It’s like gumbo. Cliché though it may be, there is frank truth to the metaphor: New Orleans is a diverse collection of cultures and people, deliciously stirred together.
Head east across the curvy Mississippi to the “Westbank” (so called for being situated on the river’s west bank) for more local stew, both old and new(ish). Neighborhoods like Algiers Point, Gretna and Westwego are historic, filled with families of traditional Louisiana roots (French, Spanish, African, Italian and German), as well as those with ties to Vietnam and the Middle East.
In a rather old-fashioned way, there is a beautiful heritage story told through markets, cooks and food makers. It’s as easy as a ferry ride or car hop across the Crescent City Connection bridge; plan to fill up on New Orleans’ Westbank food and culture.
A quick, four-mile trek from the Westbank side of bridge means chasing a broad expanse of cement and sky on the high-rise portion of the expressway. Big-box stores and crowded commercial strip centers give way to open spaces and circling gulls, looping and dipping over the Westwego Seafood Lot. Turn into the shell-and-gravel parking lot flanked by rows of uniquely decorated stalls of family-owned and -run seafood businesses.
On display is the day’s catch—big cooler chests filled with layers of ice and fresh-caught seasonal fin fish, shrimp, crab, squid, frog legs, crawfish and more. The vendors, often clad in shorts and white rubber “shrimp boots,” are from families that have fished the surrounding waters forever. Scooping giant shrimp into scale baskets for weighing and bagging, or wrapping seafood in fat rolls of newspaper, there’s plenty of chatter and cooking advice; food conversation is the same as breathing air.
Back on the expressway, exit at 6B, and turn right on Scottsdale Drive to hit a covered, open-air market called the Westbank Flea Market. This is no regular flea-market affair; the centerpiece is a covered-yet-open food hall of individually decorated stalls, complete with electricity, running water and some form of tables and chairs. With close to a dozen vendors, you can choose from Latin food of Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Try meats grilled a la plancha, tacos, homemade stews, sturdy mofongo (mashed and fried green plantain) or a Cuban sandwich of juicy roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard pressed crisp on French bread. There are juices and fresh fruit cups showered in chili spices, sugar-heavy Cuban coffee, snoballs and snacks. This is comfort food at its homey best, and there is much to try. Pace yourself; this journey is just beginning.
About a mile off the expressway, fresh pita bread is baking at Crescent Market. Well-stocked and neat-as-a-pin, the family-run market runs a pita-making operation in the back, turning out fresh, puffed loaves (the real deal!). There’s also an on-site Halal butcher, stunning and unique produce and 15 food aisles with rice, dried fruits, dairy, candies and gorgeous sticky, syrup-soaked baklava. Leave with a bag of warm, zataar-dusted flatbreads.
From there, head to Eclair Delicieux, neatly tucked in a tiny strip mall, food-spotting Latin and Vietnamese restaurants for future treks along the way. Chef Patty Dinh’s cases are full of gorgeous flan-topped cupcakes, waffle cookies, brûléed crêpe cakes or banana bread, nestled next to chocolates and loads of other innovative and interesting sweets.
Not far away, rising from the earth like a cement phoenix, is the expansive building that houses Hong Kong Market. A tour of this place is a global food adventure. Pass through the giant sliding-glass doors, grab a handbasket and head to the right toward the deli.
Gawk at the barbecued duck and other cooked meats, wander among the packaged foodstuffs and steamed rice-flour buns and aisle after aisle of kitchen gadgets, cans, jars and bottled goods from across several continents, before hitting the wild snacks/sweets section, the vast produce department with intriguing fruits and vegetables, a forest of herbs and a mini café selling tiny Vietnamese banh xeo (stuffed crepes). Plan to be here a while, but save room…there’s more.
Just alongside the Mississippi River, truly on its west bank, is Algiers Point, an old, venerated neighborhood that has long been dotted with great architecture, cafés, bars and coffee shops. Missing until now has been a market.
Several months in, Faubourg Fresh Market broaches the grocery store game, albeit gently. The stash is predominately locally sourced meats, breads, jams, spices, pickles and some prepared foods (get anything from the Thali Llama), mixed in with some usual grocery goods. A continuing work in progress, the number of stocked items grows daily, and the addition of locally made soaps and other crafts makes for neighborhood-market magic.
Go east for a trip across the river to New Orleans’ Westbank, and explore the broad food heritage that makes up the city’s cultural gumbo. Stir the pot, shop the markets, eat the food. Fork in hand, laissez les bons temps rouler.