In and around the Big Easy, the ingredients are humble, but the finished products are anything but.
If you're looking for a life-altering culinary experience created by a made-for-TV celebrity chef, it's easy to find a lovely restaurant in New Orleans that will do the trick. What's harder is to locate an authentic Cajun meal served without all the food-mecca fanfare. Like all regional cuisine, Acadian food has a humble side, which is what you get when you toss fresh crawfish, crabs, and the occasional turtle into the pot. In the most traditional spots in and around New Orleans, eating is both a cause for celebration and a centuries-old way of life.
—Peter Thriffiley Jr. and Rene A. Louapre IV, Blackened Out blog (blackenedout.com)
The essentials of Acadian home cooking are all on the menu at chef Donald Link's Cochon, but they tend to speak with some unusual accents. Classic Cajun hog head cheese, for example, might come served alongside seasonally appropriate produce like beets, citrus, and tarragon, while crispy pig ears show up in a fresh arugula salad, dressed with pickled squash and charred cayenne dressing. Vegetarians and light eaters, take note: Animal fat turns up in nearly every dish on the menu, including the lard in the house-baked bread and stone-ground grits flavored with what seems to be several cows' worth of cream. 930 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, 504/588-2123, cochonrestaurant.com, crispy pig ear salad $10.
Mahony's Po-Boy Shop
You can find New Orleans's classic sandwich, the po'boy, in just about every neighborhood haunt, but Ben Wicks thought it deserved better. At Mahony's Po-Boy Shop, located in a small, blue house on Magazine Street, Wicks creates sandwiches as if they were royalty sitting on a throne of crusty yet cottony New Orleans–style French bread. Toppings include grilled jumbo shrimp with fried green tomatoes and tangy rémoulade, root-beer-glazed Chisesi's ham and cheese, and deep-fried chicken livers with Creole slaw.3454 Magazine St., New Orleans, 504/899-3374, mahonyspoboys.com, po'boys from $6.
Abita Brew Pub
The Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans, but the unofficial beverage of Cajun Country might well be Abita beer. This craft brewery in the tiny outpost of Abita Springs now produces more than 100,000 barrels of beer annually, in brews including golden, bock, light, and even Strawberry Harvest Lager—a wheat beer flavored with fresh berries grown less than 30 miles away in Ponchatoula. For the full-on Abita experience, take a leisurely bike ride along the historic Tammany Trace, stop in the tasting room, and then make your way to the nearby Abita Brew Pub, which serves up classic muffuletta sandwiches, rosemary BBQ crab claws, and spicy crawfish pasta. And unlike most breweries, Abita also makes a wickedly tasty root beer, flavored with pure Louisiana cane sugar, vanilla, and yucca for extra foam. 72011 Holly St., Abita Springs, 985/892-5837, abita.com, beer from $4.
In 1968 Bill Spahr built a filling station along Highway 90 in the tiny fishing village of Des Allemands. Over the years, his homemade "catfish chips" became a bigger draw than the gas, so he decided to turn off the pumps and convert the space into Spahr's Seafood. The waitresses still wear gas-attendant uniforms, and though Spahr retired from the daily operation years ago, he still makes the seafood gumbo every week from his personal recipe.3682 Hwy. 90 E., Des Allemands, 985/758-1602, spahrsseafood.com, cup of seafood gumbo $5.
Middendorf's Seafood Restaurant
When they say that the catch is fresh at Middendorf's Seafood Restaurant, they're not kidding. Every last catfish, shrimp, and oyster comes from area farms or fishermen, some of it even from brackish Lake Maurepas, not far from the restaurant's front door. Middendorf's has been in business for 76 years, and its signature dish is fried catfish cut so thin, it crunches like a potato chip. The sky-high platters of crispy fried oysters and shrimp are also popular, but don't overlook the broiled seafood, especially the flounder filled with a huge ball of crabmeat stuffing and basted with melted butter. 30160 Hwy. 51 S., Akers, 985/386-6666, middendorfsrestaurant.com, catfish $11.50.
Nobile's Restaurant & Bar
As the Mississippi River snakes toward the north, its banks are flush with rural communities serving both as navigational markers and ports for cargo. Nobile's restaurant is a holdover from the town of Lutcher's heyday as a thriving logging community. The well-worn 1895 clapboard building houses a restaurant and an antiques shop. You'll find standard (and delicious) oyster po'boys here, but don't miss the crawfish pies and shrimp-and-crab sauce, served on fried fish, pasta, and even baked potatoes. 2082 W. Main St., Lutcher, 225/869-8900, nobilesrestaurant.com, crawfish pies $8.