Must-Visit in New Orleans: Cochon
In both of our New Orleans dining guides (the budget edition and the big spender version), Donald Link's Cochon is at the top of our recommendation list. And after spending a week feasting through the city that never stops partying, I'll have to agree. Bite for bite, it's among the most delicious food the city has to offer.
Cochon Butcher, the sandwich and butcher shop connected to the main restaurant, is what Carey suggests for eating NOLA on the cheap, as Cochon itself, with main dishes in the low- to mid-$20s, can get a little spendy. While Cochon Butcher is awesome (just look at that muffaletta), it's a more casual space, and the traveling eater (or, say, the discriminating local on a first date) may want something a little fancier.
Can you get the full Cochon experience while still eating out on the cheap? I paid a visit to find out, and while I can't say it was my least expensive meal in the city, I can say that limiting yourself to the restaurant's $10-ish appetizers and sides affords you value dining at its best. If you order carefully with an eye towards maximum flavor rather than maximum fullness, you can eat very well indeed—while saving coin for cocktails before dinner, as well as after.
By maximum flavor, I'm 60% talking about the roasted shrimp with hog jowls ($11), four of the meatiest shrimp you're ever likely to encounter in a pan sauce of pork juices, chili, and shrimp broth. Wobbly bits of cured pork face punctuate a jus of such sharp-salty-meaty-fishy intensity that it could pass for Malaysian sambal. Relish the shrimp, particularly the shells and heads, and use them as spoons for the oh wow this is why Cajun food is so good sauce.
But save some of that sauce to spoon over the creamy grits ($6). "You just ordered the cheese trough, Max," my dining companion said on first bite. It turns out the coarse grits are just thickened with milk, but they do convey such a creamy, dairy intensity that you'd be sure cream and butter were involved. They're rich stuff, perfectly cooked, but a little on the mild side, so that shrimp and pork juice peps them up nicely.
No such accompaniments are needed for the smothered greens ($6), which are sturdy but tender collards with a potlikker at the precise intersection of meaty and vinegary. Are grits and greens really necessary orders when you're in a city full of them? Yes, for two reasons. One, they're just better here than you'll find most places; two, together they're the price of the other appetizers, and make a cheap way to fill out your meal.
The fried alligator with chili garlic mayo ($10) is among the most-noted dishes at Cochon, and justifiably so. Think popcorn chicken, but with a hint more funk and a thinner, crispier crust. The real winner is that amply-applied chili garlic mayo, tangy and hot, made much more intriguing and can't stop eating this by the bright topping of parsley, onion, and—what's that?—mint. If the shrimp feels a little dicey for the price, this is an abundant bowl of gator bits.
Sharing soup is a challenge for some, but get over it and order the gumbo ($7). A bowl of this stuff is as close as you might get to a single-bite education on the meaning and untempered power of Cajun cooking. The stew is a nesting doll of meat, herb, and spice, the kind of ineffable excellence that comes from careful technique applied to centuries of hard-won culinary tradition. And the pork within is just as triumphant, tender as can be with all the porkiness you could ask for.
Before tax and tip, the dishes above will run you $40. These five plates comfortably feed two and more modestly three. You may not leave stuffed, but when the food is this remarkable you don't need to be. And in a city so packed with po'boys, beignets, and oysters on everything, a relatively lighter meal where every bite is wonderful is hardly a chore.