If you’re lucky enough to go to Mardi Gras, hydrate and keep that belly full, and for goodness sakes don’t rely on power bars. This is New Orleans, home to some of America’s very best grub. Here are a few of the best cheap eats and drinks in town right now, including a few killer new-this-year options. (Tip: Always call in advance to make sure restaurants are open!)
Lamb neck roti, Turkey and the Wolf
Among the knockout items on the menu at this sunny, hip sandwich shop, the divinely tender chili-and-caraway-inflected lamb neck reigns supreme. Cooked low and slow and reminiscent in texture of the best pulled pork, it arrives on a warm slab of roti drizzled with lemony yogurt and flecked with cucumbers, mint and onions. It’s a mere $10.50, but we can’t guarantee you won’t want two.
Sazerac and a petit four doberges cake, Bakery Bar
Great happy hours abound in NOLA, and one of the best is at Bakery Bar, famed for its doberge cake (a layered local classic), which they sell by the slice and in mini forms. From 4pm to 6pm, Tuesday ‘till the Friday before Mardi Gras, you can snag a $5 Sazerac and a $3 petit four and sit at the sweet bar. (Starting on Sunday the 26th, the place will close for MG week!)
Fried shrimp po’ boy, Bevi Seafood Co.
You’re gonna eat a po’ boy while you’re in town, and there are plenty of wonderful ones, but for seafood, we find often ourselves here, tucking into perfectly fried, super-fresh Gulf shrimp and oysters.
Nowadays NOLA doesn’t lack for good coffee, whether it’s at French Truck, Arrow Café, or Spitfire, but you’ll want to star one of them on your map for tipsy excursions in the French Quarter and beyond.
Warm biscuit, Willa Jean
Our friend Kelly Fields is serving the Platonic ideal of a biscuit at her bakery-restaurant, and although you might spy a Willa Jean biscuit elsewhere around town, you want to get a warm one—flaky and plush—at the mothership, served with butter and jam for a mere $4.
Broiled oysters, Casamento’s
Arrive at this tiled old-school classic right when it opens and hope to avoid a wait, because its oyster loaf (fried oyster sandwich) and broiled oysters are the real deal. We always opt for the latter, since they’re topped with Parm, Worcestershire, garlic, and plenty of butter.
Mussels and Riesling, N7
Planning on a night drinking and exploring in the trendy Marigny or Bywater? Start at N7, the most romantic new restaurant in town. It’s tricky to find, but tucked behind a stamped wooden door you’ll find a gorgeous French-styled garden, bowls of fat mussels decked out with sake and garlic, and a surprisingly inexpensive wine list.
Chicken schnitzel and hummus, Shaya
Shaya remains one of the toughest reservations in town, thanks to a slew of James Beard Award nominations and its status as a local and tourist favorite. Excellent Israeli food is on tap here, and although you could splurge on a dinner, we like to sneak into the no-reservations bar at lunch or early on a weeknight, ordering the silky hummus or a fat chicken schnitzel sandwich slathered with harissa mayonnaise.
Crawfish boil, Maple Leaf Bar
It’s crawfish season down NOLA way, and it sometimes seems there are as many bars that’ll serve you a proper boil—corn, potatoes, spicy cooked crawfish, the whole nine yards—as there are watering holes. Ask around, but we’re particularly partial to the Maple Leaf Bar, where every Sunday at 10pm a staffer dumps a whole pot onto newspaper-covered tables near the dance floor. Elbow in next to a neighbor, shuck, eat, and dance when the bands start at 11pm. A ten-spot covers mudbugs and music.
Muffuletta, Central Grocery
You’re leaving town, you’re probably hungover, and you want one more bite for the road. You want a muffuletta—the classic NOLA sandwich of salami, capicola, ham, provolone, and olive salad served on a round sesame-flecked roll. Half a sandwich—more than enough for one person—costs $11, and it will get better as it sits, that olive marinade seeping through the whole. There’s nothing better to unwrap on a flight home, all the better to take the sting out of leaving New Orleans.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen