If you have plans to travel to New Orleans this Mardi Gras season (or any other time of the year, really), you’re probably wondering where you should be eating during your stay—we can’t be the only ones who plan trips around culinary destinations.
We’ve compiled a list of the must-try dishes while you’re in New Orleans (or NOLA, as it’s often called) for Mardi Gras—and the best places to get them. The best part: these culinary staples taste delicious during the holiday week, but they’re also available all year round. So don’t worry if you can’t make it down to NOLA for Mardi Gras—the sandwiches, stews, and sweet treats will be waiting for you.
Plus, we’ve got you covered if you need a refresher on New Orleans cooking traditions before your trip, so you’re tastebuds will be prepared for all the exciting food adventures to come.
Photo courtesy of Gambino’s Bakery.
King Cake: Gambino’s Bakery
While Mardi Gras king cakes—also known as galette des rois—come in various shapes, sizes, and flavors around the world, the New Orleans version is perhaps the most widely recognized and imitated in the U.S. The traditional New Orleans king cake is a ring-shaped cake made with sweet brioche dough, filled with cream or chocolate, and glazed with purple, green, and gold icing. Buried inside the cake is a plastic baby king (or another similar token, depending on the bakery)—whoever receives the slice of cake containing the baby king is said to have luck and prosperity for the rest of the year. Oh, and they’re also in charge of bringing next year’s king cake to the Mardi Gras celebration—with luck comes responsibility!
If you’re looking for the ultimate king cake experience in New Orleans, Gambino’s Bakery needs to be on your list. Gambino’s version of this classic Mardi Gras treat is widely known as “the King of King Cakes,” and in the months leading up to Mardi Gras, the bakery churns out dozens of handmade cakes per day.
Beignet: Café du Monde
While many travelers are drawn to New Orleans for the jazz music, vibrant history, and party scene, food-loving visitors undoubtedly have beignets at the top of their trip’s bucket list. And for good reason! The best way to dive head first into New Orleans food scene is by getting a café au lait and a basket of beignets at Café du Monde.
Beignets are a beloved New Orleans staple. This classic creole dessert (or breakfast—you’re on vacation, after all!) is made from deep-fried choux pastry, like a lighter, airier version of the Italian zeppole. At Café du Monde, the beignets are served warm, piled high on a plate with a generous dusting of powdered sugar. Nothing can quite match the feeling of sitting at an outdoor table at Café du Monde in the late morning with a mountain of freshly made beignets and a steaming coffee, people watching as you satisfy your sweet tooth.
Photo courtesy of The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group
Muffuletta: Napoleon House
Next up, meet the muffuletta, a quintessential New Orleans sandwich, made with cured meats, cheese, and tangy olive salad. The muffuletta has its origins in late 29th century New Orleans, when Sicilian immigrants first set up grocery stores and delis in the French Quarter. The name “muffuletta” actually refers to the name of the Sicilian sesame bread that the sandwich is traditionally made on.
There are many amazing places in NOLA to get a great muffaletta but we’re partial to the version at Napoleon House—a 200-year old landmark in the heart of the French Quarter. Allegedly built as a potential home for Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile, the space has been used for various purposes since the early 1800s, including the mayor’s private residence, a local grocery, and—perhaps most well known—a restaurant.
While Napoleon House specializes in casual New Orleans cuisine, it’s best known as the ultimate spot for a traditional muffaletta. While there’s often controversy about whether or not the sandwich should be heated (many traditionalists say absolutely not!) Napoleon House insists that a bit of heat helps intensify the sandwich flavors.
Gumbo: The Gumbo Shop
When most people think of New Orleans, they think of gumbo—this classic, hearty stew is Louisiana’s official state dish, after all. Made with the “holy trinity” (onions, peppers, and celery), a classic French roux, and a combination of shellfish, sausage, okra, and other assorted meats, herbs, and vegetables (depending on who’s making it), gumbo is a dish that reflects the diverse culinary and cultural traditions of New Orleans in one, steaming bowl.
If gumbo sounds like just the comforting, hearty dish your body and soul need, head to The Gumbo Shop (the dish is literally in the shop’s name— how could you go wrong?). Their version is a seafood, okra, and chicken andouille variation with a roux that adds just the right depth of flavor without overpowering the dish. While The Gumbo Shop excels at other Creole staples, too, it’s their gumbo that keeps locals and tourists alike coming back—and which has earned them the a spot in the Best Gumbo category in the Gambit’s Best of New Orleans poll for more than a decade.
Once you return back home, keep the spirit of NOLA alive in your own kitchen with our Shrimp Gumbo with Crispy Okra.
Photo courtesy of Mother’s Restaurant
Jambalaya is another beloved, classic Louisiana rice-and-meat dish. Rule number one of New Orleans dining: don’t get jambalaya confused with gumbo. The key difference between the two classic dishes is in the rice—while gumbo is a stew that’s often served over rice, with jambalaya, the rice is incorporated directly into the stew, resulting in something like a Creole version of paella.
While the line at Mother’s may seem intimidating, you’ll be more than rewarded for your patience with steaming bowls of jambalaya, loved by locals and tourists alike. Mother’s has been a staple of the Poydras Street “Restaurant Row” since the 1930s, and what it lacks in glitz and glamour (it’s more of a cafeteria than a restaurant) it makes up for in flavorful, heartwarming food.
Po’boy: Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar
A big part of New Orleans food culture is eating big, messy meals made with lots of TLC. With that in mind, the po’boy just might be the pinnacle of New Orleans food culture—a big, stuffed, saucey sandwich that you’ll need a stack of napkins and a bib to enjoy. But oh, is it delicious, and so worth the mess.
Po’boy sandwiches are served on thick-cut, French baguette bread, filled with either fried seafood (like oyster, shrimp, or crab) or meat (like roast beef, sausage, or fried chicken), and dressed with lettuce, pickles, tomato, and mayonnaise—though the dressing can change depending on the filling.
At Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar—a tiny, family-run spot in uptown New Orleans founded in 1918—po’boys are served on fresh, traditional Leidenheimer bread. When you order a po’boy at Domilise’s you’re taking part in a decades long New Orleans cultural tradition—the menu and the people behind the counter have remained the same for as long as the locals can remember.
We’re warning you now: when you return home, you’re going to miss your po’boy fix. We love to make our own version of this classic sandwich at home with crispy fish and tangy remoulade that’s a bit more suited to weeknight dinners.
Photo courtesy of The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group
Bananas Foster: Brennan’s
What could be a more delicious end to a hearty, New Orleans meal than buttery, sweet, rum-infused bananas, set alight in a blaze of blue flame and caramelized tableside? If you’re a fan of bananas foster, you have to try the famous dessert at the NOLA restaurant that started it all: Brennan’s.
While Brennan’s—an iconic, New Orleans culinary institution since the 1940s— is renowned for its elegant dining experience and Creole-inspired menu, it’s the decadent bananas foster (prepared tableside, of course) that puts the restaurant on the map as a must-visit dining destination during Mardi Gras.
Owner Owen Brennan actually invented the famous dessert in the early 1950s, when New Orleans became a major port for receiving banana shipments from Central and South America, and Brennan found himself searching for new ways to use the tropical fruit on the menu. Nearly 70 years later, the recipe, ingredients, and delight remains!
Header photo courtesy of The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group
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