I had wanted to visit Baton Rouge for a long time for reasons I can’t really say. As a former political type, I enjoy visiting state capitals but it was more than that. Everyone I knew who had been there returned with great stories about a dynamic city on the rise. I was curious but it wasn’t until recently when I finally found myself in what locals call the Red Stick. What I discovered was indeed a city on the move, one alive with energy and a destination where no tourist should ever go hungry. I was there to learn more about the food culture, but I discovered a lot more than that along the way. I was in Louisiana working with the Louisiana Tourism Promotion Association and Louisiana’s Culinary Trails program, but as always all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
Houmas House Plantation
The drive from Lafayette to Baton Rouge was an easy one, particularly on a Sunday afternoon when no one seemed to be in much of a hurry. I had some extra time so I actually drove past Baton Rouge to visit a nearby destination that was high on my must-see list – Houmas House Plantation. Old homes and plantations line the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and they’re popular stops for just about any traveler to the region. Walking into the massive gardens surrounding the house I immediately saw why, it was stunning. I had never before visited a classic Southern Plantation, all of my preconceptions formed mostly by watching Gone With The Wind. Turns out that movie, and countless others, did the time period justice because Houmas House looks exactly what I think an old plantation house should look like. Starting life off as a modest trading post, at its height the Houmas House Plantation included more than 300,000 acres of land and was the top producer of sugar in North America. That’s a stunning fact and made the owners insanely wealthy, building this massive estate as a country getaway. The house has thankfully been preserved and the current owner even lives in the house, clearing out of his room before the first visitors of the day start their tours. Tours are offered throughout the day, lasting about an hour and led by well-informed and entertaining docents. It was a great opportunity for me to learn more about life in Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries and to peek into the lives of the Southern elite. Houmas House is also a very easy drive from Baton Rouge and makes a perfect half-day diversion.
Downtown Baton Rouge
But I was there to see Baton Rouge, and I had the perfect opportunity to do that from my home base The Hotel Indigo in downtown Baton Rouge. An IHG property, Indigo is a hip, young brand and offers a mix of conveniences that made my stay a lot of fun. It’s also really well located, enabling me to see and do more during my brief stay in town. There’s a lot to see and do in Baton Rouge and while I only had time to hit a few of the highlights, what I did manage to experience I loved. As I mentioned, I’m a political junkie and the Louisiana State Capitol building was a massive beacon calling out to me. Dedicated in 1932, the Capitol Building was very much the product of controversial politician Huey Long, who was later assassinated in the hallway between chambers. The tallest capitol building in the United States, walking through the flowering gardens to the entrance it’s hard not to feel impressed by the weighty presence of the monument. While the chambers inside are indeed beautiful and reflect the design and architecture of the era, the real highlight is the observation level. Free for anyone to visit, this spot near the top of the building offers the best views of Baton Rouge and surroundings. It’s also the perfect place to start any exploration of the city and to really understand how the city is organized.
A short walk from the capitol building is one of the top museums in town, the Capitol Park Museum. Meant to tell the complicated but always colorful history of the state, everything from Louis Armstrong to Mardi Gras is featured inside the museum walls. Covering eras including American Indians, French colonists, slavery and more, this really is the best and most comprehensive way to understand the rich history and the cultural traditions of Louisiana.
For something a little different, be sure to stroll through the beautiful grounds of Louisiana State University or LSU. This massive campus is at the heart of life in Baton Rouge where college sports aren’t just a pastime, they’re religion. The team’s mascot is even on display, Mike the Tiger. Enjoying life in a $1 million habitat, Mike is something a little quirky for visitors to see, but an important aspect of the overall Baton Rouge experience.
While I do love history and politics, my main mission in Baton Rouge was to eat my way around the city, and I certainly had plenty of opportunities to sample some of the best that the city has to offer. As a fierce coffee fanatic I started off my morning in Baton Rouge at one of the trendiest coffee shops in town, the quirky Magpie Cafe. Located in what is locally considered to be a hip and up and coming neighborhood, this intimate cafe takes pride in being local and community based, serving up foods and drinks from local farmers, dairies and bakers. They also make every effort to only serve organic, or at least all-natural ingredients, meaning that the food is as good for you as it is tasty. Magpie also has a brewing method that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, the Slow Bar where brews are hand brewed cup by cup. It’s a great place to enjoy a coffee, snack, lunch or just catch up on emails.
