The first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival began with a nice breeze, overcast skies and a high probability of smoked meat.
That was courtesy of Squeal Bar-B-Q. The Oak Street restaurant is making its Jazz Fest debut, so its stand was the natural place to start a day of eating around the Fair Grounds.
The food offerings at Jazz Fest don’t change much and the ranks of vendors don’t change often, so the differentials from year to year will always draw attention, especially for those who plan out their festival eating as carefully as the roster of bands they plan to see.
Below, our Jazz Fest food coverage begins with field notes from a day I spent tasting around the new choices.
Where there’s smoke…
Squeal brings not only the most significant change to the food lineup, but some very hearty options as well. If you’re looking for one stop to fill you up, this would be a good pick. The BBQ brisket ($8) and the BBQ chicken ($7) sandwiches are each built on oversized French bread rolls (with crackly crust and airy, chewy crumb) and packed generously with meat and crunchy coleslaw. Of the two, I much preferred the brisket, which was served as large, rough-hewn chunks giving a burly smoke flavor under a dark, salty, mildly spicy sheen. The chicken, pulled into strands under a thick, mild sauce, was less smoky and may speak more to people who like their barbecue on the sweet side. A side dish of collard greens ($4) carried a good dose of bacon. Pro tip: fork some of your greens over the chicken for your own customized bitter-sweet sandwich.
Rolling with it
J&M Seafood, which runs the oyster bar in the grandstand by the Lagniappe stage, adds the crawfish roll ($7), which is like a bayou country corollary to the New England lobster roll. The actual roll in this case is yellow-hued and slightly sweet, like a Hawaiian sweet roll, filled simply with a good amount of crawfish salad — whole tails in a loose, creamy dressing with bits of celery and green onion. Shredded lettuce would have given the roll better texture, but as it stands now the dressing is surprisingly spicy and the flavor of the crawfish is vivid and fresh.
Across the grounds, at Food Area II, the shrimp remoulade po-boy ($9) from Food for Thought is another new cool seafood sandwich. The shrimp were taut and well-textured under the sharp horseradish bite of the remoulade, and a layer of slaw added more crunch. The roll, however, was dense and soft-sided, more like a hoagie loaf than po-boy bread. I would have liked to have the crunch of crust with this one.
Links with a past
Vaucresson Sausage Co. has been serving food at Jazz Fest from the very first fest, and this year it brings its new Italian chicken sausage po-boy to join the ranks of its legendary hot sausage and hybrid crawfish and pork sausage ($7 each). The link is juicy, not too greasy and strung with herbs. There’s an optional topping of Asiago cheese sauce, which has a tangy flavor and the texture of fondue. However, it was applied too thinly. The crusty French loaf can certainly handle more of this, and the flavorful link can stand up to it, so it should be ladled on more generously. Another optional addition of onions and peppers is an alternate to the usual po-boy dressing of lettuce and tomato, but of course these are also the natural running partners for sausage, and they work especially well against the Vaucresson hot sausage.
Sweet and smooth
It’s a small thing really, but it packs a wallop — the praline-stuffed beignet ($5) from Loretta’s Pralines (get them at the stand between the Gentilly Stage and the Kids’ Tent). The praline part is rendered as a creamy-sweet filling and sauce over the flaky-fried square of donut, finished with powdered sugar. By comparison, the new pineapple-coconut smoothie ($4 small/$6 large) feels downright virtuous (among the other ingredients listed: banana, honey, filtered water). Mellow and refreshing, it is loaded with tiny bits of coconut. Try it at the Gallo & Marks booth (known for their chocolate-dipped strawberries) between the Acura Stage and Food Area I.
The food vendors by the Kids’ Tent have always been a good pick not just for parents with young festival-goers in tow, but also for those looking for an inexpensive snack or something perhaps less rich than crawfish Monica and cochon de lait. This area had plenty of changes this year too. Fireman Mike’s Kitchen, the vendor best known for its alligator sauce piquant at Food Area I, here serves cornbread muffins ($4) studded with kernels, topped with shrimp and slathered with melted butter, which felt like a homey side dish and made a handy small snack. A brush of butter also goes over the straightforward corn on the cob ($3). The vanilla cupcakes ($2), meanwhile, get a cute frosting fire truck over the top.
Next door, Ms. Linda’s Catering, best known for the ya ka mein at Food Area I, serves a “sloppy Jeaux” ($5) that is sweet-tasting, with a streak of chili flavor and a soft bun. At the adjacent booth, the grilled cheese from Joyce’s Lemonade is griddled up to order (American or cheddar cheese; white or wheat bread) and is utterly simple but may be more evocative still. Just a flat little golden-crusted square of bread filled with gooey cheese, it feels like something mom would whip up if you were having a bad day.
While the music is playing, and as long as the weather holds up, bad days may seem far off at the Fair Grounds. But it’s always nice to know there are options.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.