New Orleans, La. –
The New Orleans Saints proved our city had the NFL's best team last year. This season, another team of New Orleanians is proving we have the league's best food too.
This team is a collection of local restaurant industry heavies, and their employees, who have turned the new Champions Square festival grounds just outside the Louisiana Superdome into a showcase of distinctive New Orleans flavors. From a ring of tented vending booths, they greet the Who Dat nation before each home game with hand-held feasts that put normal stadium food to shame.
Superdome officials run the show at Champions Square, which is open to the public. To ensure the eats at this new space would really shine, the Dome's overall food service provider subcontracted with local restaurateurs to get the job done.
Champions Square made its debut in August during the Saints' preseason, and now it opens before all home games. I used the early games this season to sample the field of food around Champions Square, and I can report that people who have eaten their way through a day at Jazz Fest will recognize the format immediately. Certainly, the related skills for juggling foam plates with beverages and cell phones come in handy here too. Some may register sticker shock at the prices for this festival-style food. But compare the quality, and even the portions, that you get in Champions Square with typical stadium fare and they look like better deals.
Most importantly, these pre-game eats at the Dome put Creole flavor in the starting lineup. Some of the dishes come straight from restaurant menus, including Galatoire's iconic shrimp remoulade and a thick, deep-dark, country-style duck gumbo, which Galatoire's recently added to its regular dining room menu. Choosing between savory shrimp beignets or shrimp and grits at the booth from Red Fish Grill, I'd pick the grits dish every time. It's a masterpiece in a plastic bowl, with huge, lightly charred shrimp and a chunky tomato sauce. Across the square, local restaurateur Dickie Brennan brings two standout sandwiches to the game - a cheesesteak from his Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse and a BBQ shrimp po-boy from Bourbon House, each made on crisp pistolettes. Drago's Seafood Restaurant serves a familiar seafood pasta and a more exciting spinach risotto with chopped shrimp and an essential dose of spicy tasso, that highly-seasoned Cajun-style ham. Keep your eyes peeled for the possible addition of Drago's distinctive charbroiled oysters being cooked around the Square sometime this season too.
There's enough good food here to pick and choose not only between different dishes but even between different styles of the same dish. For instance, if Galatoire's duck gumbo is too thick and smoky for your liking, there's a lighter chicken and andouille gumbo from Acme Oyster House at the very next booth, where this French Quarter restaurant also serves shrimp po-boys. Creole soul food stalwart the Praline Connection serves large filets of fried catfish beside a heap of its jambalaya, and there's a competing jambalaya found right around the corner, a brown, smoky, Cajun-style version.
The noon kickoff time for Sunday home games inevitably means some Saints fans will be eating hearty Creole fare pretty early in the day around Champions Square. But that's fine with me. I love the taste of roux in the morning. It tastes like victory.
Champions Square Information
For the Oct. 24 Saints game versus the Cleveland Browns, Champions Square opens at 9 a.m. and will remain open after the final whistle that afternoon for a post-game show.
For more details, click here.