To the uninitiated it might sound like idle chatter, but New Orleans food fanatics know better.
When someone asks you to name your favorite food at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, they are often seeking vital intel on where to start or what they might be missing.
I quizzed people across town on their favorites to help guide my own run at Jazz Fest food this year. The approach pointed the way to revelations and underscored the personal connection New Orleanians sometimes form with the food here.
For instance, mirliton casserole (Food Area I) was not a go-to item for me until I was reminded how rare it is to find such a spicy, crawfish-laden treatment of the humble mirliton outside of home cooking, never mind at a festival. Paired with catfish under a honey-thick pecan meunière, it was a restaurant-worthy entrée on a paper plate.
In other cases, I learned that dishes that initially had the draw of bang-for-buck bargains have since grown into indispensable Jazz Fest traditions.
“Use both hands,” a vendor advised me while passing over a plate that (barely) contained barbecue pork ribs, meaty white beans and pickle-strewn slaw (Heritage Square).
While the more-acclaimed cochon de lait po-boy (Food Area I) brings barbecue smoke, the appeal of these ribs comes more from the sweet, heavily sauced and caramelized-crusty school of barbecue, and perhaps the picnic-sized portion.
For some, novelty trumps all, though that can make for a small sampling with the low turnover in vendors or favorite foods here.
The only new vendor this year arrives as a tie-in to the Brazilian cultural theme featured across the fest. You’ll find the local Brazilian restaurant Carmo set up by the Casa do Brasil tent. Just look for the crowd of people peering in or circled around to inspect the dish someone else just purchased.
Carmo’s acarajé is a novel-looking specimen by any standard. Crusty, tawny-toned fritters made from black-eyed pea flour are stuffed with a creamy, mellow cashew sauce, plump shrimp and salsa fresca. Cradled loosely in paper, these acarajé are hard to transport. Just eat them on the spot while four or five strangers converge to get a closer look.
Pão de queijo, another traditional Brazilian dish here, are like small biscuits of cheese bread. Be prepared for the dense, tapioca texture from its cassava flour. Imagine a cross between grilled cheese and chewing gum.
Another new entry is the spicy grilled tofu (Congo Square) with big hunks of yellow squash and a vinegar-splashed slaw of carrot and cabbage over couscous. It’s a filling and offbeat vegetarian option, and the name is no lie. If the spicy tofu was any hotter, we’d need to run this dish through the misting tent.
A few items that debuted last year are back and, but by the measure of Jazz Fest food longevity, they still qualify as new. The shrimp and duck pasta (Food Area I) is a new favorite for the way its radiator pasta shapes collect the meaty, garlicky jus. The Japanese-style yakiniku po-boy (Food Area II) is also worth a try and is made with shaved beef marinated in sake and mirin and dressed with a chunky, sambal-like hot sauce.
And some festival food cravings are sentimental or just sum up Jazz Fest for certain people. One woman told me she always brings a plastic sandwich bag to tuck away an order of sweet potato pone (Food Area I), a brownie-sized square that’s like a sweet potato coffee cake. She always eats it at home on the last Sunday of Jazz Fest, after everything has wrapped up, as a final taste of the fest.