Willa Jean King Cake
Caramelized King Cake from Willa Jean
| Credit: Randy Schmidt

The tradition of eating king cake is rooted in old-world Europe, but eventually found its way to America—specifically the South and New Orleans. And for this, we're eternally grateful. Celebrating with this confection is the sweetest way to usher in Carnival, which begins on Twelfth Night and culminates March 5 on Mardi Gras day. Down South, it's practically a sacrilege to indulge before or after the aforementioned dates, which is why the sight of king cake on the bakery shelf gets our heart's a flutter.

But, let's back up: First, what is king cake anyway? For those not in the know (and what a shame that would be), this sweet treat is often a braided wreath of cinnamon-laced brioche dough that's covered in icing and adorned with the sugared stripes of green for faith, gold for power, and purple for justice.

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Inside, the king cake can be filled with cream cheese, fruit, or even unique takes on savory elements. But all king cakes include the tiny baby tucked inside, said to represent good fortune—and with it comes the responsibility of bringing a cake to the next party. From the traditional to the offbeat, here's where to eat king cake in New Orleans. (And a few that ship, if you're not making a Carnival trip to the Big Easy.)

For Something Traditional…

Manny Randazzo King Cakes: A classic king cake if there ever was one, Randazzo is a favorite among purists, and for good reason—the family has been making this beloved recipe since 1965. Their hand-braided, cinnamon-infused cake is covered in "Randazzo" icing and topped with the traditional tri-colored sprinkles. (Ships nationwide.)

Haydel's Bakery King Cake
Credit: Courtesy of Haydel's Bakery

Haydel's Bakery: Now in its third generation, this family-owned bakery once operated out of a tiny 24-hour-a-day window. Today, Haydel's is among the most popular choices for a classic king cake, with recipes deeply rooted in New Orleans tradition. The cake is made of Danish dough that's hand-braided with cinnamon and sugar and topped with fondant icing along with purple, green, and gold sugar. (Ships nationwide.)

Dong Phuong Bake Shop: James Beard Award-winning Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans East became so popular that, just last season, folks were reportedly scalping the king cakes, while lines snaked down the block. This year, it's pickup-only for the light and flakey brioche king cake that's topped with a cream cheese icing.

New Orleans Cake Cafe and Bakery
Credit: New Orleans Cake Café and Bakery

And a Few of the New…

New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery: Situated in the Marigny, Cake Café has created a confection that could win a king cake beauty pageant if there were such a thing. Underneath the paint-splatter of colorful icing is the shop's signature goat cheese and apple filling. You'll also find a raspberry cream cheese and pecan cream cheese variety. Owner and head baker Steve Himelfarb also bakes the occasional mini boudin cake with cane-sugar candied bacon.

Gracious Bakery + Cafe: This sweet little bakery from husband-and-wife team Megan and Jay sells a smattering of homemade breads, pastries, and desserts. But come Carnival season, they're busy with the king (and queen) cake. Gracious Bakery's king cake is made with Valrhona couverture pieces and chocolate chips that are rolled into the dough. It's then glazed with white icing and dusted with colored sanding sugar. The almond-flavored queen cake has frangipane laminated into the dough. And there's the shimmering Nectar Cream: inspired by the city's favorite snow ball flavor, this nectar and cream filled cake is airbrushed with pretty pink and gold luster. Bonus: The shop's St. Charles location is smack-dab on the parade route.

District King Cake
Credit: Courtesy of District: Donuts. Sliders. Brew

District: Donuts. Sliders. Brew: It's not surprising that one of those fancy donut shops turns out a marvelous king cake. District Donuts creates their own unique spin, and this year it's a croissant-style cake with cream cheese folded into layers of laminated dough. It's drizzled with bittersweet salted caramel and a cream cheese glaze and finished with nonpareils and sprinkles. (Ships nationwide.)

Willa Jean: Guided by esteemed chef and partner Kelly Fields and named after her grandmother, Willa Jean impresses with this year's caramel crunch king cake. The almost-too-pretty-to-eat cake is made with a traditional cinnamon sugar filling, capped with a crunchy caramel glaze, and finished with cream cheese frosting petals. (Sold by the slice at the pastry counter or whole on pre-order.)

Cavan Savory King Cake
Credit: Courtesy of Cavan

Of the Savory Sort…

Cavan: This Coastal American restaurant, located in a stunning 1883 mansion overlooking Magazine Street, offers a seasonal savory king cake to commemorate Carnival season. Chef Nathan Richard's crawfish and goat cheese king cake is made with TABASCO pepper jelly cream cheese icing, red pepper flakes, crab fat sugar, and a smattering of green onions. It can be topped with Cajun Caviar for an additional price and lots of pomp.

When You're Makin' Groceries…

Rouses Markets: We love our groceries in the South, and this family-owned Southern chain makes a fine king cake with scads of fillings from fruit to almond to Heavenly Hash to chocolate or cream cheese. And there's the traditional, of course. Attend any Mardi Gras party in New Orleans, and you're bound to find a Rouses' king cake. (Ships nationwide.)

SoBou King Cake Beignets
Credit: Courtesy of SoBou

And, Finally, of the Non-Cake Variety…

SoBou: A favorite that stands for "South of Bourbon Street," SoBou serves Louisiana street food-inspired dishes alongside a superior bar program. This Carnival, chef Tory McPhail has created Mardi Gras beignets: a delicate buttermilk drop beignet with ginger-whipped frosting, Dixie crystals, and carnival sprinkles. It'd be a shame not to pair it with the King Cake Old Fashioned—crafted with rum, cinnamon, toasted pecan syrup, and Holiday Pie Bitters—the drink is rimmed with superfine purple and green sugars.