I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans four times between 1998 and 2001, with different groups of friends every time. Back then, as a young guy in college, I never had much money, but I sure liked good food, good music, history, architecture, culture, adventure, and romance, so New Orleans was the perfect destination for all of those things. (Never did find any romance there, though.) I played an unforgettable gig with my old band once, went to an epic bachelor party with a bunch of my closest friends in the world (and we were all on remarkably good behavior, believe it or not), and even descended on Mardi Gras one time, which was actually too crazy, crowded, and chaotic to be as much fun as it should have been. New Orleans is a legendary party town pretty much any weekend, but even as a senior in college, I thought Mardi Gras was just too much.
Obviously the city has changed a lot over the last 19 years, and especially since Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005. I’d love to make it back to see how the city has bounced back and been revitalized, but have no idea when and if that’ll happen. But in the meantime, when I crave the food of New Orleans — Cajun and Creole cuisine — we have a very good option right here in Orlando: Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen (https://tibbys.com/), a locally-owned restaurant with locations in Winter Park and Altamonte Springs. On my most recent visit, I went with two former co-workers who I grew very close to during my first years at my job. Those were some tough times then, and we all found strength in numbers and looked out for each other. We were long overdue to get together and catch up, so in true Sabsocrivner fashion, I sent them a list of multiple restaurants where we could have a leisurely lunch and hang out for a while, without feeling crowded or rushed. I was relieved and excited when they chose Tibby’s, since I hadn’t been in a few years.
In fact, the last time I had been to Tibby’s was long before I started this food blog, so I realized I had never ordered the onion rings before. That’s right, they offer onion rings as an appetizer ($6.50), which means I had to try them for a little recurring onion ring review feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!
This was a generous order of thick onion rings (or thicc, as the kids say), with a nice texture from their light, crispy breading. They came with an excellent remoulade sauce for dipping, one of the best condiments to accompany onion rings at any local restaurant. These rings seemed particularly salty, but I still liked them a lot.
My wife and I are huge fans of a wonderful, hilarious comedian named Tig Notaro, who had a short-lived and much-missed show on Amazon Prime called One Mississippi. The theme song was “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” which I only recently found out was written by the legendary, prolific songwriter and country music legend Hank Williams back in 1952. That song always makes me hungry due to the lyric “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo.” (I have a real soft spot for songs about food in general, and there aren’t enough of them.) So when I saw Tibby’s sampler consists of jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo ($14.25), I knew it was meant to be.
The jambalaya rice, stewed in a mildly spicy tomato sauce with onions, bell peppers, celery, andouille sausage, and tasso ham, is a classic dish I always love. In college, I ate a lot of Zatarain’s jambalaya made from a box of rice with dehydrated vegetables and salty seasonings, and I’d mix in cheap sausage, chicken, canned sardines, you name it, plus any vegetables I could afford to stretch it out. Even that was tasty back in the day, but real jambalaya with quality ingredients is a delicious meal. The crawfish pie was essentially a crawfish empanada with tail meat in a crispy fried pastry shell. The filé gumbo was on the salty side, but still very tasty, made with chicken and sausage. Filé powder is made from grinding dried sassafras leaves, and it is used as a thickener for the hearty stew and other Creole dishes. The other primary gumbo recipe uses okra to thicken the stew instead.
My one friend ordered shrimp Creole ($12.25), a tomato-based stew with a little island of rice in the middle. She seemed to love it.
My other friend wanted fried shrimp and fried oysters, but not necessarily in a po’boy. Our server was very accommodating, and allowed her to order side orders of both ($12 for the oysters, $6 for the shrimp). I tried one of her fried oysters, and it was delicious… but it’s really hard to go wrong with fried oysters.
She also ordered the sweet potato fries for us to share ($4), and they were a treat — salty and sweet at the same time.
We couldn’t leave without a plate of beignets for dessert ($4.25). These crispy-on-the-outside, soft and flaky-on-the-inside fried pastries are a New Orleans specialty. I’ve had them at the legendary Cafe Du Monde, and nothing really equals that experience of sitting outside, listening to street musicians play incredible jazz and people-watching in the French Quarter… but Tibby’s beignets come close.
I’m really hoping to return to New Orleans for my profession’s big conference this summer, 19 years after my last visit. It’s staggering to think of everything that city has endured in the meantime, especially the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. But it’s an incredible place, like nowhere else in America, with some of the greatest food in the country. If you can’t make it, Tibby’s is like a little piece of the Big Easy right here in Winter Park. You should go there and laissez les bon temps rouler, especially as we celebrate Mardi Gras this coming Tuesday!