That was only the start of my breakfast though; my next stop was one I had been looking forward to – Tiger Deaux-Nuts. I not only have a fierce sweet tooth, but in particular I love donuts. I know they’re en vogue now, but my appreciation for them isn’t newfound, they’ve long been my favorite things to eat and the chance to meet with the owner of the most progressive bakery in town was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. When Jeff Herman first opened the doors to this gourmet donut shop, he did what any great business does – he was filling a need. The city had limited quality donut options before Tiger Deaux-nuts and there certainly didn’t exist a high-end donut bakery. Jeff mostly bakes light and airy yeast donuts and each of his tasty flavors are hand topped. No vats of icing are dumped over donuts here; instead each donut is lovingly crafted for the ever-growing number of donut fanatics in Baton Rouge. The flavors are ones most of us are familiar with, even if we’ve never seen them in donut form before. Bacon-maple is the most popular, but others include apple pie, vanilla jalapeño and my personal favorite strawberry cream cheese. Jeff isn’t about trying to shock people with crazy flavors, instead he just wants to make exceptional donuts. In Louisiana, locals use the term lagniappe to mean something extra, something special. For me that’s at the heart of these delicious creations, the level of care and love being that extra little touch. In addition to his amazing donuts, he also makes his now-signature maple-bacon King Cake and a special breakfast sandwich that is my personal favorite, the Boudin Egg and Cheese Sandwich.
Baton Rouge is a city where food reigns supreme and it’s thanks to that appreciation of the culinary arts that young and innovative chefs are able to succeed here. One of the best success stories around town is Chef Ryan Andre. A Louisiana native, Chef Andre puts everyone he meets at ease immediately with his soft-spoken manner, but after walking with him through his kitchens I knew right away that he meant business. And you’d have to with his background, including working at restaurants as heralded as Commander’s Palace before taking over as Executive Chef for all restaurant locations of City Pork in Baton Rouge. Specializing in home-made meats, pickles, condiments and sides, the restaurants also draw from local influences like boudin, tasso and Andouille sausage.
Chatting with Chef Andre I couldn’t help but notice the word CHEF tattooed on his hand but almost immediately he said, “Instead of being called a chef, I’d rather be called a bad ass cook.” And that’s exactly what he is, creating flavor combinations that are sometimes surprising, but always delicious. Sampling a few of his favorites I could see right away why City Pork has quickly become one of the top restaurant groups in the city. Since meat is at the heart of City Pork, I couldn’t resist a robust charcuterie tray featuring homemade sausages, pâtés and dry-cured meats along with cheese and vegetables all pickled in-house. One of the most popular items on the menu though is the Wild Boar Flauta; flour tortillas filled with coffee and chile braised boar and fried into delicious homespun creations.
As I mentioned though, I have a sweet tooth and since my time was limited I decided to visit not one but two establishments both perfect for an afternoon coffee and sweet snack. Coffee Call restaurant is an absolute institution in Baton Rouge and while their menu may be limited, what they do serve is amazing. Soups and salads are available, but the real stars of the show at Coffee Call are the beignets and beignet fingers. Beignets are those fried puffs of dough that are generously doused in powdered sugar, usually served with café au lait. New to me though were beignet fingers, thin strips of the same dough, but smaller and much easier to eat than their full-bodied cousins. Coffee and specialty drinks are available to go along with, but given the fact they have a vat of Café au Lait available at all times, I’d say that is the preferred drink around here.
For something a little more innovative, be sure to stop by Cupcake Allie. Allison Offner Bookman is a designer by trade, which is probably why her cupcakes are amongst the most visually stunning I’ve ever seen. Constantly experimenting, Allie offers several classic flavors – Birthday Cake and Pecan Pie – but also savory cupcakes as well, including the Gumbo Cupcake I tried. Cupcake in name only, this small cake was a delicious savory bite, incongruous amongst the chocolates and cream, but no less tasty.
My time in Baton Rouge may have been short, but I didn’t need any longer to convince me what a fun place it is to visit. Convenient to New Orleans and other towns and cities around the state, it’s the perfect stop to learn more about the history and culture of Louisiana, as well as to experience an urban personality that is comfortable in its own skin. It’s also a wonderful place to find some delicious and creative bites, although there’s much more to the culinary scene than I was able to cover in just a single day.