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6 Things You Don't Know About the New Orleans Food and Drink Scene

There's way more to the Big Easy than oysters and Sazeracs

New Orleans's food-and drink-prowess is well documented. The restaurant scene has flourished in the decade since Hurricane Katrina, with almost double the number of places to dine than before the storm. But on a recent NOLA jaunt, it wasn't just the po'boys, the Creole cooking, and the Ramos Gin Fizzing that got me excited—I knew all those things would be terrific. What I wasn't expecting was to have some of the best pita bread I've ever tried at Israeli restaurant Shaya, or an unforgetable old-school Italian meal at Mosca's, way out in Avondale on Highway 90. Here are six things you may not have known about Crescent City's food scene.

1. There's amazing Vietnamese food

As the Vietnam War wound down in the early 1970s, greater NOLA saw a significant influx of Vietnamese immigrants who brought their foodways with them. Over in New Orleans East there's still a robust Vietnamese community, which has rebounded from the major damage the area suffered during Katrina. You'll find a cluster of businesses where Alcee Fortier Boulevard meets Highway 90, including a supermarket where many of the Asian vegetables are grown locally in people's gardens or a nearby community farm. Two restaurants in particular stand out, both nearby on Highway 90. First there's Dong Phuong bakery, renowned around NOLA for supplying many of the best po'boy joints with bread (turns out the banh mi and the po'boy use a nearly identical airy French roll); the next-door restaurant also makes a mean beef pho or bun bo Hue. Down the road is Ba Mienwhere the thing to order is the bun rieu, a tomatoey crab-and-shrimp noodle soup popular in the Mekong Delta. Just over the past few years, more and more Vietnamese places have opened in Central New Orleans as well, and there's even some Creole-Vietnamese fusion happening at MoPho in Mid-City, where the pho has a discernable Louisiana kick.

2. Creole-Italian cooking is a thing (and you don't want to miss it)

I'd been dying to dine at Mosca's for years, ever since I read Calvin Trillin's excellent New Yorker piece about the 1946 Italian roadhouse. The place is way out in Avondale, a suburb on the West Bank, and the one-story white clapboard building smack on Highway 90 could stand in as a religious meeting hall if a person didn't know better. That makes it just the place to worship at the altar of garlic and olive oil, a combo that that liberally dresses many of the restaurant's best-loved dishes, including Shrimp Mosca and skillet-roasted Chicken a la Grande. Be sure to order some simple spaghetti Bordelaise for sopping up the sauces, and don't miss the Oysters Mosca, which are baked to delicious effect with breadcrumbs, herbs and cheese.

Though the Mosca family originally hails from the central Italian coast (via Chicago), New Orleans has a sizable Sicilian-American population. NOLA's other famous sandwich, the muffaletta, owes its origins to the Sicilian bakeries that flourished in the French Quarter about a hundred years ago. Nowadays, at beloved spots like century-old Pascal's Manalefamous for its spicy, buttery barbecue shrimp, or Mandina's, whose menu roves from shrimp remoulade to veal Parm, the melding of cultures is evident—your red "gravy," as everyone calls it, will always be a little spicier than ones you've tried in other towns.

3. Tourist places are also local places

Unlike many cities, where the locals and tourists inhabit different orbits, N'awlins' best 
spots are beloved by visitors and residents alike. If you hit up the legendary Garden District standby Commander's Palace for its weekend balloon-bedecked jazz brunch or weekday lunch (featuring 25-cent martinis) you'll see just as many New Orleanians as tourists digging into the excellent Creole menu, celebrating and getting sauced. Similarly, Friday lunch at Galatoire's is a must for in-the-know weekend visitors, but it's an even bigger deal to locals, many of whom have been lining up early for a coveted table in the downstairs dining room every Friday for years.

4. Drink trends are not what you think

Yes, you should definitely stop by the Roosevelt Hotel's elegant Sazerac Bar to taste the classics. The namesake Sazerac features rye whiskey, absinthe and Peychaud's Bitters, and the Ramos Gin Fizz, NOLA's other signature drink, is a delightful citrus and egg-white concoction that resembles a boozy lemon meringue pie.

But what's trending in the drink world might surprise you. For starters, Tiki is big, thanks to a couple of newish notable places. There's Cane & Table, a dim and ambient spot slinging top-notch Tiki drinks, both classic and new-school, in the back end of the French Quarter. About a year ago, Tiki godfather Jeff "Beachbum" Berry (who's penned six books on Tiki culture) opened Latitude 29 in the French Quarter. The throwback space features hand-carved Tiki totems and the menu offers classic and Beachbum-designed drinks and a pan-Asian food menu to offset the booze. Craft beer is also burgeoning in Crescent City. NOLA Brewing Company debuted on main drag Tchoupitoulas Street in 2008 and its Friday afternoon brewery tour and tasting has become a favorite way to start the weekend.

5. Middle Eastern food is having a moment

That's right: One of the hottest restaurants right now in the home of everything pork and shellfish is Israeli spot Shayawhere the pita bread is some of the best I've tried outside of the Holy Land. Chef-partner Alon Shaya—an Israeli native and longtime veteran of John Besh's restaurants—opened the Magazine Street place a year ago as part of the Besh Restaurant Group, and it's been gangbusters since then. Locals and visitors crowd the beautiful blue-wallpapered dining room to dig into that warm, pillowy bread with an assortment of hummus, babaganoush and other dips. There's a delicate duck matzo ball soup and other dishes that reflect Israel's far-flung culinary influences, like a North African-influenced short rib tagine. Across town, popular Bayou St. John restaurant 1,000 Figs offers a menu of Middle Eastern favorites in a beautiful setting. The restaurant is the brick-and-mortar spinoff of the super popular Fat Falafel food truck.

6. Boozing and burning calories go together

Okay, this one's not that unexpected. After all, even when New Orleanians give up drinking for Lent, that often just means no hard liquor—because beer and wine don't count...right? I spent a memorable morning swerving around town on the Confederacy of Cruisers cocktail bike tour, which was my first time riding a bicycle equipped with a cup holder (par for the course in this town). We hit up a bunch of classic bars, taking our cocktails to go, since that's perfectly legal in N'awlins. During non-boozy pit stops we learned about the history of NOLA drinking. We briefly paused outside the New Orleans Athletic Club, which happens to be the oldest gym in the U.S. Oh, and it happens to have a bar inside. Because of course it does.

AFAR Experiences New Orleans took place May 18–20 2016. Learn more here.