When eating your way through Louisiana, the world becomes your oyster. Served at shuck shacks as well as gilded New Orleans restaurants, oysters are on the menu everywhere. And for good reason: They’re plentiful and affordable, making them as much a part of Louisiana's culinary culture as crawfish.
“Seventy percent of oysters harvested in the U.S. are from the Gulf with the majority coming from Louisiana waters, ” said Charlie Whinham, public information officer at Louisiana Tourism.
So what’s the difference between Louisiana oysters and others varieties that vie for attention on the raw bar? It’s all about the oyster’s terroir — where and how the oyster is farmed — and the environmental factors, notably the Gulf Coast’s warm waters. Louisiana Gulf oysters tend to be large and tender with a mild flavor due to the freshwater influence from the Mississippi River.
While wild harvested oysters appear on the market, the most popular varieties are those commercially bottom-farmed and dredged or cage-farmed. These oysters are plump with a creamier texture, making them a favorite among chefs for baking, charbroiling, or eating raw.
To sample the difference, consider traveling the Louisiana Oyster Trail. Spawned in 2012, the Oyster Trail zigzags through Jefferson Parish spotlighting an eclectic collection of more than 20 restaurants stretching from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River to the Gulf. Each location is easy to find; look for the 3-foot-tall oyster sculpture displayed at each restaurant, designating it as an official trail stop. The trail includes restaurants in Metairie, Gretna, Grand Isle, Bucktown, and Lafitte.
Apart from the Oyster Trail, New Orleans' restaurateurs for generations have venerated oysters by means of frying, baking, and chargrilling. One such restaurateur is Chef Ryan Prewitt, named James Beard 2014 Best Chef in the South. His New Orleans restaurant, Pêche, also garnered the James Beard pick for 2014 Best New Restaurant in America. While it’s a small detour off the Oyster Trail, Pêche specializes in Louisiana seafood, and oysters are stars on the menu.
“We source only Gulf oysters. Primarily offering Grand Isle caged-raised and bottom-dredged oysters, which typically possess a creamy mineral flavor, as opposed to a salty brininess,” said Prewitt. The restaurant staff can shuck between 7,000 and 8,000 oysters weekly. “Here, we concentrate on raw oysters because you can taste all the differences in flavor,” Prewitt said. “Raw on the half shell is the most exciting way to eat an oyster.”
Slurping off the shell with or without a splash of Tabasco sauce isn’t for everyone. No worries. Consider the oyster options: Acme Oyster House is famous for chargrilled oysters sauced with herb butter, while overstuffed oyster po-boys are part of the menu at Desire Oyster Bar that’s inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel, another quality detour from the official trail.