French Market Food Finds

New Orleans, LA –
I had a good idea about what I'd find at the French Market when I set out on a December foraging trip for Christmas stocking stuffers. Sure enough, the vendors' stalls were crammed with the typical New Orleans souvenirs and trinkets, including a bumper crop of fleur de lis-emblazoned items. Long live the Saints!

But pushing a little farther into the market's open-sided shed, I found something I hadn't expected: people sitting at newly-installed diner counters, chowing down on etouffee, veggie burgers and pork chops. After a prolonged round of renovations completed last summer, the city-run French Market now boasts a row of new food-service stalls, and it looks like they might be signaling a new chapter at the historic outdoor shopping mart.

A number of conventional restaurants have long operated within French Market properties, while Cafe du Monde is a landmark market attraction. And for years vendor Amy Nguyen has served Vietnamese pho, rice dishes and one of my favorite banh mi, or Vietnamese po-boys, from a red trailer she parks at the Barracks Street end of the market on weekends. But there's something different about these new booths. They're open-air spots right in the heart of the market, where customers perch at marble-topped bars. Hungry passersby peak over their shoulders at the day's offerings. And cooks and vendors banter across the market floor. In a small way, it's all helping restore a sense of diverse bustle -- that dynamic successful markets can foster so well but which has long been lacking at the largely tourist-oriented French Market.

For one of these new restaurant tenants, World Famous N'Awlins Cafe & Spice Emporium, the venture is actually the revival of a family legacy. Members of the Humphrey family have been vendors at the French Market since 1939, when Archibald O'Brien Humphrey, grandfather of current owner Arthur Humphrey Jr., first established a produce concession. Thirty years later, in 1969, Humphrey's father opened Barney's Cafe, which served traditional Creole dishes in the market. A kitchen fire closed Barney's in 1982, and the family business shifted to selling spice mixes and sauces at the market. Today, their new corner space includes a retail area for these items alongside the diner counter, where they serve breakfast, plate lunches, a roster of grilled fish dishes and such regional exotica as turtle stew.

Just down the line, chef Marilyn Doucette opened her Meals from the Heart Caf , where she prepares the same reduced-fat, low-sodium dishes that have won her a loyal following at local art markets and festivals. Next door, the longtime Marigny-based candy maker Loretta's Pralines has a booth selling their namesake confections, plus huge shoe sole cookies and other goodies. A few paces away, a new frozen drinks outlet called the Organic Banana blends pina coladas and daiquiris with locally-produced rum. Mother Nature's Cupboard, one of several produce vendors at the market, has opened a service counter selling snacks like crawfish bread, fried alligator and ice cream. More are on the way. A cheese shop and wine bar is in the works, and so is an outlet for Cajun-style meats like boudin, cracklins and hogshead cheese.

Souvenirs and knickknacks remain the bread and butter of French Market commerce, but if the best New Orleans memento is sometimes a meal, it looks like the options are adding up at the French Market.