The cuisine of New Orleans is a unique mélange of influences, sourced from all manner of population influxes that have arrived since the city’s founding almost three centuries ago. Hints of French, Spanish, African, and Native American origins (just for starters) are detectable in various local specialties. The distinctive results of this cultural and culinary blending are a primary reason that the Big Easy holds such a special place in the hearts and palates of those who have visited.
For a lot of people, one taste is all it takes, and that certainly holds true for Craig McNamara. After attending Tulane, the Chattanooga native stuck around, absorbing everything he could of Cajun and Creole cuisine, and fine-tuning his skills in the kitchen. Since his return, he has been providing authentic tastes from the Crescent City to patrons at N’awlins Big Easy Bistro on South Broad Street.
A glance at the menu on their website reveals a multitude of specialties straight from the mouth of the Mississippi. Gumbo, po’boys of all sorts, muffalettas, jambalaya—I was intensely excited for my visit.
Thankfully, my meal exceeded even my amplified expectations. I started with the gumbo. Tender chicken and medallions of coarsely-ground andouille were interspersed with rice and chunks of juicy tomato in a silky base, with just the right amount of spice to warm up your taste buds.
For my entrée, I had a split plate of red beans and rice and one of my all-time favorite dishes, crawfish étoufée. Served topped with green onions and alongside “soppin’ bread,” both were exceptional.
The red beans were perfectly cooked, with a smooth and almost creamy texture. Accompanied by huge chunks of andouille, the dish is a marvelous example of the magic that can be wrought with simple ingredients when they’re treated the right way.
The étoufée was also divine. Its savory sauce, light in spite of its richness, thoroughly complemented the pop of the crawfish. There was not a spot left on my plate.
I couldn’t pass up dessert, given how spectacular my meal had been so far. The opulent bread pudding was as beautiful as it was delicious, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream alongside, slowly melting into the rum raisin sauce. The smell, redolent of cinnamon, was intoxicating, and the luscious, buttery bread was studded with apple and walnuts, making for a full flavor experience in each bite.
The food is only part of the fun, though. N’awlins looks to bring the atmosphere of its namesake to town as well—the walls evoke Louisiana at every glance, and with Happy Hour seven days a week from 4 to 7 p.m., it’s easy to get in the mindset. You can’t beat one and two dollar beers! For those looking to indulge even more, Friday nights bring an all-you-can-eat catfish fry.
McNamara also brings the good will of New Orleans to our community, though it has a more personal origin. His family lost his sister (also Craig’s best friend) ten years ago, and as a tribute to her, he reserves a table in his restaurant for troubled souls to come in and enjoy a night out just like everyone else.
That good will and affability extends to every guest at N’awlins, though. The vibe is completely relaxed and welcoming. As the owner told me on my visit, “I’m not trying to do anything fancy. I’m just giving people the real thing.”
The classics I enjoyed were the best I’ve had outside of New Orleans, and better than a lot I’ve had there. Washed down with a cold Dixie Lager, I was reminded of warmer nights, spent in great company, with amazing food. Then I realized all I was lacking was the weather.
N’awlins Big Easy Bistro
3103 South Broad Street
Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Call (423) 267-1557 or visit nawlinschattanooga.com for more information.