“Where’s the best place to eat around here?” It’s one of the most popular questions asked when arriving into a new city, and it’s the question that might be the hardest to answer in a foodie destination like New Orleans.  With more than 30 James Beard award-winning cuisines, celebrity chefs, and places to dine passed down for generations, the question isn’t where to eat in NOLA, but what?  Take your senses to a gastrointestinal paradise as we count down the top five foods guaranteed to give you a true “Taste of New Orleans” experience.

 1. Beignets

These signature sugary pastries were brought over by the French settlers in the 1700s and very quickly became a beloved part of the culture.  Light and fried, these iconic treats are made of dough that’s been cut into a signature square shape and covered with powdered sugar. Café du Monde is the most popular spot for the ‘treat-served-in-threes’ today.  The outdoor coffee stand was established in 1862 in the New Orleans French Market and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, closing only on Christmas Day.

Local tip:  The original Café Du Monde location resides as an outdoor stand just across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter, with long lines of tourists awaiting their favorite treats.  Skip the line and enjoy picturesque riverfront views with a visit to a 2nd Café du Monde location inside the Riverwalk Outlet Mall attached to  Hilton New Orleans Riverside.

2. Gumbo

The origin of gumbo is a true testament to the melting pot of New Orleans history.  A combination of African cooking style, European spices, and Native American meats fused together to make this classic dish.  Cajun/Creole gumbo involves a strongly-favored roux-based stock, the vegetable holy trinity (a homage to Louisiana’s Catholic heritage) composed of celery, onions, and bell peppers, and an array of seafood or meats that includes local andouille sausage.

Local tip: Most restaurants in New Orleans serve Louisiana’s official state cuisine, and while arguing over who makes it best usually involves someone’s mama, mention Dooky Chase and many will admit you can’t go wrong here.  Travel to the restaurant in Treme where the Queen of Creole Cuisine, Leah Chase, has served gumbo to everyone from famous actors to heads of state since 1941.

3. Charbroiled Oysters

Take an ordinary oyster, add butter and garlic to its natural brine and place on the grill.  Cook with a flash of flame and sizzle, and top with herbs and a blend of cheeses, and you have what many have coined the “single best bite of food in New Orleans.”  Even fans of the raw and slimy, straight from the sea version, have to admit that the charbroiled ‘gateway oyster’ turns taste buds and skeptics into a state of buttery bliss.

Local tip:  Order this creation at the place it was invented by executive chef and owner Tommy Cvitanovich at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant.  With two locations, one inside the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, this local family run restaurant prides itself on home-made classics and giving back to the community with thousands of plates of food delivered to hurricane victims in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

4. King Cake

Best described as a cross between a coffee cake and a French pastry, King Cake is a New Orleans delicacy enjoyed from “Kings Day,” which kicks off the Mardi Gras season, until Ash Wednesday, the start of the Catholic Lenten season.  King Cakes are exchanged between friends, offices, and families throughout the season.  A plastic baby is hidden in the cake, and whomever gets this lucky piece must bring the next cake in to continue the tradition.

Local tip: You won’t find King Cake on the menu anywhere if you travel to New Orleans outside of Mardi Gras season, but don’t fret.  You can still enjoy the local treat as part of a tour at Mardi Gras World.  Visit this famous warehouse downtown where the Mardi Gras floats are built and housed, and learn about the history and pageantry of this two weeklong celebration while enjoying authentic King Cake!

5. Bananas Foster

The original Bananas Foster was created in the 1950’s when New Orleans was the major port of entry for bananas shipped to the U.S.  Owen Brennan, owner of Brennan’s Restaurant, challenged his chef Paul Blange to include bananas in a new dessert, and the rest is history.  This famous dish, named after a friend of the chef, Richard Foster, features butter, sugar, cinnamon, liqueur, and dark rum flambéed and served over ice cream.

Local tip: Order it at its original home at Brennan’s in the French Quarter (a Hilton ‘Taste of New Orleans’ partner restaurant!) where over 35,000 pounds of bananas are used to make this treat each year.  Enjoy the spectacle as much as the dish, as servers arrange and cook the delicious dessert tableside.

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