Traveling for food brings its own type of joy: Connecting to a community and culture through the fare that’s defined towns and regions is a way to understand both a location’s history and the possibility of its future. And in New Orleans, the hot, puffy, sugary beignet helps travelers do just that.
Recognized as the official state doughnut of Louisiana, beignets are a deep-fried pastry made from pâte à choux, a type of pastry dough that originated during the 16th century from Italian, and eventually French culinary techniques. The deep-fried pastries can take on a number of forms around the world—think chestnut flour fritelli in Corsica and the holeless Berliner doughnut in Germany—but their most prominent iteration is the New Orleans version, which is commonly served as a breakfast item: piping hot with powdered sugar on top.
An integral part of New Orleans cuisine, beignets date back to the 18th century when they were brought to the New Orleans coast by French colonists and Acadians. Today, beignets have taken on a life of their own through their distinctive taste and various iterations. They are demonstrative of the rich and storied history of the Crescent City, and representative of what’s possible with a little heart, creativity, and a few dashes of sugar.
Here are four essential places to try a New Orleans beignet.
Café Du Monde
The icon. The moment. The real OG. Café Du Monde opened in 1862, and for more than 150 years, it’s retained its global credibility through a sole item on its food menu: beignets.
Served hot, puffy, and smothered in snow-like powdered sugar, Café Du Monde’s beignets have become popularized through literature, folklore, and movies, such as The Princess and the Frog and Chef. With locations around Louisiana (and at one point, even in Japan), the original location in the historic French Quarter remains its most popular. Overlooking architectural marvels and jazz street players, visitors from all over the world can catch a bit of the Mississippi River breeze while enjoying one of the city’s oldest delights. Originally opened as a coffee stand, the café also serves other New Orleans favorites, including chicory coffee—which has a slightly chocolatey, nutty flavor—and coffee served “au lait,” with hot milk. Remaining true to its roots, recipes at the café have reportedly gone unchanged, meaning that guests can be assured that the delicious dining experience they enjoy was likely shared by many who came before them.
Cafe Beignet was opened on Royal Street in the 1990s by a group of close friends, and their idea has since grown into a local chain. It serves breakfast, sandwiches, local specialties like red beans and rice and the muffuletta, a New Orleans–style sandwich of a Sicilian sandwich loaf filled with layers of salami and ham, various cheeses, and an aromatic olive salad. Of course, it also serves the almighty beignet. Note that Cafe Beignet’s pastries are more cakey than Café du Monde’s beignets, showing that there’s no one way to do a beignet.
Loretta’s Authentic Pralines
While most associate beignets with powdered sugar, New Orleanians know that there are many ways to enjoy this perfectly fried dough. As the first African American woman to own and operate a praline storefront in New Orleans, owner Lorretta Harrison takes this to heart: Loretta’s Authentic Pralines serves nationally recognized pecan pralines, cookies, and other sweets, like its innovative beignets. Just a few of the varieties that keep patrons coming back? Breakfast beignets with sausage or bacon, egg, and cheese, peanut butter and jelly beignets, burger beignets, and praline beignets, which includes mouthfuls of fried beignet dough complimented with melted praline.
“It’s beignets for days,” says Cynthia Tate, Harrison’s niece and a shop worker. “Whatever it is, it’s freshly made and made with love.”
Plant-based restaurant Seed has taken local favorites like po’boys and gumbo and turned them into vegan delights. Seafood gumbo becomes mushroom gumbo, po’boys are filled with eggplant, and grits are served with saucy seitan. And no, it didn’t forget about the beignets. Still deep-fried, the restaurant takes its own spin on the pastry, opting for a vegan, dairy-free dough, and serving them with a coffee crème anglaise.
>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to New Orleans