Photo: Gary Clark
Day 1: Des Allemands to Breaux Bridge (134 miles)
As a food writer with a soft spot for cocktails and oysters (you'll find a small bottle of hot sauce in my purse, tucked alongside my lipstick), I've always had it bad for Louisiana, one of the most seductive food regions in the country. I fell even harder when I wrote two cookbooks with great New Orleans chefs, Susan Spicer of Bayona and Donald Link of Herbsaint and Cochon. Let's just say that there were plenty of po'boys, iced Abitas, and crawfish boils involved in our research. As a result, both New Orleans and Acadiana have become favorite eating destinations. So this month, as thousands flock to the Crescent City for Mardi Gras, I set out on my own pilgrimage to find the best gumbo in the state.
Gumbo originated in Louisiana, thanks to the confluence of cultures that occurred here during the 18th century. Like any great dish, it has evolved to represent both the journey of the cook and the ingredients available in the region where it is prepared. It's hard to imagine a bowl of anything that inspires more passion or pride. So I enlisted chef friends and other local experts to help track down the top contenders. Then I loaded my iPod with zydeco and hit the road. Here's what I found.
Drive U.S. 90 west toward Houma, a route with "more swamp and less big rigs," Donald tells me. He urged me to stop at a Chevron station in Des Allemands (17178 U.S. 90; 985/758-2522), where locals line up for deep-fried boudin balls (79 cents) and spicy meat pies ($2). I roll on past Louisiana's riches—satsuma stands, sugarcane fields, and oil refineries—to New Iberia. Alex Patout had two restaurants in New Orleans before returning home after Katrina to take the helm at Landry's Seafood & Steakhouse of New Iberia (landryscajunrestaurant.com or 337/369-3772). He's pulling local connections to serve truly fresh, wild seafood. Try his brothy, spicy Duck & Oyster Gumbo ($6).
I was excited to reach Lafayette, where Donald recently opened Cochon Lafayette (cochonlafayette.com or 337/993-9935). Tuck into his peerless Andouille Sausage and Chicken Gumbo ($6), made with roux cooked to the color of a dark penny. His Chocolate and Peanut Butter Pie ($7) will fuel you for the short drive to Maison Madeleine (maisonmadeleine.com or 337/331-4555), a bed-and-breakfast in a restored French-Creole cottage ($130 with a shared bath, $170 with a private bath).
Day 2: Breaux Bridge to New Orleans (157 miles)
After owner Madeleine Cenac's high-country breakfast (hot coffee, buttermilk biscuits, eggs, and local sausage), brave the occasional gator crossing and amble to the bird rookery perched on Lake Martin. Soak in the stillness and birdsong (large numbers of great egrets, little blue herons, and roseate spoonbills nest in the area), then head for a cup of Shrimp and Okra Gumbo ($5) at Café Des Amis (cafedesamis.com or 337/332-5273), served with a scoop of creamy potato salad and steamed rice on the side. Café Des Amis hosts a rowdy zydeco breakfast every Saturday, but on other days it's easy to get a seat at the bar.
It's a short walk from Café Des Amis to the exquisite culinary antiques—think French coupe glasses and turn-of-the-century copper pots—at Lucullus (lucullusantiques.com or 337/332-2625), a favorite with locals and movie-set stylists. (Owner Patrick Dunne has another location in the French Quarter.)
Hop on I-10 to Grosse Tete and exit onto State 77 South, then follow it to State 1 South for a two-lane ramble past plantations and massive oaks and across narrow, old bridges. Don't dally because you can still make a late lunch at Grapevine Café & Gallery in Donaldsonville (grapevinecafeandgallery.com or 225/473-8463), a restored 1920s building owned by Cynthia and Steve Schneider. A steaming bowl of their Hen and Andouille Gumbo ($12), made with mature chickens that deliver a deeper flavor, is worth the stop, and so are their effusive stories about their newly adopted hometown. "Our gumbo is a melding of Cajun and African flavorings, specifically the marriage of black and cayenne peppers," Cynthia explains.
Take State 3127 into New Orleans, a quieter stretch past cane fields that will get you to the newly remodeled Hyatt Regency New Orleans (neworleans.hyatt.com; rooms from $189) in time for dinner. Walk to Mr. B's Bistro (mrbsbistro.com or 504/523-2078) for a bowl of the legendary Gumbo Ya Ya ($8) with chicken and smoked andouille sausage. Over Sazeracs, my pal and The Times-Picayune food editor Brett Anderson relays to me that Mr. B's "should get credit for ushering in the age of dark roux andouille gumbos in New Orleans restaurants."
Day 3: Harahan (11 miles)
Brett makes it clear I have to hit Charlie's Seafood (charliesseafoodrestaurant.com or 504/737-3700), Frank Brigtsen's newest restaurant (he also owns Brigtsen's, a New Orleans institution), in Harahan for the ultimate seafood gumbo.
Thank goodness for his suggestion—it is at Charlie's that I have the most memorable bowl of the trip. "Say 'gumbo' to almost anyone in the world and they'll think of New Orleans," Frank tells me between spoonfuls of Seafood Okra Gumbo ($8), a classic example of Creole-style gumbo made with tomatoes and okra and brimming with sweet shrimp, gently poached oysters, and meaty crab claws. "It's our most important dish; it defines us as a culture," Frank adds.
So after all the traveling and tasting, who wins the best bowl? Bias and friendship aside, when it comes to a Cajun-style gumbo (typically made with andouille sausage and poultry), Donald Link's gumbo cannot be beat. For a classic Creole variety, all roads lead to Charlie's Seafood.