All of us who were born in New Orleans, along with most of us who were admitted later, know there’s only one true dining destination in these United States – and that destination is, well, us. Still, that indisputable, irrefutable fact does not prevent us from eating and drinking our way through every city and region we visit for business or pleasure. Here, formed by more than three decades of doing precisely that, is a New Orleans-eye-view of some of the best and most authentic regional flavors waiting beyond our city limits, in no particular order.
Paxton/The New York Times/Redux PHOTOGRAPH
Bite of the Apple. If it exists anywhere in the world, you can find it for breakfast, lunch or dinner somewhere in New York City. The self-proclaimed Big Apple also boasts a personality trait we learned to appreciate growing up in New Orleans: the humanizing of a larger space into distinct neighborhoods, sometimes even individual blocks. I’ve strolled along blocks in which virtually every door opens into an Indian restaurant, or a Korean restaurant, or a Brazilian restaurant, while other blocks (particularly in business-driven, ever-packed Midtown) try their best to have at least one of everything within a five-minute stroll. My idea of New York City nirvana is Chef Thomas Keller’s elegant, wine-savvy Per Se near Lincoln Center: extremely fine dining à la Napa’s French Laundry, with a price tag to match. As New York City surely has more cheap food than anyplace else on earth, the casual choices seem numberless. Yet I’ve been taken recently by the Jamaican flavors of a closet-sized hole called Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill.
The Fith Floor
Second City Serenade. That song called Chicago “my kinda town,” and millions of locals and visitors would have to agree. Long after its heady days as Carl Sandburg’s hog butcher to the world, Chicago probably serves as much seafood as meat – and as much light, Japanese-influenced fare as the heavy Middle European dishes that are so beloved in its memory. Chicago has a nonstop downtown along Lake Michigan, plus innumerable charming, quiet and distinct neighborhoods with restaurants worthy of the same descriptions. Charlie Trotter is no doubt the big gun in Chi-town, and certainly his namesake restaurant is a terrific reservation to get. I, on the other hand, get the biggest bang out of a place called Blackbird and its small-plate “wine bar next door” called Avec. Whenever I get homesick for New Orleans in Chicago, Jimmy Bannos has several locations of Heaven on Seven, showing off what a Greek kid can learn hanging out in the kitchen with Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.
See and Be Scene. Los Angeles dining has always baffled me a bit – but then again, so has any dining that isn’t primarily about the food. Every cliché about L.A. is essentially true and occasionally infinite in its applications. Still, wherever there is lots of money, there will be lots of great chefs serving lots of great food. L.A. has long been the nation’s ground zero of both profit and prophet, a town ever ready to grab the coattails of any chef who seems the “Next Big Thing.” Wolfgang Puck, long the celebs’ favorite, belongs (like Emeril and Rachael Ray) to Middle America now. Yet a host of talented others are plucking at our heartstrings, knowing our purse strings can’t be far behind. In a city of many splurges, my favorite splurge has always been Valentino – Piero Selvaggio’s love song to every Italian food region, with extra truffles on the side. For casual food, it helps to remember that California’s first great “ethnic” cuisine was Mexican, encouraging me enjoy the green chile tamales and strong margaritas that El Cholo has been dishing up to Angelinos since 1927.
Dinner by the Bay. Just about everybody leaves their heart in San Francisco – the place is packed with abandoned hearts, right along with the clang of cable cars, the salty scent of the sea and the coldest Augusts Mark Twain ever experienced. San Francisco would be a foodie favorite even without wine but if you factor in that many of America’s most esteemed wineries lie within an hour or two, you have a dining experience as rare as it’s sometimes rarified. There are some things you simply must do in here, from pitching a tent someplace in Chinatown where the only readable signage says “No MSG” to spooning up mouthfuls of cioppino in Italian-heritaged North Beach. For my last couple of visits, my favorite fine-dining haunt has been called simply The Fifth Floor, where chef Melissa Perello seems to have studied Susan Spicer by fielding a virtually “all girl” team. How do you plan on resisting a perky sommelier named Emily Wines? Further north in Wine Country (Sonoma, in this case), go eat casually and a lot where all the winemakers love to kick back: the roadhouse called Zazu in Santa Rosa.
A Capital Idea. As any old hand around Washington D.C. will tell you, dining here didn’t used to count for much – apart from political back-scratching and the kind of entrées that pour from a martini glass. All that’s changed with the growth of a hip, upwardly mobile, food-crazed younger generation. The nation’s capital finally realized that since it has people from every corner of the globe, it just might consider having foods from every corner of the globe to enjoy with them. Chic neighborhoods like Georgetown and Dupont Circle have led the charge, though an aggressive spirit of urban renewal has made dining destinations of blocks once filled only with addicts and adult cinemas. There is a lot of fine dining in D.C, as you’d expect of a city with so many expense accounts, but my go-to place is DC Coast, a seafood spectacular created by Chef Jeff Tunks, whose résumé includes many grand meals at the Windsor Court in New Orleans. For casual dining, head for the funky Adams Morgan neighborhood and start loading the Ethiopian stew called watt onto the rubbery bread known as injera. Meskerem is a top pick among many here.
