Shell shocked. That’s the best way to describe New Orleans’ current dining scene. In the past few months, four taquerias have opened around town—restaurants singularly dedicated to Latin-inspired food and flavors, with tacos as a focal point. It’s fascinating, but it’s not the first time New Orleans has had a Latin food revolution.
Soon after Hurricane Katrina, taco trucks were everywhere, arriving along with the influx of Latin migrant workers helping to rebuild the city. New Orleanians took to the simple, flavorful and diverse meat-cuts tucked into warm, handmade tortillas topped with cilantro, diced white onions and squeezes of fresh, tiny Mexican limes. Eaten standing at a foldout counter extended from the side of the truck, or gathered with friends and strangers at nearby card tables, locals (and a lot of restaurant chefs) inhaled the “new” food, sharing squirt bottles of various hot and tangy sauces, exchanging info about “best” trucks and tacos across town.
New Orleans’ Mexican food craving has some history. Juan’s Flying Burrito has been holding court with its unique style of Mexican fare since 1997. Taceaux Loceaux—known for its list of “taceauxs” with names like “Jane Deaux” (vegetarian), “Messin with Texas” (brisket) and “Seoul Man” (bulgogi chicken)—hit the streets with its brightly painted (still-operating) van in 2009. In late May, it opened an Uptown restaurant. The menu is an expanded version of the truck’s, with 18 tacos to go along with apps, salads and quesadillas.
Bringing food and vibe closer to the border, Shannon and David Wright opened Del Fuego a few years ago on Magazine Street. The two took frequent “learning” trips to Mexico, plus Dave’s a Baja, California native, so their Cal-Mex cuisine is right on. Del Fuego’s tacos (the fried fish with slaw is a standout) come plated on fresh corn tortillas made on site. This was the first local restaurant to “roll their own” (tortillas, that is) with a fancy machine.
Otra Vez, owned and operated by new-to-town chef Akhtar Nawab (of Brooklyn’s Alta Calidad fame), is a pretty, modern space in the bourgeoning South Market District. The menu reads like Mexico City meets the modern southern U.S., with interesting twists on classics like a melty, sweet and spicy queso fundido, pairing honey, cheese and heat. The taco list isn’t particularly big, but it’s focused, using local fish, seafood (tempura-battered shrimp with celery root remoulade), charred steak and oyster mushrooms as fillings.
Also recently opened, Nolé is all about the New Orleans-South America food connection. Owner Al Copeland Jr. and consulting chef Chris Lusk partnered to create a menu that explores Latin flavors in a Cajun-Creole context. All the usual suspects—guacamole, salsas, quesadillas—are on the menu, but with local flare. Tapping into the New Orleans vibe, taco offerings include cornmeal-crusted oysters with pickled okra, smoked brisket with mirliton, blackened chicken, pecan-smoked pork and beer-battered Gulf fish with lime Creole cream cheese.
Brett Jones runs Barracuda, a straight-up taqueria with a small building to house the kitchen and a casual, outdoor dining space. The four-category menu lists Chips and Dips, Tacos, Bowls and Sides. Tortillas are house-made, and breakfast tacos are offered before 11 am. Simple, fresh and inexpensive are Barracuda’s calling cards.
NOLA Cantina’s modern take on street tacos is the polar opposite: 10 different tacos with some serious surprises (a Patrón XO Cafe & Cherry Coffee ice cream Choceaux-Taceaux, anyone?) and a lot of diversity. The Cochinita Pibil is decidedly Cuban-inspired, with sour orange-braised pork and fried sweet plantains.
New Orleans has come out of her regional cuisine shell with a boom of Latin-inspired restaurants that have us all taco loco.