I never thought frog’s legs would be the highlight of my vacation.
Cajun Country is well-known for its unique cuisine, from gumbo to crawfish etouffee. This fall I had the opportunity to sample most of the area’s classic dishes on a road trip through Acadiana in southern Louisiana. Some were delicious, some were terrible, but all were memorable (and very different from the cuisine I am used to in New York City).
These are the top 10 Cajun Country dishes I sampled in Louisiana. If you’ve tried these local delicacies, please share your experience by leaving a comment below!
Crawfish is synonymous with Cajun Country and is the reason visitors flock to the small town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, officially known as the “crawfish capitol of the world.” I spent three nights in this friendly hamlet, which is home to the annual Crawfish Festival, hoping to sample boiled crawfish. Unfortunately, mature crawfish are not steadily available until after Thanksgiving (a week after our visit), but I did experience fried (frozen) crawfish and crawfish etouffee (with a roux-based sauce) at Crawfish Town USA, a popular seafood restaurant that serves a half-ton of crawfish each year. During peak season, the kitchen’s industrial-sized boilers are working non-stop and its 500 seats are filled with diners coming for the Monday night all-you-can-eat seafood special. The fried crawfish was delicious and tasted like fried shrimp; I’ll be sure to come back to Cajun Country to sample boiled crawfish.
2) Frog’s Legs
Due to the French influence in southern Louisiana, frogs legs are a popular menu item. When an owner of the Pont Breaux’s Cajun Restaurant in Breaux Bridge heard that I had never eaten frog’s legs, he prepared a sampler with one grilled and one deep-fried frog’s leg. Both of the miniature legs were surprisingly good– especially the grilled version, which was the single best dish I ate on the entire trip. If you are trying grilled frog’s legs for the first time, don’t be intimidated by their appearance (the large veins and musculature are clearly visible). While it may be cliched, the frog’s legs really do taste a lot like chicken!
I love seafood but had surprisingly never tasted catfish, which is a major staple of Cajun cuisine and can be cooked in a variety of ways. I tried catfish several times during my Louisiana trip, usually battered and fried, and found it to be surprisingly tasty. This mild white meat is not too fishy and is an excellent base for an etouffee dish. My favorite variation was the grilled catfish in a seafood platter called La Bam Breme at Crawfish Town USA (pictured).
I had eaten crocodile a few years ago in Australia and expected alligator to have a similar taste. Like crocodile, alligator can be served grilled or fried; In Cajun Country, I was told by locals that while tourists don’t mind the alligator tail, Cajuns prefer to eat the chewy stomach lining. With so many dishes to sample in Acadiana, I didn’t have the chance to try alligator until I arrived in New Orleans. I ordered fried alligator with a spicy aoili sauce from Cochon Restaurant, a popular eatery in the Warehouse District that serves traditional Cajun fare. The dish resembled chicken nuggets and contained white meat that tasted similar to chicken but with much more fat. It was delicious.
I’ll come out and say that I’m not a big fan of seafood soups, but I gave the local crawfish gumbo a try at Pont Breaux’s Cajun Restaurant and it actually wasn’t too bad. I learned that there are two major types of Gumbo in Louisiana; in New Orleans it is predominately Creole gumbo, which has a tomato base, while in western Louisiana they eat Cajun gumbo, which uses a dark brown roux (flour and fat) as a base. I tried only the Cajun version, which is served with a side of white rice, but plan to order the dish on my next visit to New Orleans.
Boudin is a very popular Louisiana delicacy that varies dramatically throughout the region. Boudin is a mixture of rice and meats (usually pork, but sometimes crawfish) stuffed into a pork casing and slow simmered in a rice cooker. Different regions have their own preferred spices and ratios of rice to pork. I tried a pork boudin from Charlie T’s, a small meat market and convenience store in Pont Breaux. A helpful woman at the counter suggested I eat the boudin by squeezing the meat and rice out of the casing, as you would do with a refrigerated popsicle. (That’s the method I used, although another staff member chimed in that she always eats the casing). The boudin was excellent, with unique Cajun seasoning that tasted like a mix of salt, black pepper, chili pepper, and garlic. While the location of the best boudin shop is highly contested, the BoudinLink website helpfully lists and ranks the boudin served at markets throughout Cajun Country.
A delicious dessert brought to Louisiana by French settlers, pralines are made of cooked and cooled brown sugar, butter and pecans. With ingredients like that, how could it not be good? I bought a plastic-wrapped praline from Poche’s Market in Breaux Bridge after receiving a tip on Instagram from a Cajun Country native. The hard candy melted in my mouth, revealing an impossibly sweet but delicious dessert. I wouldn’t eat a praline every day but it is a nice treat.
8 ) Bread Pudding
I have eaten bread pudding a few times over the years and generally found it to be bland and dry, like a Christmas fruitcake. My time in Cajun Country, however, has made me a fan of this cake-like dessert. Even Leslie, a self proclaimed “bread pudding hater” loved the ones we sampled on this trip. Incredibly sweet and dripping with whiskey sauce, Cajun bread pudding reminded us of a moist (and slightly alcoholic) tres leches cake. We tried bread pudding in two restaurants, which used different but equally delicious reciped. Buck and Johnny’s pizzeria served a dense version with extra sauce that we practically drank off the plate (pictured above), while the Crawfish Town USA was more of a moist, crumbly pudding.
The third Cajun dessert we tried, beignets, may be the unhealthiest (and tastiest) of all. Beignets are basically fried pastry dough topped with powdered sugar– similar to the fried dough you might find at a street fair in the Northeast, but much better tasting. Perhaps the most famous place to get beignets is at the Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, a 150-year old cafe that has become a popular tourist draw. The beignets were so good we visited twice, braving long lines to order a paper bag of piping-hot beignets from the take-out window. We also tried the dessert at T-Coon’s Zydeco Restaurant in Lafayette, which serves enormous, square fritters covered in a mound of powdered sugar. We ended up with sugar all over our faces and clothes as we scarfed down the delicious fried dough.
I have saved the worst for last. A classic Cajun dish, cracklins are pieces of pig skin that are coated in Cajun spices and fried in their own fat in a large pot. After receiving many suggestions from locals about the best place to try cracklins, I picked up a small bag along with my boudin at Charlie T’s. The cracklins were dry, salty, and incredibly nauseating for a stomach not used to fried pig products. I ate only one and felt queasy for the next few hours. Cracklins really are an acquired taste– but given their popularity, you won’t want to leave Cajun Country without trying one.
What’s your favorite Cajun food?
Share your picks by leaving a comment below! If you are reading this via email or RSS feed, click on Downtown Traveler to leave a comment.