po-boy evokes the abundance of Cajun kitchens and the willingness of Cajun cooks to really pile it on. Links of smoked boudin, sides of dirty rice and a country-style chicken and andouille gumbo seal the deal.
Toups' Meatery:845 N. Carrollton Ave., New Orleans, 504-252-4999
Toups' Meatery combines several worlds the fine-dining experience of its chef, Isaac Toups, the rustic traditions of his hometown in Cajun Country, and the neighborhood restaurant feel that fits so well in this part of town. When you have a craving for meat in all its flavorful glory, this place can put on quite a show. The meat plates assembled here are superb and could be the reason for a whole visit, never mind just a round of appetizers. The precise components of these big, rustic-style boards changes up frequently, but you can count on a half dozen items ranging from traditional boudin and headcheese to spicy salami and lamb tongue. There's a riff on BBQ shrimp and always a Gulf fish on the menu, but you're coming to Toups' Meatery for meat. I don't mean filet mignon either. The niche where Toups' Meatery really excels is getting the most flavor and excitement from less expensive cuts. The lamb neck is the most offbeat item, but so long as you don't mind picking through a lot of bones for the meat this dish is probably the most memorable too, with deep, marrow-laden flavor cut through by a minty chow chow relish. The pork chop is big enough to produce gasps as it lands at the table.
Cochon:930 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, 504-588-2123
The theme of country food fancied up by an ambitious chef for a city audience is hardly new, but chef Donald Link and his co-chef Stephen Stryjewski struck gold by making the country food in question specific to Cajun Country. Cochon mines the great pig-centric cooking traditions of Acadiana, with plenty of contributions from the larger Southern cookbook as well. The result is a consistently exciting restaurant that speaks the language of south Louisiana but with unexpected accents. Many of the great dishes at Cochon start with hogs butchered on premises, which from they go through the age-old techniques of the Cajun boucherie. Fried boudin with pickled peppers and Creole mustard is one standard, and the namesake cochon dish is a dense cake of roasted pork over turnips and cabbage with a sprinkling of cracklins for varied texture. But pig isn't the only thing cooking here. Roasted oysters are lavishly spiced and bits of fried alligator are slathered with chili garlic aioli. A salad of sliced mushrooms, abundant fresh herbs, fried beef jerky and fried lemon slices stands among the best salads I've tried in a long time. It's not strictly traditional Cajun cuisine, but Cochon shows that the most delicious traditions don't need to stand still.