Restaurant Hopping

In Which Our Reporter Reveals Some of His Favorite Places Statewide

Mika Silva

Where to eat in Louisiana?

Actually, that’s a harder question to answer than you might expect because the food map is so diverse, entrenched in a history that predates the oldest permanent settlement of the Louisiana Purchase, made in French-settled Natchitoches in 1714.

Later that century, West Africans would be brought to the state, and along with them came ingredients that would influence gumbo and jambalaya, which added to a culinary network that already was being made distinct yet varied by French, Spanish, German and American Indian dishes.

In Louisiana, deciding where to eat is really a matter of figuring out which cultural flavors the palate hungers for and then zeroing in on the best places that provide them. It seems simple, especially for someone who’s worked for years as a food writer for the American Press in Lake Charles, but the senses can be deceptive, which makes the task challenging.

I ventured out into the state and found restaurants that I hope represent the different culinary elements from around the world that are found within the Bayou State.

This list isn’t the end-all or be-all of best restaurants; it’s simply one food-lover’s personal eating tour that was led by his nose and taste buds.

Here are a few of my personal favorites.

Central Louisiana
Central Louisiana is the point where topography, culture, religion and even cuisine begin to change. As you head from the southern bayous of thriving Catholicism and Cajun and Creole cultures, such cities as Alexandria, Natchitoches, Leesville and Ferriday represent a crossroads –– the start of Protestant churches, old-fashioned fish fries and a healthy respect for the piney woods. If there is a spot where the culinary landscape stands out, Natchitoches, the French-settled city spliced by the Cane River, is it. Today, the streets in Natchitoches are home to restaurants that meld Southern favorites with a touch of Creole from the Cane River valley; here, one of the most famous food favorites is the Natchitoches meat pie. In Alexandria, recognized as the center of commerce in the region, there is an evolving food scene. What was once a city that had a few mom-and-pop restaurants that competed against the franchises is now home to a developing and refreshing food scene that can be enjoyed at eateries featuring Greek, Italian and new American cuisine. Fried catfish is a delicacy that can be found at various restaurants, but you’ll want to venture out into the hills toward Toledo Bend to get a taste of what locals cook either in restaurants or at camp sites.

Places to Try:
Bistro On the Bayou, 1321 Chappie James Ave., Alexandria, (318) 445-7574. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Emerils.com and American Express Dreamscapes have all praised this eatery, which is regarded as the best restaurant in Central Louisiana. Located in the Parc England Hotel, the menu offers such items as Louisiana crab cakes, steaks, lamb and fish covered in sauces that range from butter pecan to pesto beurre blanc. The restaurant’s ambiance is relaxed, and diners will leave feeling wonderful.

Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant, 622 Second St., Natchitoches, (318) 352-3353. If there is one item to eat during a trip to Natchitoches, the devilishly delicious meat pie is it. James Lasyone started the business in 1967 and has sold meat pies ever since. The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch and prides itself on preparing Southern favorites such as beef stew, hamburger steak and red beans and rice. A daily plate lunch is served with side vegetables; the turnip greens and okra and tomatoes are worth eating on their own.

Tunk’s Cypress Inn, 9507 Louisiana Highway 28 W., Boyce, (318) 487-4014. Not many people thought building a restaurant outside of Alexandria would pay off, but now the place that has sat on Lake Kincaid since 1978 is a destination for anyone looking for good seafood or steaks. Fish, shrimp, oysters, crab and crawfish are all staple ingredients on the menu. The atmosphere is communal –– many patrons know each other and the staff. Just gazing at the lake is worth making a visit to Tunk’s.

Cajun Country
Acadiana and the Imperial Calcasieu region combine to provide one of the state’s most interesting mixes of cultural and culinary treasures. Lafayette and Lake Charles are the focal points of the region, where dishes such as jambalaya, boudin and crawfish étouffée reign supreme in restaurants and food-serving filling stations. Since experiencing an economic boom in the 1970s, Lafayette’s restaurant scene has offered Cajun-influenced dishes that have garnered international attention. The Lake Charles area offers a down-home cooking style that uses Cajun, Creole, American Indian, African and Old World influences to give eaters such staple dishes as smothered steak and gravy, fried catfish and hogshead cheese. Other notable food finds include smoked meats (sausage and taco) that are used for seasoning sauces and gravies that are normally served with rice, an ingredient that locals are sure to have on their plate at least once or even twice a week. In recent years, a new crop of chefs and cooks has ventured into this region; many of them were hired to work at casino-resorts and racetracks. What they’ve brought with them are new ideas and interpretations of classic regional dishes such as a soft-shell crab BLT at Nevie Beach restaurant inside of L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort in Lake Charles.

