In the September issue of Travel + Leisure Magazine, readers selected New Orleans and San Francisco as numbers one and two in terms of foodie destinations in the United States. But the two food cultures are so different as I found out in a recent trip to New Orleans.
When I think of San Francisco dining, the Alice Waters playbook of using freshly sourced ingredients stands out to me. Chefs tend to offer whatever is fresh at the market that day, using those ingredients to base their menus upon. In many cases, the flavors of each dish are complex with a different taste and flavor being felt with each bite. Innovation is the name of the game, whether it’s in a new food truck or a white tablecloth experience; eating establishments are constantly changing to adjust to what is hot and new in the culinary world. The dining experience is a bit more formal and refined with a sense of casual elegance in many of the city’s finest restaurants.
While I didn’t fully get to experience all that New Orleans has to offer in terms of a culinary destination, as the main purpose of my trip was the Voodoo Music Experience, what I did get a chance to take in was a refreshing change. Seafood is obviously king in the region and the flavors of Cajun and Creole cooking really stood out to me. There is a tremendous focus on sauces and flavors that dance on your tongue with each dish, whether it’s a spicy sauce for an Oyster Po’ Boy or the base for a gumbo. While the dishes all have a tremendous depth to them, there is also a sense that many of the recipes are long handed-down family recipes that have been tried and true staples for decades and decades. That sometimes can be amiss in Bay Area cooking as chefs tend to try to outdo each other with that next great dish or ingredient, rather than focusing on just good, down-home comfort food.
To say the food is hearty in New Orleans is an understatement. Portions are plentiful, sauces and soups are not only rich in flavor but rich in general and chefs are not afraid to use plenty of spices. I’m can’t remember the last time I have been as full after having a meal at Cochon, which included fried alligator, gumbo and a catfish courtbouillon entree. And that’s a good thing!
To be honest, it is hard to choose two better food destinations as both have their own unique qualities and styles. If you have not visited New Orleans, I highly suggest it for not only the food, but the wonderful atmosphere in the city. But if you can’t get down to Cajun country, here are a few places in San Francisco that can whet your appetite for now.
Boxing Room: Chef Justin Simoneux has roots in New Orleans and brings those flavors and recipes to his restaurant in Hayes Valley. With deep-fried alligator, a variety of gumbos and stews and a different Southern special featured daily during the week, you can easily get your fix of New Orleans-style cuisine. Located at 399 Grove Street.
Brenda’s French Soul Food: New Orleans native Brenda Buenviaje brings her diverse background to her menu at Brenda’s French Soul Food. For breakfast, lunch or dinner, you can get your fill of beignets, grits, gumbo and other Southern specialties. Located at 652 Polk Street.
Criolla Kitchen: Before heading to NOLA, I tried out this fairly new spot in the Castro. It was a great starting point for my trip because the flavors are really outstanding. If you like a bit of heat in your food (and your Bloody Mary), this is a great spot. Located at 2295 Market Street.