Welcome to Food Crawls, a series in which Eater New Orleans staffers guide you (virtually) on various food (and booze) crawls in the New Orleans area.
When we go out, we often find ourselves wanting to try more than one restaurant at a time — a drink and a snack here, another drink and perhaps a dessert there — and want to share our favorite multi-stop combinations with you. These crawls are meant to be relatively walkable, although your mileage may vary. Email us if there’s a particular theme, specific dish or drink, or neighborhood you’d like to see covered in a future installment.
Call it insanity. An afternoon food crawl through the French Market in August. And yet it seems I’m not the only one. There was a time when the summer’s swelter and rainstorms were enough to keep the tourists away. Not anymore.
Two blocks away, a jazz band belts out a number to a packed tent. It’s Satchmo Fest, and with the pavement still wet from the latest shower, a steady trickle of curious festers find their way towards the covered stalls nestled between Decatur and North Peters.
In truth it’s been years since I’ve been to the French Market. Locals generally write off the swath of goods here — sunglasses and hats, feathered masks, and alligator heads — as cheap and touristy. But before I know it, I’m stopping to admire a fabric fan, and if there’s a single truth that I’ve learned about New Orleans in my 18 years here, it’s this: It doesn’t matter how long you live here. None of us ever truly stop being tourists in our own city and wouldn’t want to.
Chances are, few in the perspiring crowd realize they are standing in this country’s oldest outdoor market. Though the original buildings have long been lost to fire, hurricane, moves, and renovations, the French Market itself has more or less occupied this general stretch since 1791. Uncovered markets, including Native American trading posts, predated even this. The market’s configuration and look today is largely the result of a WPA renovation in the 1930s, and subsequent upgrades in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
But my purpose here isn’t to buy stuff, it’s to eat, specially to cobble together a very late lunch (or a very early dinner). And so I make my way forward to the market’s start, where for the first time ever, I take a seat at the Market Cafe. Bypassing the cocktail menu, I order a cool glass of Pinot Grigio. It may not win any awards but at $6, I’m not complaining. There’s a good cross-breeze coming through the open air patio; for a minute, I’m almost tricked into thinking it’s cool.
Ahead a trio effortlessly slips between crooner tunes and country, English and Spanish. Like so many bands in the Quarter, Raddy and the Cats are consummate veterans, capable of delivering a rock solid beat and their own fadeout. When the drummer offers up an earnest, soulful rendition of “Besame Mucho,” I’m certain I’m not the only one in the audience thinking: Anytime, honey.
While it’s tempting to linger, it’s time to move on. Despite the steady stream, August remains low season for the French Market, and the row of food stalls in the main building generally shuts down at a shocking 5 p.m, though come Mardi Gras and spring, they may stay open until 8.
Months ending in “R” be damned, I pull up a stool at J’s Seafood Dock’s oyster and seafood bar and slurp down half a dozen Gulf fatties before moving to Alberto’s Wine and Cheese Bistro. Here the deli offerings serve as a nod to the late 19th century, when as much Italian as French would have been heard at the market. Then waves of Sicilian recent immigrants dominated the stalls, eventually stretching their reach and establishing storefronts along Decatur. At Alberto’s, I opt for a quarter of a muffuletta for $5.50. There are tables for the taking, but eating at the counter feels up close and personal.
However, it’s at the World Famous N’Awlins Cafe and Spice Emporium that I really settle in. “First one’s open and the last one’s closed,” says owner Braxton Humphrey, waving his hand towards the other stalls where staff have already begun to stack stools. Affable and with a wide smile, Braxton resembles a 20-something college student more than a businessman. He explains that he and co-owner brother, Zaire, are fourth generation French Market vendors, carrying on a tradition begun by their great-grandfather, Archibald Humphrey.
An immigrant from Barbados, Humphrey’s great-grandpere set up shop in 1920 and was one of the first five vendors in the old Farmer’s Market, which launched in 1924. N’Awlins Cafe still serves a chicken and seafood gumbo made from Braxton’s great-grandmother’s recipe. It’s flavorful without being too heavy, slightly greenish in color on account of the high vegetable content, and studded with bits of chicken and shrimp.
Braxton says that they sell about 6,000 bowls of gumbo a year. “The lines were so long last Christmas,” says server Jennifer Cart as she slides a bowl toward me, “that we completely ran out of food by three and had to close.”
Whatever brief respite the earlier rain brought has long faded, and halfway through my bowl, I pat down my face with a paper towel. Next to me, a customer rests his face against the counter as he waits for his order. By the time I finish, and I do finish every drop, there’s no keeping my face dry. Come August we all maintain an intimate relationship with sweat.
Only the thought of dessert could motivate me to get off my stool. I briefly consider stopping in at one of the Market’s several praline spots but in the end, there can be only one real choice: Cafe du Monde, the French Market’s very first tenant. DuMonde opened in 1862 in the then meat market, the Halle des Boucheries. Its slim menu remains largely the same as it was over a hundred a fifty years ago.
At a time when so much of travel and food writing has to do with the allure of secrecy -- undiscovered gems and under the radar spots, Cafe Du Monde stands as an institution known for being known. Like rest of the French Market, one does not come here for the lightly treaded path or even to follow trend, but to heed the call of the familiar and succumb to the great, if not reckless, flow of powdered sugar and cafe au lait. Here tables are notoriously sticky. In an all too repeated moment, I watch as a young man across the aisle stands to brush the white from his hiking shorts
At $2.73 each, a three-piece beignet and cup of sweet cafe au lait are priced to tally an even, efficient $6. And efficient Du Monde is 27/7 for 364 days a year (closed on Christmas.) Despite hundreds of customers, my order shows within five minutes — just long enough to watch the children at the next table suck down hot chocolates and lick their fingers as their parents politely chew nearby. A look of deep satisfaction emanates from the kids faces. It’s a look we often see here, one that accompanies having gotten away with something. After all, it’s about 5:30, and they’ve just gorged on dessert before dinner.