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Tour de Gumbo
Searching for 15 of the best
When I asked a barista at my neighborhood café where he liked to eat gumbo, the native of Southwest Louisiana answered as if on script. “My house,” he said. Louisianians make it clear that the best gumbo is their gumbo, which could extend to their mama’s or their parrain’s. But as usually happens, he followed up with some reluctant restaurant recommendations. (Casamento’s and Drago’s, for the curious.) Because, while the best gumbos are often the ones stirred with maximum care and love at home, sometimes – no, often – you simply need a fix.
Gauging from the number of restaurants offering gumbo in and around New Orleans, including restaurants where local diners outnumber tourists, gumbo cravings are at least as rampant as hankerings for roast beef poor boys, fried catfish and shrimp remoulade. I enjoy the city’s current range of culinary offerings, which is vastly more diverse than even a decade ago. But when I began this gumbo marathon last spring with a bowl of Gumbo Ya-Ya at High Hat Café, I realized in one bite that I had been neglecting one of the high points of living here. “We’re not eating enough gumbo!” I told my husband.
My Tour de Gumbo included more than 50 bowls and could have extended forever, were it not for publication deadlines. "Everyone has a good gumbo up their sleeve in this city, or they know where to find one if they don't," Brennan's chef Slade Rushing told me.
To make sure you’re in that number, take these as recommendations and inspiration for your own gumbo wanderings.
Seafood Gumbo Honorable Mention
Made with ginger, dried chile peppers, African chile powder, coconut oil and crab stock, the “African-style” okra gumbo at Boucherie last summer was the most creative take on the dish I’ve tasted locally.
The elegant seafood and andouille gumbo at Brennan’s contained few actual pieces of seafood – some shrimp, some crab – but it brimmed with a wonderful shellfish aroma and flavor. I could smell its fortified crab stock even before the server pulled his hand away from the bowl. Its color was milk-chocolate-brown, its texture velveteen. I asked chef Slade Rushing about the gumbo’s full, round, pepperiness. “We use all three peppers: black, white and red,” he explains. “That goes back to Paul Prudhomme.”
“People are so concerned about the rules, but rules are made to be broken. I focus on balance when I make gumbo.”
– Slade Rushing
I call the style of gumbo at Kenner Seafood “essence gumbo,” because essence is all that’s left of the shrimp and the crab. The seafood cooks so long that it barely holds together anymore: the shrimp are soft; the crabmeat is thread-like. But what’s lost in texture manifests in a soup that has shellfish flavor for miles. According to manager Penny Alexander, they purchase filé for the gumbo from a man who harvests, cures and grinds the sassafras leaves in Morganza and delivers it to Kenner himself.
Several chefs named filé as essential to the flavor profile of their gumbos – almost half of the ranked gumbos depend on it. For gumbo neophytes, filé is a powder ground from the cured leaves of the sassafras tree.
While Casamento’s is nearing its 100th anniversary, owner C. J. Gerdes added gumbo to the menu just a couple of decades ago. He cooks it himself from his mother-in-law’s recipe and techniques. It is consistently homey: a shrimp-and-crab gumbo with a medium-dark roux, liberal tomato and distinct pieces of okra. It is pleasantly herbaceous, never overpowering with bay or thyme as so many seafood gumbos are. The rest, says Gerdes, is a family secret.
“Chicken stock brings out the flavor of the seafood gumbo more.”
– C.J. Gerdes
Bourbon House’s shrimp and andouille gumbo reflects the gumbo-making style that chef Darin Nesbit “grew up with” while working as a young cook at Commander’s Palace. That is where he developed a palate for proportioning seasoning vegetables (onion, celery and green bell pepper) and making a foundational stock. The batch I tasted had a strong vegetal flavor and a hearty consistency from ample okra. A tourist might call it spicy; a local would call it correct.
The secret to making perfect rice is about timing and measuring, chef Frank Brigtsen says, each rice variety requiring a specific amount of liquid to achieve the proper texture. Following is a recipe inspired by “a life-changing rice experience” the chef had on his 24th birthday at the former Crozier’s Restaurant in New Orleans East.
Chef Frank Brigtsen’s Perfect Rice
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely diced yellow onion
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon dried whole-leaf thyme
Pinch ground white pepper
4 cups Jazzmen® aromatic white rice (or Panola Popcorn rice)
7 cups water or stock
Heat the butter in a pot over medium heat. Add the onions and bay leaf and cook, stirring constantly, until the onions become soft and clear, 2-3 minutes.
Add the salt, thyme and white pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, for 20-30 seconds.
Reduce heat to low and add the rice. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1-2 minutes.
Add the stock or water and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to very low. Cover the pot and cook for exactly 17 minutes. Remove bay leaf, stir and serve.
