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The Best Food in New Orleans

Beignets and Breakfast
It's amazing. You can talk to 50 New Orleanians, people who are knowledgeable about local specialties, and the beignets at the Morning Call Coffee Stand never come up. Hotel concierges are also clueless. Geography partly explains why. Morning Call, which is not a stand at all, but a storefront, is way out in Metairie, a 20-minute drive from the center of town. The setting is also a problem. But I switched off my allergy to strip malls long enough to eat nine of Morning Call's beignets—two-bite pillows of hot, perfectly greaseless fried dough that come in threes for a quite unbelievable $1.20.

The deadpan waiters in paper hats and baggy white jackets make a ceremony out of serving café au lait. In one hand they hold an aluminum kettle of chicory-fortified coffee, and in the other a second kettle of hot milk; the contents are poured simultaneously into your cup from a height of about 12 inches so that the mixture yields a little foam. Squeeze the most out of a trip here by lunching at Drago's, a block away.

Café du Monde is more famous, even though its beignets are chewier and heavier, its coffee insipid. But friends back home will look at you like you've got two heads if you tell them you didn't go to this French Quarter landmark. Besides, how often do you get to start your day with Mary J. Blige?Okay, so she's at the next table. Okay, so she's a drag queen.

The only other breakfast address you need is the Bluebird Café. This vaguely crunchy spot earns long weekend lines for its herbed, hand-formed sausage patties, firm grits, and deliciously wheaty pancakes and waffles, made with malted and buckwheat flours. Not to mention the buttermilk biscuits of your dreams.

Only in New Orleans
Was it the fried chicken she had delivered from Jacques-Imo's to her Ritz-Carlton suite, while shooting a video in the summer of 2001, that staved off the meltdown Mariah Carey so spectacularly suffered soon after?We may never know. What we do know is that the high C—hitting songbird has great taste, for the excellent fried chicken is the best (and certainly least scary) thing on the menu at this proto-funky Creole-soul restaurant in Carrollton Riverbend. More typical is the Batter-Dipped Deep-Fried Roast Beef Po'boy, also known as a "heart attack on a plate" and famously cited in a lecture on cholesterol given by a medical professor at Tulane University. If that doesn't spook you, there's always the alligator sausage—and—shrimp "cheesecake."

Except for the windows, R&O's looks like somebody's big, ill-cared-for rec room, with illuminated beer signs, thin industrial carpeting, and molded plastic chairs. Huge groups pile in for the Louisiana crawfish, boiled a day in advance with onion, garlic, lemon, orange, bay leaf, celery, and regulation Zatarain's seasonings, and served at room temperature. It's fussy, finger-numbing work freeing the small knobs of flesh from their shells, but it's worth it. Although four to five pounds supposedly constitutes a portion, two pounds did this Northerner nicely.

Consider the Oyster
No place, not even France, fetishizes oysters like New Orleans, where people pop them like potato chips. Although they're available all over town, and come only in one mild, generic variety, not all are equal. The finest are fat and icy and perfectly shucked: no shards, no gunk. The touristy Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter is probably the city's most famous purveyor; it serves more of the shellfish than any other restaurant in town. But Acme's unremarkable raw oysters and barely warm fried ones make you wonder what all the fuss is about.

I found the city's cleanest, freshest raw oysters at Pascal's Manale Restaurant, a wonderfully old-fashioned Italian-Creole classic with vinyl-covered armchairs and framed glamour poses of Vera-Ellen. It's better known for its barbecued shrimp, which are neither grilled nor served with barbecue sauce. What they are is an excuse to sponge up rivers of the spiced butter in which the shrimp are cooked.

No restaurant offers a keener understanding of the native oyster culture than Casamento's, an Uptown institution founded in 1919 and cherished for its Art Nouveau wall tiles, waitresses with Jaclyn Smith—in—Charlie's Angels hairstyles, and corn flour—coated oysters fried in lard—which produces a crisper result than the more commonly used vegetable oil. The oysters are layered between toasted and buttered "pan" bread (a spongy, tall, thickly cut white bread) to make the restaurant's signature "loaf," or sandwich. Regulars are known to put away a dozen or so raw oysters at the same meal. For those who practice oyster-eating as an extreme sport, oyster stew is yet another, chowdery possibility: redolent of onion and celery, milky-thin, with a pat of butter melting on the surface.

The best, lustiest oysters in New Orleans are neither raw nor fried—and they're not even in New Orleans. At a bumptious place called Drago's in the suburb of Metairie, oysters are thrown on the grill, splashed with garlic-herb butter, and pulled off the flames the moment they bubble.

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