Ask any New Orleans local where to get the best gumbo, and they'll likely say it comes from their own kitchen, or that of a close family member. We can be fiercely protective of our gumbo recipes, which have often been passed down and perfected over generations, and come to represent a family’s history and tastes. According to some New Orleanians, there are as many versions of gumbo in New Orleans as there are cooks in its kitchens.
I’d venture to guess that there are even more recipes than that. I personally make five kinds of gumbo, and, since moving to New Orleans nearly 25 years ago, I’ve eaten countless delicious bowls of the stuff, made with love in people’s homes and at restaurants. Restaurants serve their own expert renditions, knowing that they’re up against all the family gumbo recipes in the state—some stiff competition. Some are carbon copies of what the chefs would serve out of their own home kitchens, while others display dazzling professional skills possessed by few home cooks.
What Is Gumbo?
Gumbo is notoriously slippery to define—different versions of the stew can boast more distinctions than common threads. But broadly speaking, contemporary gumbo can be described as a dark soup or stew flavored with the "holy trinity" of aromatics—a mix of onions, green bell peppers, and celery—and, sometimes, sweet tomatoes. Most feature some combination of fresh seafood, poultry, and/or red meat. Spicy andouille sausage often makes an appearance, too, or even tasso ham, a Louisiana specialty with roots in Spain, both of which give the stew a smoky, meaty undertone. Sometimes, Louisiana hot sauce or condiments such as Worcestershire sauce are also added to give the stew a bit of brightness.
The vast majority of gumbo recipes gets their rich body from one or more of three thickeners. The first is typically a roux—a combination of flour and fat (like butter, meat drippings, or oil) that’s slowly cooked until a desired toastiness and hue is reached. Gumbo’s also usually thickened with an additional ingredient: filé powder, an herbal seasoning made from ground dried sassafras leaves, and/or okra. You can read more about the different roles these thickeners play in our guide to making gumbo.
In New Orleans, gumbo is usually served over steamed long-grain white rice. In Acadiana, a region of Louisiana near Lafayette with strong French-Cajun cultural influences, it’s often enjoyed with a dollop of creamy potato salad in lieu of the rice. (Thanksgiving turkey gumbo is served, appropriately, with a scoop of cornbread dressing.)
At the end of the day, gumbo’s so much more than a stew—it captures the influences of the many cultures that have contributed to the flavors of the city. Some believe that gumbo gets its name from the Choctaw word for filé powder, kombo; others suggest it’s taken from the West African Bantu name for okra, ki ngombo. Regardless of the true origins of the name, these conjunctures serve as important reminders of the great debt that Southern foodways owe to both African and Native American culinary traditions. Then there’s the roux, which can be traced to French settlers; andouille sausage, born of the sausage-making traditions of German immigrants; shrimp and other seafood harvested by Vietnamese fishermen; oysters, harvested by the city’s Croatian community; sometimes Spanish tasso as a flavoring agent; and sometimes tomatoes, from Italian immigrants.
A Guide to Gumbo Varieties
Now that you have the basic definition down, here’s a quick and dirty guide to the three main types of gumbo. Many modern versions are actually a mix of these three, allowing cooks to combine their favorite parts of each for a strain of super-gumbo.
- Creole gumbo: A true New Orleans Creole gumbo starts with a lighter roux—meaning a shorter-cooked roux with a less intensely toasty flavor—ham or chaurice (spicy fresh-pork sausage), okra, and tomatoes, all simmered in a flavorful stock. The protein in Creole gumbo is often seafood, such as shrimp, oysters, and crab. Because it’s lighter in flavor and full of vegetables, I like to think of this variety as a "summer gumbo."
- Cajun gumbo: Originally, the Cajun community in Louisiana cooked meat that they had caught or hunted. Since that meat often involved gamier flavors, a swamp-dark roux made a rich and flavorful accompaniment, and this continues to be the base used for Cajun gumbo today. The dark roux also means that Cajun gumbo can be on the thin, brothy side, since roux actually loses its thickening power as its gets darker. Beyond that, the stew contains smoky andouille sausage; some type of meat (which could be seafood, poultry, beef, game, or a combination); and rarely, if ever, an ounce of okra or tomatoes. Today, the dark roux traditionally found in a Cajun-style gumbo lends its flavor to many other, more modern gumbos.