Makes 11 cups
Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar
Meat & Seafood Gumbo
Thick, dark, rich in okra and shellfish flavor, Liuzza’s “Cajun” gumbo always delivers. In quantity as well as quality – the gumbo threatens to overtop Liuzza’s bowls every time.
Chicken, shrimp and sausage pack a protein wallop. During a recent Saturday afternoon meal at the nearly 70-year-old neighborhood institution, I ran into an acquaintance that had also come for the gumbo. “I wanted to eat someplace where I would really feel like I was here, in New Orleans,” he says. Mission accomplished.
“You can have the greatest roux and the greatest stock in the world, but if you don’t use quality ingredients you’ll ruin your gumbo.”
– Laurie Bordelon
Two Sisters N Da East
Meat & Seafood Gumbo
It took me too long to reconnect with Two Sisters, which relocated from its original Derbigny Street location to New Orleans East a few years ago. Thankfully the no-holds-barred gumbo hasn’t changed. Heaving with chicken and chicken necks, turkey necks and turkey gizzards, smoked and hot sausages, shrimp and crabs, it wants for nothing. Except maybe okra, which cooks will add upon request. Bonus: Gumbo orders include a creamy, mustard-touched potato salad and sweet cornbread. Gumbo is served on Fridays and Sundays only during the warmer months.
Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop
Meat & Seafood Gumbo Honorable Mention
Chef Ron Iafrate’s Gumbo Monceaux comes with poached eggs on top.
In some parts of the state – and even in some New Orleans restaurants – potato salad is as essential to gumbo enjoyment as smoked sausage or bay leaves.
Dooky Chase Restaurant
Meat & Seafood Gumbo
Land and sea commune harmoniously in each bite of chef Leah Chase’s Creole filé gumbo. Hints of ham and of carapace infuse the shadowy broth. Chicken and shrimp and smoked sausage swim side-by-side. A spicy orange tint from fresh, hot, chaurice sausage colors everything, including the bowl. President Obama once had an infamous encounter with this gumbo. “Poor President Obama,” Chase told me last year. “The first time [we met] we fell off because he put hot sauce in my gumbo. Don’t mess with the gumbo.”
“You have to add that filé after. You never boil that gumbo with that file.”
– Leah Chase
Freret Street Po’Boys & Donuts
Meat & Seafood Gumbo
Fine china be damned. The Creole filé gumbo at this Freret Street anchor business argues that a great gumbo can transcend being served in a plastic bowl. A superior silky texture characterizes this kitchen’s gumbo, as does as a peppery hum and several proteins: smoked and hot sausage, chicken and shrimp. Owner Myra Bercy-Rhodies remembers how difficult it was to make gumbo immediately following Hurricane Katrina when her preferred hot sausage, Patton’s, was temporarily out of production. “It’s not just the heat that you’re tasting when you’re eating Patton’s,” she says, but also garlic, paprika and parsley.
Meat & Seafood Gumbo
There is so much high-quality take-out gumbo in this town that it argues for its own category. In this round of tasting, it was the meal-in-a-quart gumbo from the Claiborne Avenue location of Cajun Seafood that reminded me to pay homage to this genre. Smoked and hot sausage, shrimp and crabs, okra and filé all converge in a highly seasoned, roux-darkened chicken stock. According to Thao Nguyen, cooks at all four Cajun Seafood locations build their gumbos upon a gumbo base that Thao’s mother, Nga Le, makes from an original recipe. Le came to the New Orleans area from Vietnam around 1975; she opened the first Cajun Seafood on South Broad Street in ’95.
Since its opening 15 years ago, Herbsaint’s gumbo of the day has been a straightforward expression of stock and roux at their most refined. Chef Rebecca Wilcomb’s recent chicken-and-tasso iteration was no exception. If a dish whose components take hours – perhaps even days – to prepare can be called simple, this was a simple gumbo. Not spicy or loud or show-offy; just concentrated and meaty and balanced. In a strictly spiritual sense, this is heart-healthy cooking.
“If you don’t put enough stock into the gumbo, the oil won’t come to the surface and it will taste like roux forever.”
– Donald Link
I went to Grand Isle for the seafood gumbo, assuming that a restaurant named for a fishing village would serve a seafood gumbo. But when a chef has the pedigree of a charcutier, as Ryan Haigler does, his gumbo ought to reflect that. At Grand Isle, Haigler and his staff make a tangy, ham-like andouille that’s so uniquely delicious that it could sustain a gumbo on its own. Haigler uses the andouille to season a chicken gumbo that contained an additional luxury when I tried it last summer: fresh, deep green, baby okra.
