Being creative in the kitchen is often little more than playing a game of mix and match. You take a dish you already know, apply another style of cuisine or a few ingredient swaps, and you’re on your way. That’s what happened in my kitchen when I decided to twist together Mardi Gras and Taco Tuesday.
Having never been to New Orleans myself, I already knew something about its foods (well, I mean, who doesn’t?) from friends and internet research. The po’ boy, a classic of New Orleans, is a simple sandwich of inexpensive ingredients—usually local, in-season seafood—fried up and served on French bread with lettuce, tomato and pickles. These humble yet tasty handhelds were slipped out the back door to out-of-work streetcar drivers who were on strike at the end of the Roaring ‘20s (now that we’re here, I suppose I should specify, 1920s). As the locals tell it, a kitchen worker would see one of the hungry drivers coming up for a handout, and shout, “here comes another po’ boy!”
My taco-esque spin on the po’ boy is not necessarily original, given that you have probably seen plenty of shrimp tacos. But the New Orleans flavors are purposely prominent here, from the savory dry spices I added to my handmade corn tortillas, to the Cajun spices in the shrimp breading, to the bold and zesty remoulade that topped it all off. There is no cheese or salsa on these tacos; rather, I swapped in the fresh toppings that you would expect on a po’ boy sandwich—thinly shredded lettuce and tomato. But I did want to keep it in taco territory, so I also layered in some thinly sliced jalapeno, which didn’t bother my heat-loving husband one bit. If it bothers you, leave ‘em off.
If I could hit the rewind button on one thing, I would be the preparation of the shrimp. The shrimp or fish on a true po’ boy would be deep fried in a cornmeal crust, so I went along with tradition on that, but my juicy shrimp did get a bit lost in the density of a buttermilk bath and all that breading, and the whole frying process made a mess of the kitchen and had me frustrated in the end. It was delicious but I doubt all that was necessary. My Plan B was to simply season the shrimp straight in the Cajun spices and give them a quick sauté, same as I do for my go-to Cajun shrimp & garlicky cheese grits. The flavors would have been the same and the overall dish would have been lighter, both in heft and calorie count, so I’ll try it that way next time.
But then again, it’s Fat Tuesday, so anything goes!
6 corn tortillas* (see ingredient notes)
1/2 lb. Gulf shrimp*, peeled and de-veined
2 tsp. spicy Cajun or Creole seasoning*
Canola or peanut oil for frying (amount depends on whether you use breading)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup cultured buttermilk
1/4 cup fine or medium cornmeal (seasoned with the Cajun spices)
About 1/2 cup finely shredded lettuce (I used romaine)
1/2 cup chopped fresh tomato
A few thin slices fresh jalapeno (optional)
5 or 6 slices chopped sweet and spicy pickles (we love “Wickles” brand)
4 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. Frank’s RedHot Sauce* (original variety)
1 Tbsp. minced fresh garlic
2 Tbsp. finely minced red onion
1/4 tsp. paprika (sweet or smoked)
1 Tbsp. sour cream
Salt and pepper
You could certainly use store-bought corn tortillas for your po’ boy tacos, and perhaps give them a quick flip through a dry cast-iron skillet to warm and slightly char them just before serving. We love handmade corn tortillas, and I added about 1/2 teaspoon each of smoked paprika and onion powder to my masa dough, to lend a little more flair. See my previous post on handmade corn tortillas for more detail about the technique.
I used large shrimp, 16 to 20 count per pound, but I cut them in half for easier divvying among our tacos. My recommendation for Gulf coast shrimp is not merely for authenticity (it is, after all, intended to be a tribute to New Orleans), but also for the integrity of the product. Be wary of seafood from other countries, especially the stuff that comes out of Southeast Asia, as the industry there is prone to problems ranging from over-fishing and contamination to heinous human rights violations. Is the domestic shrimp more expensive? I suppose it depends on who you ask.
To clarify, Cajun and Creole seasonings are not the same, but both are prominent in Louisiana cooking, and I believe they are interchangeable in this recipe, mostly based on your tolerance for heat. Cajun cuisine leans more toward spicy pepper heat and Creole is more about the dried herbs. I used a chile and garlic Cajun powdered seasoning, added to the cornmeal breading. If you skip the breading, simply toss the shrimp directly in the seasoning before sautéing—and don’t skimp!
Frank’s RedHot is the sauce I used, but if you can get your hands on a bottle of Crystal brand hot sauce (the preferred brand in Louisiana), by all means go with that.
Make the remoulade ahead, so the flavors have time to meld in the fridge. Stir together all ingredients and adjust heat, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.
If you are making your own tortillas, make those next, keeping them warm on a towel-lined plate as you prepare the shrimp.
For a sautéed version, pat the shrimp dry on paper towels. Spritz them with spray oil and then toss in the Cajun seasoning until well coated. Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet and saute, turning once, until shrimp are no longer pink. Total cooking time should be two to four minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp.
For fried shrimp, heat canola or peanut oil over medium heat in a cast iron skillet, about 1/2” deep. Pat the shrimp dry on paper towels. Set up a breading station, with half the flour in one dish, buttermilk in the second, and remaining flour mixed with cornmeal, Cajun seasoning and cayenne (if using) in a third.
When the oil is ready (toss a bread cube in to see if it bubbles immediately), toss the shrimp lightly in the plain flour, then dip into the buttermilk and finally the cornmeal mixture. Add the shrimp pieces to the skillet one at a time, keeping room between them. Don’t try to do the shrimp all at once because you will cause the oil temperature to drop too quickly. Turn the shrimp pieces when they are golden on the bottom, and salt immediately upon transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. If you need to add oil, do it between batches and allow time for it to return to proper temperature.
Assemble the po’ boy tacos, beginning with shredded lettuce, tomato and jalapeno (if using). Divide the shrimp among the tacos, dress with remoulade and garnish with chopped spicy pickles.