The Hub of It All. Boston isn’t just Beantown anymore, even though baked beans and molasses-dark “brown bread” remain taste memories that, once encountered, draw you back to the city forever. This hotbed of the American Revolution has re-embraced its roots at eateries such as the Union Oyster House and the Parker House Hotel (now an Omni, but still pushing its three main contributions to culinary history – the small cut of cod they dubbed scrod, those ever-fluffy Parker House rolls and that decadent Boston cream pie). Often as not, Parker’s at the Parker House – an early gig for a Fall River, Mass., kid named Emeril – is our fine-dining choice, for much the same reason that Friday lunch at Galatoire’s is such a significant social event down South. Most often though, I head for the casual, latest handiwork of Boston BTE (Before Todd English) chef-legend Jasper White: a faux beachside cutie with several locations called Summer Shack. Don’t miss the lobster and corn dogs. Or, when that pizza craving strikes, I head to the historic Italian neighborhood called the North End and chow down on simple crusty goodness at Pizzeria Regina.
Miami Rice – and Beans. Built on empty sand as one of the early 20th century’s greatest real estate scams, Miami can’t exactly point to a rich and varied, centuries-long history. Still, thanks to an influx of incredibly vibrant immigrants and money from every corner of the Americas, Miami has become a dining destination with which to be reckoned. With the uppermost Florida Keys merely an hour south and kaleidoscopic Key West no more than three or four hours away, modern Miami has made the most of what it likes to call the American Caribbean. A cadre of chefs has even formed around the concept of “Floribbean Cuisine.” No one seems to take Floribbean very seriously as food history in the making, but it’s spawned dish after dish, now served as far away as New York City and Los Angeles. Norman’s in Coral Gables by Chef Norm Van Aken is our fine-dining highlight. For casual, I’m drawn like a moth to a flame towards Calle Ocho, the heart of Little Havana, and the picadillo and ropa vieja served by El Pub.
Rocky Mountain High. Denver bills itself as the Mile High City, which presents occasional challenges to pastry chefs trying to bake and New Orleanians trying to breathe. Still, after a long time moldering as a second-class dining destination with little to offer beyond buffalo chops, fried rattlesnake and mountain oysters, Denver has emerged in the past five years as a place for cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic dining. The part of the city known as Lo-Do (Lower Downtown) in the shadow of renovated Union Station is a hotbed of energized dining, fine and otherwise. For some of the best of what this New Hip-Happening Denver is all about, sample the many Asian-Latino fusions of Chef Richard Sandoval’s wonderful Zengo. Or, on weekend days of delicious temperatures and dazzling blue skies, sign on for brunch at Highland’s Garden Cafe, just about a mile and trainloads of calm from the frenzied youth verve of downtown.
How Low Can You Go? There’s a simple, obvious reason they call the coastal region stretching north from Savannah and across both Carolinas the Low Country – but there’s a lot more here that’s deliciously familiar to New Orleanians than the extreme lack of elevation. There is a rustic cooking tradition, for starters, nearly all of it based on the food of slaves, and there’s a fascination with local seafood – including all the usual suspects plus a Low Country favorite known as wreckfish. From the traditional Deep South po-folk melting pot emerge such classic dishes as Hoppin’ John (almost Caribbean red beans and rice), she-crab soup and shrimp and grits. Great little places can turn up anywhere, but most agree Charleston is the queen of the Low Country. To see what the most creative chefs here are doing, head to Fish on King Street, which has the guts to weave in some Asian flavors. If it’s summer and you’re beaching at Sullivan’s Island (where Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Gold Bug,) choose the burgers and beer of Poe’s Tavern. The porch by the water is definitely where you want to be.
Texas-Mexus Nexus. Among some food snobs, one of the easiest targets anywhere are those heaping, cheese-molten platters of enchiladas and burritos that are the standard fare of what’s called Tex-Mex. Even in Texas, there are now restaurants that call their food Mex-Mex as a way of boasting authenticity. Still, from Provence to Tuscany, Catalonia to Shanghai, purity of origin has never been a true measure of authenticity. Just as people of different backgrounds marry and start families, so do cuisines – and few can boast more flavorful progeny than the family started a century or more ago along the Texas border with Mexico. For a fancy, upgraded version of these extremely entangled tastes, check out English-born Bruce Auden’s Biga on the Banks overlooking the Riverwalk in San Antonio. That same Alamo-centric city boasts hundreds of family-owned Tex-Mex joints, our absolute favorite being Los Barrios.