Places to Try:
La Truffe Sauvage, 815 W. Bayou Pines Drive, Lake Charles, (337) 439-8364. Conversations related to fine-dining in the Lake area normally start with La Truffe Sauvage. Chef Mohamed Chettouh and Arthur Durham opened the restaurant in 1998 and feature seasonal dishes using fresh meats and vegetables that are complemented with European-style breads, sauces, soups and stocks. The Colorado rack of lamb crusted with herbes de Provence should be eaten on the first visit because it’s simply decadent. La Truffe Sauvage’s wine list is also impressive.

Chez Jacqueline’s, 114 E. Bridge St., Breaux Bridge, (337) 507-3320. Chef Jacqueline Tellier Salser is from Paris and is only too happy to serve dishes from the old country to her Cajun and Creole cousins. Every so often, she chooses a night to prepare an eight-course meal with goodies such as melon filled with port and blueberries, shrimp salad, beef Wellington and other treats. Find out when the special dinner occurs, and add it to the bucket list.

Laura’s Two, 1904 W. University Ave., Lafayette, (337) 593-8006. Whenever a food-lover happens to be in the heart of Acadiana and is pining for something to uplift the soul, he or she needs to walk through the doors of Laura’s Two. What awaits is Creole-style soul food: hamburger steak, fried chicken, meatball stew, smothered pork chops, fried fish, and the list goes on and on. Every day of the week, the menu changes, but the affection that goes into cooking each meal is always the same. There’s lots of love put into pots at Laura’s Two, and the food is testimony to that fact.

North Louisiana
Rivers, forests and winding state highways greet diners who are wondering what awaits them in the northern parts of Louisiana. That description of the land should immediately help new adventurers realize that the bounty from the earth is important to the style of cooking that has been percolating in this part of the state for decades. Rivers bear fish, and the fertile ground where the trees grow also produces fresh vegetables that are used in old Southern recipes dating back to the 1800s. Shreveport, with its mild Texas and Arkansas influences, is the largest city in the region. Even chefs from New Orleans have ventured here to ply their trade for an audience that is not completely impressed with the Cajun and Creole cultures that dominate the Southern part of the state. Restaurants such as Bella Fresca on Line Avenue in Shreveport have gained a reputation for melding Southern, Asian and Mediterranean cooking styles to tickle the fancies of diners who venture into the city. Monroe is the largest city in the northeast portion of Louisiana. Here pizza, boiled greens, hush puppies, peanuts and fried fish are dishes that aren’t only good but also make visitors happy.

Places to Try:
Bella Fresca, 6307 Line Ave., Shreveport, (318) 865-6307. “Inventive” and “artistic” are words that describe the menu here. People wanting to challenge their taste buds will feel at home in this establishment, which sits in a trendy neighborhood. Parmesan-truffle chicken wings, chili-rubbed New York strip steak, grilled shrimp over curried rice, roasted chicken breast with lemon-herbed brown butter and jambalaya risotto cakes are just a sampling of what comes out of the kitchen here. Eating here is a live-action experimentation with flavors.

Mohawk Tavern, 704 Louisville Ave., Monroe, (318) 322-9275. One family has owned this eatery since 1952. It may seem that time has stood still inside, but sometimes nostalgia is good where eating is concerned. Eating here will remind older residents of a bygone era in American cuisine while younger people will most likely just love the food. Waiters wearing white jackets serve oysters on the half shell, fried fish, fried shrimp and other items.

Noble Savage Tavern, 417 Texas St., Shreveport, (318) 221-1781. The motto for one of the city’s most fun locations both for eating and hanging out is “Noble are the people who respect their savage passions for good food, libation, conversation and music.” Good whiskey and scotch are available along with tuna kebabs, turkey tetrazzini, bison on an onion roll and a tomato-basmati bisque –– all featured dishes from a cooking staff that takes living the good life rather seriously.

