Visit the home of Tabasco at Avery Island, then hop on a new food tour that celebrates the Cajun pepper sauce.
Nestled just above Vermilion Bay in South Louisiana, Avery Island is most famous for its McIlhenny Tabasco sauce and is second only to New Orleans as a tourist attraction in the state. Originally inhabited by Native Americans and named after the Avery family who settled in there in the 1830s, the island is home to an enormous salt dome and an abundance of exotic plants and animals. These days, attractions for travelers combine both on- and off-site activities, including a drive through Jungle Gardens, tours of Bird City and the Tabasco factory, along with a new food tour with six stops in nearby New Iberia.
After paying a $1 toll to enter the island, I started my adventure in the country store, which is more of a superstore of everything Tabasco. All the Tabasco flavors and sauces are available for sampling, from the newest Sriracha sauce to a special reserve bottle, made with peppers grown right on the island. A personal favorite sample of mine was the Tabasco ice cream, which had a sweet and smooth taste with a kick at the end.
Right outside the country store is an outdoor food stand where you can try more Tabasco-covered cuisine, from nachos to hot dogs, under the mossy oaks. Nearby is the Tabasco factory itself, which offers free tours every 15 minutes. A nice break from the heat — both Tabasco and weather-induced — the tour walks you through the history of the island and shows you the insanely fast bottling of Tabasco. “Mr. McIlhenny was an avid gardener and a banker, and he just started growing peppers and the rest was history,” my friendly tour guide explained.
Those who work on Avery Island seem to have a great respect for the history and ancestry of the place. As I talked to people around the factory, one common topic of discussion was the five generations of employees on the island, along with the 165 countries and 22 languages Tabasco is sold in. There was also great excitement in talking about Tabasco’s newest attraction — the aforementioned food tour.
I spoke with Linda Clause, director of the visitors center at Avery Island, about the new tour. “I was fortunate enough to take a food tour before, and it just made me see what [Cajun culture] had to offer,” she says. “When you live here, you forget what we have so when you get on these tour busses you see it through the tourists’ eyes.” Linda explains that the tour varies its restaurants and dishes for sampling by season, but as I soon found out, there are always plenty of Cajun delicacies to be had.
At 1 p.m. sharp, my five fellow passengers — two out-of-state couples and an Avery Island employee who was in it for the food — hopped on board a van and made our way to our first stop.
“I chose the restaurants that have something in common with not only the area, but Tabasco also,” explained tour guide George Segura. On the way, he offered more background on New Iberia and Cajun food in general, schooling the out-of-towners on a cochon de lait, or pig roast, that literally includes every part of the pig. (It all made sense when we tasted cracklins later.)
We soon arrived at our first destination, the Boiling Point, and were seated at a table and given three jumbo shrimp paired with crawfish dip. The owner, Donavan, came out to speak with us and introduce his food. Before leaving, we were warned to wash our hands in the sinks at the front of the restaurant, as to not get seasoning in our eyes. “It’s a lesson you only need to learn once,” joked Segura.
Legnon’s Boucherie is a popular destination for locals and travelers looking for good boudin and cracklins. Legnon’s has become so popular that they sell 5,000 pounds of their Cajun sausage a week, despite being closed on Mondays and closing mid-afternoon on other days. Since the meat shop does not have seating, we went into a side room to taste fresh links of pork and crawfish boudin and receive take-home bags of cracklins. Legnon’s boudin is delicious and heavily seasoned with a perfect rice-to-meat ratio. As for the cracklins, these are not the pork rinds you get at a gas station. They were crispy and dark with an intense flavor similar to bacon. Needless to say, the take-home bags didn’t make it back onto the bus.
Our next destination was Konriko Rice Mill, another popular tourist stop in Iberia Parish. The rice mill is also open for tours, but we were there for food and soon got it in the form of wild pecan rice. This Konriko specialty has a nice nutty flavor and is best paired with etouffees and gumbos. Around this time, my fellow passengers and I started to realize that we are only halfway through the tour and already getting full, but we powered on to our second meat market, Dave’s Quality Meats. Known as the creator of stuffed bread, this shop is clean, with wall-to-wall freezers filled mostly with the delicacy — locally baked French bread stuffed with a delicious meat filling. Dave’s is also famous for its version of boudin and, along with Legnon’s, has been featured as a pit stop on many boudin food tours. I even heard the couple next to me talking about buying a few links to stock up their freezer.
Bon Creole was our most filling stop, serving up two cups of gumbo (chicken and and seafood), rice and potato salad. Bon Creole itself is a local institution, full of locals mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. With the promise of dessert at our last stop, we hopped back on the bus and kept moving. While en route, Segura pointed out the Shadows-On-The-Teche, a historical plantation home in the heart of New Iberia.
We stopped just down the street and went into Clementine, a gallery and restaurant named after artist Clementine Hunter. We were served much-needed coffee and bread pudding, which everyone at the table agreed was the best they’d ever had. Clementine’s bread pudding is so popular that the restaurant sells it ready-to-bake by the pan.
With our bellies full and our spirits high, we headed back to Avery Island. A few Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes later, we all said farewell and what had become a Tabasco-filled day was over. However, with a new tourist center and the island’s first restaurant set to open in the summer of 2015, I’ll soon have another excuse to visit and learn more about the pepper sauce’s creation from seed to bottle. Future visitors can look forward to getting a glimpse of actual pepper plants and the harvesting process, barrels of aging mash and a dining experience where each dish incorporates a different flavor of Tabasco.
Photo Credits: Tabasco Country Store and Tabasco dishes courtesy of McIlhenny, shrimp from the Boiling Point by Maura Maher and Konriko rice courtesy of Iberia Parish CVB. Featured image by Luke Ma from Flickr Creative Commons.
Tabasco Food Tours are $49.99 per person and run Tuesday through Thursday. The bus leaves at 1 p.m. from the country store and returns around 4 p.m. Reservations must me made by 10 a.m. on the desired day. Factory Tours are free and held every 15 minutes, every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.