I rarely order gumbo at restaurants, and if I do, it’s because I’ve sampled it first. I’m picky about gumbo. Far too many people dislike gumbo, and that’s probably because they haven’t tasted good gumbo like my grandmother’s, my father’s or mine. Gumbo at restaurants is rarely the real thing.
I like to know what’s in restaurant gumbo. Before ordering a sample, I ask the server about the ingredients; I don’t even taste those with oysters or fish (except grouper). If a sample is too watery, too spicy or too fishy, I suspect the cook is serving six-day-old gumbo. I haven’t yet mustered the courage to ask a server “What day of the week does your chef make gumbo?” but I’ve heard some cooks just water down what’s left in the pot. Daily, they add a little more hot sauce and a little more stock to make the gumbo last the full week. Making gumbo is hard work but if it’s not fresh, it’s not worth 99 cents or $4.95 a cup.
Some restaurants are famous for their gumbo and share elaborate recipes with the world. After the home cooks see the ingredients and the time required, chances are they’ll order a quart to go, just what the restaurant intended.
The Gumbo Shop
630 St. Peter
One restaurant takes a different approach. The Gumbo Shop in New Orleans, which serves the best I’ve eaten in the Crescent City, offers one of their gumbo recipes to tourists so they can cook gumbo at home to savor their love of The Gumbo Shop and the French Quarter until they return.
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant
110 Rue Magnolia, Biloxi, Mississippi
Biloxi, located on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, is home to, Mary Mahoney’s, an upscale restaurant located in the Old French House dating to 1737. Famous for seafood, steaks and French cuisine, Mary Mahoney’s been operating in the historic house since the 1940s. It survived Camille and Katrina and is on the National Register of Historic Places. While a college student, I dined there and was so enamored with the beauty of the historic home and the lore that surrounded it, I can’t remember what I ate. At that time, legend claimed the bar was located in old slave quarters. I don’t know if Katrina washed away the slave quarters and spared the home or if the owners are more sensitive now because there’s no mention of slaves on the website. It would be nice if I could say Mary Mahoney’s is named after the first African American licensed nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney, but it’s not so. The original owners were the late Bob and Mary Mahoney and her brother Andrew Cvitanovich. Still a family operation, their gumbo is famous. In 1987 the restaurant shared the recipe with the cookbook editors for Keesler’s Art in Cuisine from Keesler Air Force Base. I spotted one at an estate sale a few weeks ago and photographed the recipe.
Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s
200 E 25th Ave, Gulf Shores, AL
Lulu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama, is a beach-style dining experience where folks wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, bring the kids and often arrive by boat. The food is exceptional and Lulu’s is as famous for gumbo as its owner Lucy Buffett (Jimmy’s sister) is for cooking and storytelling. Her cookbooks delight the reader with tales of friends making gumbo, an all-day event. You can see it takes a crew to make it from this restaurant recipe featured in Coastal Palate.
12595 Sollace Freeman Highway, Sewanee, Tennessee
In his book Southern Foodie: 100 Places to Eat in the South, food and drink writer Chris Chamberlain recommends eating gumbo at only one Southern restaurant before you die, and it’s not in New Orleans. This choice is on top of Monteagle Mountain in the college town of Sewanee, Tennessee, home to University of the South. Chamberlain should know – he lives in nearby Nashville. Shenanigan’s is a restaurant and pub in a funky old house, but Chamberlain’s readers might be disappointed because the menu (online) doesn’t list gumbo. Maybe they ladle it out from their food truck. Gumbo or not, I’d still try their muffaletta.
404 Harbor Blvd, Destin, FL
When I found the book Marina Café: Flavors of the Gulf Coast at an estate sale, I was surprised to learn Marina Café, which overlooks Destin Harbor, serves classic Chicken and Andouille gumbo – not seafood. That’s refreshing. I’ve never visited the restaurant or tried the recipe, but both look enticing.
2301 Orleans Avenue, New Orleans
or Louis Armstrong International Airport (Kenner)
Creole chef, restaurateur and nonagenarian, Leah “Dooky” Chase is legendary for gumbo. She’s also a New Orleans television personality, author and household name when it comes to making gumbo. Her main restaurant is located in Treme near the French Quarter, but I found her location at the Louis Armstrong International Airport excellent, and the lines much shorter. Her recipe for Gumbo Z’Herbes is featured in the book Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans by Lolis Eric Elie. The author, Elie, is a New Orleanian filmmaker, journalist and food historian. I first learned about him when I read an article he wrote about gumbo for Smithsonian Magazine.
I love Gumbo Z’Herbes and could drive to New Orleans in less than four hours, which is about how long it takes to make the following recipe. A commuter flight would be faster, but the cost of a cup of gumbo at the airport would soar over $300. If only we had the Amtrak back.