Holiday grocery shopping is serious business, and New Orleanians have their own game plans well established.
Full-service grocery stores are something to behold this time of year, with the combination of logistical rigor and style points that people bring to the endeavor. To see the master of an upcoming meal steer not one, but two fully loaded grocery carts through the crowded aisles — without the help of a tug or river pilot — is an impressive sight.
But that has never been me. Through the years I have always been fortunate enough to be a guest at a table, or at most, the co-host of my own with the full understanding that my talents are best applied to opening bottles and filling people’s glasses.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the idea of the “welcome cocktail,” vital at holiday gatherings in my view, expound upon here.
Still, throughout the holidays I like to make my own food contributions, even if they are sidelines to the main act.
I do this not through any great prowess at the stove but mainly through sourcing — finding and perhaps dressing up delectable food that goes a bit off the usual script.
The bonus here is that you can contribute without interfering with the well-laid plans of the host.
Specialty food shops are the sweet spot for this, and lately, their ranks have been particularly rich, with new additions joining long-running institutions.
What follows are some of my favorites at the moment. None will replace a grocery run or those premeditated steps to place catering and other special orders well in advance. But they can furnish that special item, that one missing piece or that surprise taste, and they all make shopping more fun, too.
At a few of them, you can even get a drink while you shop; and you know I’ve noted these below.
1180 Terry Parkway, Terrytown, (504) 800-8555
Arabic is the second language at this captivating emporium of roasted nuts, coffee and candy, and delicious is the unifying thread. The variety is dizzying, from dispensers for hazelnuts coated in dark chocolate to bins of licorice to a jewelers case of Turkish delight in a spectrum of styles and baklava in equal variation.
Keep looking around: There are pecans encased in halva or crushed Oreo cookies, luxuriously packaged chocolate boxes from the Middle East, cashews roasted with flavors from sour cream and onion to ketchup (better than it sounds!). That coffee you smell might be freshly roasted beans blended with just-ground cardamom, and there’s often an urn ready at the counter for samples.
This place guarantees you can bring something that can become a conversation piece, while it lasts.
634 Orange St., (504) 274-1850
The name is literal. This unique resource was created to be the commissary kitchen for the large restaurants in Dickie Brennan’s company. It also functions as a specialty market for many of the staples these Creole restaurant use.
You can get the same seafood gumbo they serve at Bourbon House, the whole crabmeat cheesecake they serve by the slice at Palace Café and charcuterie made in-house. There is a full bar and deli menu.
Also, the Wetlands Sake brewery just next door is attached and makes a good stop to sample the pairing potential of these sakes, which branch far from traditional.
For Thanksgiving, the Commissary has a lengthy prepared food menu (order by Nov. 19) with pick up right up to and including Thanksgiving Day itself.
5004 Prytania St., (504) 899-4737; 641 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 304-1485
New Orleans is home to a truly world-class cheese shop, and this is it. It goes beyond the deep selection of cheese, charcuterie and other specialty foods; it’s also about the expertise connoisseurship the cheesemongers bring to their work here. Yes, it gets a little crazy during the holidays, but patience and some advance planning always pay off.
St. James opened right around Thanksgiving back in 2006 (an unlikely time, amid the barely-mitigated devastation of Katrina). It has since made a widespread impact on the city’s culinary scene. A visit here can also make an impact on your holiday table. Both locations serve beer and wine in addition to sandwich and salad menus.
2042 Prytania St., (504) 499-0880
This café and food market opened last spring in the former, long-vacant Lower Garden District address that had been a Zara’s grocery (not to be mistaken with the very-much-open Zara’s farther up Prytania Street).
It was conceived as a “modern bodega.” What this means is a counter for coffee drinks, pastry and a short menu of sandwiches (including a breakfast roll, modeled after the New York bodega staple), attached to a small retail market specializing in local and artisan food brands, from ice cream to charcuterie.
These are the kind of products you find at pop-ups, craft markets and other one-off events, and here they have a consistent retail home.
3005 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, (504)-766-6157
Sandwiches and salads are the prime movers at this busy deli and café near Lakeside Shopping Center. But around the holidays the cases of grab-and-go prepared foods and specialty items come into their own.
You can also get a glass of wine, or a cup of Piccolo gelato, since the deli doubles as a satellite location for this excellent New Orleans brand.
4714 Freret St., (504) 381-4953
Pies are as much a part of Thanksgiving as the turkey, and for some maybe more so. Pies are also the organizing principle at this dessert café on Freret Street’s restaurant row.
Naturally special orders are essential if you want a specific pie for holiday time, but there are always pies and tarts and other sweets rotating through the café case in sizes from mini bites to individual slices to the full monty. You can get a coffee or a glass of wine here too.
Nor-Joe Import Co.
505 Frisco Ave., (504) 833-9240
Evidence of an old-school Italian deli presents itself in the aromas that greet you as you push open the door at this long-running Old Metairie institution. The sandwich counter is best known for muffulettas, but also fields items like stuffed cherry peppers and olives filled with blue cheese.
The selection is small but specialized and a good stop when you want to bring something with Italian flavor.
457 N. Dorgenois St., (504) 354-1617
Think about the next day. Yes, you want holiday leftovers for lunch. But not for breakfast. Bagels like this, absolutely the real deal, New York style, are a good call.
Flour Moon is primarily a café, drawing throngs for plated brunch and lunch, but also doubles as a bakery to grab a dozen for home and it stocks many specialty items, like smoked salmon, white fish spread and other stuff that’s good anytime around a holiday table. Flour Moon also serves brunch-style cocktails if you’re feeling in the spirit.
If you’re reading this and you still don’t know what dish you’ll bring to the Thanksgiving table this year, well, you’re like me.
On the night before Thanksgiving, Faubourg Wines was packed tighter than the bubbles under a Champagne cork.
Getting together this holiday season might mean getting a little creative.