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The Best Gumbo in New Orleans

by TopBusinessView

Where’s the best gumbo in New Orleans? If you live here, that’s something you’re asked all the time. Being a Creole girl from the 7th Ward—a multigenerational native New Orleanian at that—I certainly have opinions on gumbo. I’ve been eating it since I was a bald-headed baby with only two teeth and I’ve been making it since I was 18.  

At its core, gumbo is somewhere between a soup and a stew. It’s a blend of a roux (flour and fat that’s cooked until brown), stock, the Louisiana seasoning trinity (bell peppers, onion and celery), plus meat and/or seafood. When I make gumbo, which is usually only for holidays because it’s expensive to do it “right,” I put everything in it: chicken thighs, andouille, hot sausage, deveined shrimp, cleaned blue crabs, oysters, and okra. There’s also filé (ground sassafras) on the table for me and whoever else wants it. Never in my entire life would I include a tomato in any form. Certainly not an egg, not snow crab claws, not loose crab meat, not crawfish, never anything crunchy unless it’s cooked all the way down, and, for the love of all that is holy, never corn! These ingredients just do not belong—that’s me though. Needless to say, everyone here has strong feelings about this dish.

Some people’s favorite gumbo comes from Broad & Banks in Mid-City, while others prefer the spicier gumbo from Heard Dat Kitchen in Central City. No two restaurants will make gumbo the same—even sister restaurants like Saint John and Gris-Gris. One thing I learned from interviewing chefs across the city as I put this list together is that pretty much every chef’s gumbo exemplar is the one they ate growing up. For me, it’s my mama’s gumbo and the gumbo Ms. Fields made in the cafeteria at McDonogh 39 elementary school—the latter served with a grilled cheese sandwich. For others, it’s their family’s, or the one served at their office or their school.

We New Orleanians are protective of gumbo, and hypercritical of anything related to it. If you want to see us unite as a city, getting us talking about gumbo is one surefire method. “Anytime you talk about gumbo, it’s a long conversation,” says Frank Brigtsen, the chef-owner of New Orleans Cajun-Creole restaurant Brigtsen’s. “Of all the dishes in Louisiana, gumbo really stands out as unique and identifies us as Louisiana people. And to me the best gumbo in the world is the gumbo you grew up with. It’s a very personal, passionate thing.” 

When it comes to finding the very best gumbo in New Orleans, at least outside of our own homes, these eight restaurants—some old, some newer—are where I turn.

723 Dante St., New Orleans

The first time I had Brigtsen’s gumbo was around 2013, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone ever since. Dining at Brigtsen’s is like going to a relative’s house for the holidays. The restaurant is located in an old home, with separate rooms, a hodgepodge of art and seasonal decor on the walls, the “good” silverware you pull out for special occasions, and a team of kind people who treat you like family. 

Most of the time, Brigtsen’s gumbo has chicken, andouille sausage and ground sassafras powder, which we call filé. Chef-owner Frank Brigtsen trained under the late Chef Paul Prudhomme, the man credited with introducing Cajun cuisine to the masses. That’s who introduced Brigtsen to the very Cajun style of gumbo he serves at his restaurant, which usually contains no seafood or okra. On certain occasions, such as Lent, Brigtsen will serve seafood gumbo.

There are two techniques that make Brigtsen’s gumbo stand apart from the rest. First, he makes his roux and sets it aside to cool. By doing this, the oil rises to the top and he can skim the fat away before adding the roux to the gumbo—ensuring the ideal consistency of slightly thickened soup. Second, unlike many chefs, he doesn’t mix the trinity of vegetables in with the roux. Instead, Brigtsen adds the vegetables in two stages to add more browning, caramelization, and dimension. “Almost all Cajun cooking is based on very humble ingredients,” Brigtsen says. “The key to success is in the use of seasonings and techniques to build layers of flavor.”

Order: You can never go wrong at Brigtsen’s. Most recently, I ordered chicken and andouille filé gumbo and the crawfish pasta. The crawfish pasta here is a bright take on the classic dish, with shells tossed in pesto and topped with fresh crawfish tails—not the typical linguine in crawfish cream sauce that you’d find at casual gatherings.

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