- Gumbo z’herbes: Otherwise known as "green gumbo," this vegetarian gumbo was tailor-made for Lent and other days on which meat consumption was forbidden by Roman Catholic tradition. It starts with a medium-tone roux that’s about the color of peanut butter. Usually made with between seven and nine types of leafy greens—ideally nine, for nine churches visited on Good Friday in remembrance of Jesus’ walk to be crucified, but always an odd number of greens, as an even number is considered bad luck—the number of vegetables in this gumbo represents the number of friends anyone who eats it will make that year. Though this version was originally vegetarian, most cooks can’t help throwing in some meat, chaurice, brisket, and ham.
Choosing a favorite gumbo is a little like choosing a favorite child—nobody comes out happy. To even try divides people into different camps, only to come together again when a bowl arrives at the table. While not necessarily a criteria for judgment, the best gumbos are tangible connections to the cooks that came before, and to the cultures that each took a turn at the pot. Here’s the criteria I used for this list.
- A good roux: A lot of people think gumbo needs to be thick, but that isn’t always the case. However, it does need a deep and complex flavor, which usually starts with a well-made roux. The roux in gumbo should impart a toasty, nuanced flavor, without tasting like coffee (a sign the roux is burnt) or like flour (a sign it hasn’t cooked long enough).
It’s worth noting that gumbo doesn’t have to have a roux: The earliest Creole cookbooks, Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, and the Christian Women’s Exchange’s The Creole Cookery Book, both published in 1885, contain perfectly functional recipes that don’t utilize a roux. But since most modern gumbos are roux-based—and indeed, every gumbo I tried for this ranking started with one—a good roux was among my must-have criteria for determining the greatest gumbo in this town.
- A symphonic layering of flavors: The best gumbo treats its ingredients as equally important building blocks, so that the stew’s flavors are dynamic and layered. As critical as it is to not burn the roux, the trinity should be balanced, the stock should be rich, and the sausage or ham should provide a distinctly smoky flavor without being too overpowering. Also, if okra or filé are added, they should complement the roux, offering their thickening power without adding a pronounced stringy or slimy texture. And if the hot sauce or Worcestershire provide a strong contrast to the deep flavor of the gumbo, the seasoning’s gone too far.
- Perfectly tender, flavorful protein: Whether a gumbo uses rabbit, turkey, shrimp, or crab, the protein should be able to stand on its own. Are the shrimp mushy? Is the meat tough? While several bowls of gumbo I tried may have had intensely flavorful bases, subpar proteins automatically disqualified them from the ranking.
With all this in mind, here are the five best bowls of gumbo you can get in New Orleans.
This restaurant in the Treme neighborhood made a long-awaited comeback in 2017, a full dozen years after Hurricane Katrina closed its doors. Eating gumbo here is a family affair, with chef Greg Sonnier in the kitchen, daughter Gabie in the dining room, Mary Sonnier going between the two, and a massive amount of warmth circulating through the whole restaurant.
The bright blue and yellow storefront houses a welcoming interior of warm lighting, white tablecloths, and delicious food that isn’t fussy in its presentation. By dinnertime, the dining room buzzes with locals, many of whom know the Sonnier family from years of eating at Gabrielle, both before and after Katrina.
Here, the smoky quail gumbo manages to surprise, while staying deeply rooted in New Orleans traditions. The dish is anchored by an inky dark roux, culled from the years Greg Sonnier worked under Cajun chef, Paul Prudhomme, who popularized Cajun cuisine in New Orleans and beyond when he opened K-Paul’s in 1979. But it also employs another secret ingredient to give it a deep color and robust flavor: drippings from the restaurant’s slow-roasted duck, which is flavored with orange and sherry. "Our gumbo is basically gravy," Gabie Sonnier says.
Then, instead of the smoky andouille many diners have come to expect in gumbo, medallions of green, housemade anise sausage dot the silky-smooth, dark chocolate-colored gumbo and infuse it with aromatic spicy-sweetness. (While the the uplifting flavors of anise are almost unheard of in gumbo, they’re far from random in the city’s cuisine; this familiar spice pops up in everything from oysters Rockefeller to Sazeracs.) Reusing the duck drippings is just one of the creative ways the folks at Gabrielle layer flavors into the gumbo. "24/7" stock perpetually simmers on the stove at the restaurant, and everything from half-empty bottles of wine, to steak trimmings and rabbit bones, to vegetable scraps all make it in.