Baton Rouge and Plantation Country
Legislators and LSU sports fans have grown to love the food provided in Baton Rouge, and so have visitors to the area. The land, notable for being named after a red stick, is home to a varying selection of delicacies with Cajun and Creole dishes as the starting point, followed by plate lunches and a growing list of diverse foods with Latin, Asian and European influences. Farther south of Baton Rouge is Plantation Country, where old Southern traditions and cooking are held in high esteem. Cities such as White Castle, Vacherie and Destrehan are home to large stately plantations, and dishes such as bean soups and corn bread, gumbo, cakes and pies bring pleasure to food-lovers who want to delve into the past. This is also the area where noted Louisiana chef John Folse and his legion of protégés have been preparing plates of food using Louisiana meats, seafood and fresh produce to the delight of visitors for years. A touch of  Southern cuisine can also be found north of Baton Rouge in St. Francisville, home to plantations and restaurants that feature American cuisine and Louisiana favorites.

Places to Try:
Juban’s, 3739 Perkins Road, Baton Rouge, (225) 346-8422. An intimate evening trying to decide between shrimp served with eggplant croutons or a plate of marinated Muscovy duck breast paired with crabmeat and sweet potato-stuffed quail is a good way to pass the time. Juban’s cooking staff not only pays homage to other Louisiana ingredients such as rabbit, crab and fish but also presents them in a unique and nonintimidating way. You should consider eating at Juban’s any time you visit the Capital City.

Roberto’s River Road Restaurant, 1985 Highway 75, Sunshine, (225) 642-5999. Fifteen miles south of Baton Rouge is this neighborhood that sits about as close to the Mississippi River as possible without being in the water. The restaurant has been open since 2001 when Roberto Sandoval opened it after working at high- profile Baton Rouge restaurants such as Mike Anderson’s, Juban’s and Mansurs. Barbecued shrimp and grits, grilled catfish with herbed crawfish tails and roasted duckling with mashed sweet potatoes are the types of dishes that make this restaurant a true food find.

Eight Sisters Restaurant, 5712 Commerce St., St. Francisville, (225) 635-4000. Soul food cooked with patience and tenderness is what to expect at Eight Sisters. Fried chicken, rice dressing and red beans and rice are the types of dishes that, when prepared well, will bring smiles to anyone’s face –– and lots of happy faces are seen inside of this place.

New Orleans
What can be said that hasn’t been uttered or written about the city and surrounding area that has defined Louisiana cuisine for centuries? Eating in New Orleans is something many have done, and with it they’ve defined the flavors in their own way in all sorts of media. Whether it’s a poor boy, snowball, white beans and rice with pickled pork, trout meunière or turtle soup, enjoying the flavors of the Big Easy means tasting a little bit of the world. Flavor is the order of the day inside so many of the eateries and joints that feature fried foods, smothered foods, baked foods, fresh foods, all with influences from the South, Caribbean, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This is a cook’s town, with an untold number of amateur and professional food professionals who have ventured into the city to cut their teeth. The old, the new and the present converge in New Orleans not by accident but with a purpose that ensures anyone who dines here will be able to tell an old story in a personal way.

Places to Try:
Arnaud’s, 813 Bienville St., New Orleans, (504) 523-5433. All of the really old restaurants in the French Quarter are deserving of a lunch or dinner stop. Yet if you have to pick one, Arnaud’s, which has been open since 1918, is a good choice. What to eat? Close your eyes, and point at the menu. When you open them, order. Roast quail with foie gras mousse wrapped with smoked bacon, veal served in a wild mushroom sauce with risotto on the side or the original Oysters Bienville are just a sampling of the dishes that are served inside this wonderful classic Creole restaurant.

Dakota, 629 N. U.S. 90, Covington, (985) 892-3712. What’s nice about this business is that it’s one of several along the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain that proves the state’s culinary heart pumps strong outside of the Big Easy.

One astounding dish that has to be tasted is the shellfish paella, which is lobster, shrimp, scallops mussels, a saffron rice cake, chorizo and a white wine broth. The double-cut pork rack chop served with leek-butter bean fondue and buttermilk onion rings is as good as it sounds.

Central Grocery, 923 Decatur St., New Orleans, (504) 523-1620. For a few dollars, a foodie can walk into this store and buy one of the few food items that defines New Orleans, and that’s the muffuletta. Central Grocery is called the home of this delicious sandwich made with salami, ham and provolone and slathered with a chow-chow consisting of green and black olives and garlic –– just to name a few ingredients in this condiment. The place stays busy, so be patient because history happens here every day.
 

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