Chef Frank Brigtsen makes filé gumbo with chicken in the summer months (when it’s on a fire sale “Coolinary” menu) and rabbit the rest of the year. Brigtsen’s attention to detail is fierce. He browns and braises the meat and adds the pan drippings to the gumbo pot. He picks the meat from the bone, which results in big, satisfying pieces. He cooks his roux carefully, explaining that, “a good brown roux is mellow and has a softness to it. It’s not harsh, it’s not oily, it’s not bitter.” The chicken-and-andouille version I tried in August had a prominent, green, almost citrusy, quality – the upshot of bountiful seasoning vegetables and fresh filé.
“There’s hardly a right or wrong when it comes to gumbo, but for me, okra only belongs in a seafood gumbo.”
– Frank Brigtsen
For gumbo neophytes, okra is a vegetable pod with serious binding powers. I learned that it pays to embark on a gumbo binge during Louisiana’s okra season, from late spring through August. Tender, delicate, baby okra starred in many of the gumbos I tasted last summer.
This new school seafood restaurant presents a decidedly traditional seafood gumbo: murky broth, plenty of okra, two sizes of shrimp and oysters. As in the gumbo at Kenner Seafood, the shrimp’s texture has been sacrificed for the greater good. Chef Ryan Prewitt says that his gumbo-making technique “was 100 percent formed at Herbsaint working with Donald Link,” a partner at Pêche. Substantial stocks characterize the gumbos at all of Link’s restaurants (Herbsaint and Cochon are the others), and cooks accomplish this at Pêche by roasting shrimp shells and heads in the oven before putting the stock to simmer.
“Keeping it in as few hands as possible is the secret to good restaurant gumbo. It helps to maintain the consistency.”
– Ryan Prewitt
My initial thought upon spooning into the super-dark, thick, rich duck-and-andouille gumbo at Galatoire’s: Why would anyone ever use chicken? Michael Sichel, the executive chef at Galatoire’s for the past four years, might have inherited this gumbo, but now he owns it. He puts a medium roast on the roux, he says, so that it adds color and thickness but doesn’t detract from the flavor of confit duck leg. He finishes it off with a touch of filé.
All of the 15 gumbos ranked here started with a roux. For gumbo neophytes, you make a roux by cooking flour in hot oil, lard or butter.
High Hat Café
I began this gumbo quest with High Hat’s Gumbo Ya-Ya, and it stuck with me to the end. Its dense, coffee-dark broth; its chicken pulled from whole birds; its super garlicky andouille from Poche’s Market in Breaux Bridge. Chef Jeremy Wolgamott adds the andouille at the start of cooking so that its intense flavors break down and penetrate the broth.
“I would never start a gumbo with water. If I was out of chicken stock and couldn’t find any, I probably wouldn’t make a gumbo.”
– Jeremy Wolgamott
K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
Meat Gumbo Honorable Mention
This is a sentimental favorite. Without a Louisiana mama or parrain of my own, I turned to Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen many years ago. The cookbook’s visual aids and scholarly instructions acted as my gumbo mentor. To this day, the chicken-and-andouille gumbo at K-Paul’s takes me back to my own first gumbo effort.
Boucherie | 1506 S. Carrollton Ave. | 862-5514 | Boucherie-Nola.com
Bourbon House | 144 Bourbon St. | 522-0111 | BourbonHouse.com
Brennan’s | 417 Royal St. | 525-9711 | BrennansNewOrleans.com
Brigtsen’s Restaurant | 723 Dante St. | 861-7610 | Brigtsens.com
Cajun Seafood | 1479 N. Claiborne Ave. | 948-6000 | CajunSeafoodNola.com
Casamento’s | 4330 Magazine St. | 895-9761 | CasamentosRestaurant.com
Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop | 2309 N. Causeway Blvd. | Metairie | 835-2022 | GumboStop.com
Dooky Chase Restaurant | 2301 Orleans Ave. | 821-0600 | DookyShaseRestaurant.com
Freret Street Po’Boys & Donuts | 4701 Freret St. | 872-9676 | FreretStreetPoBoys.com
Galatoire’s Restaurant | 209 Bourbon St. | 525-2021 | Galatoires.com
Grand Isle | 575 Convention Center Blvd. | 520-8530 | GrandIsleRestaurant.com
High Hat Café | 4500 Freret St. | 754-1336 | HighHatCafe.com
Herbsaint | 701 St. Charles Ave. | 524-4114 | Herbsaint.com
K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen | 416 Chartres St. | 596-2530 | KPauls.com
Kenner Seafood | 3140 Loyola Drive | Kenner | 466-4701 | KennerSeafood.net
Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar | 3636 Bienville St. | 482-9120 | Liuzzas.com
Pêche | 800 Magazine St. | 522-1744 | PecheRestaurant.com
Two Sisters N Da East | 9901 Chef Menteur Highway | 242-0469