With a base that dark, competing spices like anise, and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stock, this take on gumbo may sound like it would overwhelm a delicate poultry like quail. But I’m happy to report that it doesn’t. The chef smokes the quail to punch up its flavor, and serves the gumbo over popcorn rice, a nutty long-grain white rice unique to Louisiana. The resulting dish is as complex and harmonious as they come.
In 1988, food critic Craig Claiborne phoned chef and New Orleans food authority, John Folse, to ask him about his new cookbook, The Evolution of Cajun and Creole Cuisine. According to Folse, the question Claiborne posed was this: "Can Cajun and Creole cuisine ever evolve, or is it a well-kept standard that New Orleans cooks respect and pay homage to? Do you think you can evolve it, and remain honest and true to the concepts of Cajun and Creole?"
Folse, taking this as a challenge, then flew to New York and cooked Claiborne what would become Death by Gumbo, a velvety gumbo topped with a whole boneless, stuffed quail. Now the dish is Folse’s most popular item at his restaurant, R’evolution, in the French Quarter.
R’evolution’s seven grand dining rooms all make the restaurant feel like a special-occasion place, where well-heeled locals and globe-trotting visitors convene among murals depicting various points in Louisiana history—there’s one of the Spanish giving land grants to the Acadians—sitting beneath massive live oaks draped in Spanish moss. The dining rooms feature red velvet banquettes, luxurious draperies, and sparkling crystal chandeliers. Sommeliers decant wine from a 10,000 bottle cellar tableside, and waiters will provide a purse stool when the situation calls for it.
R’evolution’s gumbo is similarly special. The stew comprises a light brown roux, the trinity plus mushrooms and garlic, tasso ham, and chicken stock, which collectively give it an extremely velvety texture. But the real pièce de résistance is how Folse serves the dish: with a boneless quail that he stuffs with rice, andouille, oysters, and filé powder before roasting it.
The beauty of Folse’s gumbo goes beyond its impeccable flavor and classically French presentation. In it, he pays culinary homage to so many immigrant groups that have made their mark on New Orleans, from the roux, to the tasso, to the filé, to the sausage-and rice-stuffed quail on top. With all the components of what we think of as gumbo, the dish stays true to the tradition while turning it on its head.
This Garden District restaurant is where Southern comfort food classics go to achieve their full potential. Chef and owner Eric Cook’s andouille and chicken gumbo—a beguiling concoction based on chicken he’s eaten with friends while hunting in Vermilion Parish, which takes nearly four days to make—has a complexity that makes each bite taste slightly different. The key is the care and meticulous detail he puts into each of the gumbo’s components.
Cook’s roasted chicken stock simmers for two days. After it’s done, he cooks his roux for about four hours, taking it to what he calls the "oh shit" stage—which is to say, to the brink of burning, when the color looks like dark fudge. After adding andouille, the trinity, Crystal hot sauce, Worcestershire, and the stock, he pops the entire gumbo base in the walk-in fridge overnight, because everything tastes better the second day.
On the day Cook serves the gumbo, he starts with a fresh batch of the trinity and andouille, then adds the reserved gumbo base and cooks it all together for even longer. To serve, he adds freshly roasted chicken, raw scallions, and a pile of rice to the bowl. The rice—many times a bland, gelatinous after-thought in gumbo—could stand as a fine side dish of its own. Using Louisiana jasmine rice, he cooks the grains in butter so that they look like translucent little oblong pearls, and then adds the cooking liquid. As they cook, the grains release their starch and an aroma of fresh popcorn, which carries over to the finished rice.
Gris-Gris, 1800 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70130, 504-272-0241
Tucked into a quaint residential section of Old Metairie, Radosta’s is a small Italian-American grocery and deli filled with walls of booze, bags of chips, and taxidermied animals. Come lunchtime, you can find regulars digging into decadent roast beef po’ boys, plates of gargantuan onion rings, and steaming bowls of gumbo, over checkered tablecloths with rolls of paper towels within reach.
