From the recent news that it will add a weekly farmers market this fall, to this weekend’s Creole Tomato Festival, food has been right out in front in the efforts by the French Market in New Orleans to get more locals to shop and visit.
This is a sensible approach, and not just because, as a people, New Orleanians are highly susceptible to appeals pointed at their stomachs. It’s also because the market has historically been a food hub, from colonial roots as a riverfront trading post to more recent iterations as the place where French Quarter denizens made their groceries, an era still vividly remembered by some locals.
But beyond the special events and celebrations these days, food is still very much a focal point at the French Market. There, between the retail stores that comprise some of the city-run marketplace and the flea market stalls that so many think of when the French Market name comes up, a small, open-air food mart for quick, inexpensive meals has developed over the past few years.
The stage was set in 2009, when a major renovation left the market with a blocklong series of booths built out with full kitchens ready for vendors to customize with dining counters, deli cases and food displays. Over the course of a few such tours recently, I was surprised again and again by how well some of these walk-up cafés filled a particular and necessary niche during a day in the French Quarter, falling between street food and a full restaurant experience.
At Alberto’s Cheese and Wine Bistro, I also was surprised to find Juan Hernandez, a familiar face from his years operating the traditional Spanish restaurant Madrid, first in Kenner and later in Lakeview for a stint.
His “bistro” in the market is really a tiny perch of just four bar stools interrupted by a small cooler filled with half bottles and splits of wine. Muffulettas are the mainstay, along with big salads and plates of hummus and feta.
But Hernandez also layers Spain’s famous serrano ham and Manchego cheese on pistolettes, along with a drizzle of good olive oil and tomatoes. If you catch Alberto’s during a slow stretch, ask to have the same meat and cheese configured as tapas to go with your glass of wine.
At the booth just next door, chef Marilyn Doucette specializes in lighter, healthier renditions of Creole soul cooking at her Meals from the Heart Café. Doucette first earned a following as a food vendor at local art and craft markets, and now her family serves her reduced-fat, low-sodium (and often gluten-free) dishes at their French Market dining counter.
Palm-sized crab cakes are made into po-boys, served over greens for light salads or paired with eggs for breakfast plates, and brown rice and turkey sausage plump up an okra and shrimp gumbo.
Take a seat and count the seconds before another patron remarks on how refreshing it is to get a lighter version of local flavors. Someone always does.
Of course, an order of raw oysters has traditionally been a good call for a light New Orleans meal, and J’s Seafood Dock can take care of that in a flash.
From the kitchen behind their market stall, Gina and Omar Duncan serve fried seafood baskets, po-boys and charbroiled oysters. From a second stand just across the market aisle, a shucker opens raw oysters and other staff dispense trays of boiled crawfish.
This area can have the feel of a demonstration stage, as tourists stop to gawk or snap photos of the mudbugs and bivalves. But for anyone, the draw of raw food slurped out of hand at this energetic, open-air oyster bar can be magnetic.
There’s much more around the market, like traditional Creole confections from Loretta’s Pralines, an outpost of the well-known Marigny-based praline maker; and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches from Amy Nguyen’s red catering trailer, which she deploys by the flea market stalls on weekends.
Get a draft of Abita beer or a just-blended smoothie from the colorful Organic Banana stand and have a good look around. There’s a lot to explore here, and a lot to eat.
Of course, the French Market clientele these days is largely composed of tourists, and as you’d imagine, plenty of the food across the market offerings go right for the tourist appeal. There’s more alligator than you can shake a stick at …but then, the alligator sausage on a stick from the Cajun Jerky Outlet’s stand by the market gates does make a pretty handy snack.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.