The walls are covered in newspaper clippings, photos, and light-up beer signs. There’s a wedding photo on the wall of a customer who comes in every day at 11 a.m. to order a cup of gumbo, a grilled cheese, and cold roast beef. "He even came in at 11 a.m. the day after his wedding," owners Don and Joan Radosta told me.
Don and Joan have run the restaurant with Don’s two brothers, Wayne and Mark, for 44 years. "Some families get along and some don’t," Don says. His gets along.
Their seafood gumbo is old-school—thick and aromatic—and just the kind you hope to eat at someone’s family home. Don says he learned the recipe "over the phone, more than 25 years ago" from an employee at De Lerno’s restaurant, a longtime fixture that closed in the 1980s after more than 50 years in business. "When you went to De Lerno’s back in the day, it was like going to [award-winning New Orleans fine-dining institution] Commander’s Palace."
I asked Don why De Lerno’s was so generous with their gumbo recipe. He explained that they were all friends. Besides, Don told me, he in turn gives his recipes to people all day long, but finds that it’s really difficult to make anything just the way he does. He believes it’s the same with De Lerno’s: He started with their recipe, but it quickly became his own.
Radosta’s seafood gumbo begins with a caramel roux that gives the gumbo a complex flavor without overwhelming the sweetness of the shrimp. Most people think filé should only go in the pot at the very last second, or at the table. But Don says, "Chefs think you’re nuts, but that’s all hogwash." He puts his in just after he finishes the roux, which he believes gives the stew more body and an earthier flavor. Then he adds diced tomatoes and stirs until it’s thick and stewy.
House-made chicken stock, shrimp stock, some water go in next, and Don simmers the gumbo for a little over an hour, until it’s time for the trinity, garlic, and parsley. After this, he adds the okra, which he grills first to prevent them from developing a slimy texture. At the end, Don adds medium shrimp and a slew of spices (thyme, oregano, garlic powder, Creole seasoning, and a little cayenne pepper). The oregano is his own addition to the De Lerno’s recipe.
Radosta’s is as authentic as restaurants come, built not out of a need to impress anyone with anything other than the food and the hospitality. It’s the real-deal: food for locals, many of whom know how to make a damn fine gumbo of their own.
The seafood gumbo at this 1930s-era Mid-City restaurant is as classic as a Creole gumbo comes. Steeped in tradition, it’s the same gumbo that’s been on the menu since the restaurant opened: the gumbo that Anthony Mandina cooked when the family transformed their grocery-turned-pool-hall (with sandwiches) into Mandina’s restaurant, a favorite among Italian immigrants at the time. He and his wife raised their son upstairs from the restaurant; Mandina cooked the gumbo downstairs until he died. That was 35 years ago, and the current chef has been at Mandina’s ever since.
"To me, a gumbo should have roux, a nice flavor, and every bite should have a piece of seafood in it," Anthony’s granddaughter, Cindy, says. She now runs the restaurant.
The medium-brown roux—lighter than many of the dark roux varieties you’ll see in gumbo today—imparts a deep flavor without overwhelming the delicate flavors of the vegetables and briny seafood. With more veggies than its Cajun cousin, this true Creole gumbo also includes okra and tomatoes, to add thickness and sweetness to the base. After adding the vegetables, a house-made seafood stock goes into the pot, followed by the seafood, and finally filé.
This gumbo is perfectly balanced and thick, overflowing with redfish, oysters, local shrimp, and blue crab—a feast best enjoyed in the restaurant’s elegant but unfussy setting, looking out at Canal Street through windows covered in colorful neon signs.
Finally, while it's almost impossible to find a truly vegetarian gumbo z'herbes at restaurants in New Orleans—which is why you don’t see it in the list above—I’ll let you in on a little secret: The Gumbo Shop, in the heart of the French Quarter, reliably serves an excellent version as an appetizer daily, along with a menu of New Orleans classics. It may be a little touristy, but the gumbo z’herbes is top-notch.
Otherwise, if you happen to be in New Orleans on Holy Thursday (that is, the Thursday before Easter), stop by the famed city staple Dooky Chase for a meat-inflected version that people wait all year for. Be warned, though: Tables aren't easy to come by.