Many years ago, after a lovely wedding in an old chapel in Baton Rouge, we were given a Cajun feast of crawfish and wedding cake. The favorite drink of the day? The liquid refreshment with which the bride's father fortified himself (and disabled his guests)? He called his concoction a "Tankerator"--a frightening mix of Tanqueray gin and Gatorade.
As Jane and Michael Stern, who understand American food better than almost anyone, have so accurately pointed out, what makes eating in Louisiana so fascinating and seductive is the "mixture of its culture's subtleties with appalling crudeness." In Cajun country, which in so many ways lacks any evidence of civilization as we know it, an irreverent, in-your-face amiability is combined with the most innately sophisticated palates in the country.
In Louisiana, there's a distinct line between Cajun and New Orleans, or Creole, culture and cuisine; they're as different as New York City and New York state. But the deep appreciation of really good food, which traces back to the French roots of Cajun and Creole cooking, links Baton Rouge and New Orleans with a bond that Albany and the Big Apple can't even imagine. So when Cajun and Creole are lumped together and exported, it doesn't matter that much that etouffee and muffulettas, gumbo, shrimp, Creole, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and oyster po' boys are all on the same menu. It doesn't really matter that New Orleans, Louisiana, is the kind of culture that could produce Trout Meuniere Galatoire, a fish fried in a crust so fragile it melts, sauced with pure butter, touched with lemon, and served on white linen, and that Cajun, the Louisiana version of country French, is the kind of culture that would produce the fried turkey, boiled whole in hot oil in a pot the size of a bathtub out in the yard with the pigs and chickens. Because the point is, both things taste better than most food you eat anywhere else in the United States.
A decade ago, when the whole country was trying to adopt Louisiana cuisine and Chef Paul was out of his element, cooking in places like New York and D.C., Cajun food developed a bad name among many food lovers. It too often served as an excuse for white trash-style menus featuring badly fried, overseasoned, grease-soaked seafood served in a raucous, half-drunk style. When I told one friend I was eating Cajun food this week, he said, "I thought Cajun food was over." That's a little like saying I thought French food was over or Indian food was over. There should always be room for imported food if it's done well.
Unfortunately, most of it isn't.
Not until I walked in the door did I remember that the last time I was in the place now called Cajun Blue's, it was a Persian restaurant. That flashy Middle Eastern style--all mirrors and brass--still lingers, now slightly seedy and totally inappropriate. Not that seediness itself is a bad feature for a Cajun restaurant, but that '80s, mirror-ball glamour is.
The chef told us he used to work at Nate's, a dependable Cajun-style seafood spot, and that early on he was breakfast chef at the Crescent--a promising resume. It was nice that he came out of the kitchen to greet the diners, but maybe we would have been happier in the long run if he'd been back there tending the pots.
There's a bandstand next to the bar and a blues band started playing midway through our meal. The band wasn't that hot, but then, blues can get away with mediocrity. Face it--it's a very simple musical formula, and though it takes talent and hardship to be a master bluesman, a mediocre bluesman just doesn't sound that bad. Anyway, the music is a nice touch and made me less critical of the food at Cajun Blue's than I otherwise might have been.
Because the food just wasn't very good. The menu lists po' boys, fried and grilled seafood, gumbo, barbecue shrimp, etouffee, mostly described with too much punctuation. (The garlic crab entry reads, "OOH, baby, let the garlic flow!"; the shrimp etouffee, "mama knows best, mmm, mmm, mmm!) A cup of gumbo ordered as an appetizer arrived lukewarm--an unforgivable lapse, making something disgusting out of something palatable. Any soup (and I'm of the opinion that gumbo is a glorified soup, not a watered-down stew) should be served very hot. Or cold. A lukewarm soup is a leftover. So the chocolate-brown color of the roux and the nice toasty flavor of the sauce (there wasn't much seafood to speak of) couldn't make up for the tepid temperature. The fried platter (the Wee-Z-Ana Platter--sigh) held a couple of rubbery catfish filets, with a soft, crumbly breading that could have been frozen; some tough, half-breaded shrimp; a few nicely fried oysters, crunchy outside and jiggly within; some oil-soaked hush puppies; and a handful of Cajun popcorn, those little fried crawfish tails that have the consistency of wadded-up rubber bands. etouffee was better, the thick sauce spiced to the burning point with cayenne, and the rib platter was a mess of sticky-sweet bones, shiny with melted fat and sugary sauce.
Service, though, couldn't have been friendlier or more earnest.
Cajun Cowboy Cafe, in Addison, is open for lunch Monday through Friday, and that's it. But the cafe business is built on a catering company, and there's a full menu of Cajun takeout food in the freezer, or available by special order. (Cajun Cowboy will even fry a whole turkey for you, with a little warning.) This is an easy place to use, and we found that a couple muffulettas and a quart of jambalaya made a terrific change from our usual call-in options.
The muffuletta is a grocery-store sandwich.There's really nothing like it in Southwestern culture, except maybe the street taco, which is probably illegal to serve in Dallas. It's hurry-up food, city food, served on paper and meant to be eaten while you're out and about (with your sleeves rolled up). Central Grocery on Decatur Street in New Orleans claims to have created the muffuletta, but lots of people make them. It doesn't seem like much more than a fancy ham-and-cheese sandwich--the main ingredients are provolone, ham, and hard salami--but that's not what defines the muffuletta. A loaf of big round Italian bread, each quarter a normal-size sandwich for one person, and olive salad, are the two ingredients without which a sandwich can not be a muffuletta. And the olive salad, a messy mixture of chopped and whole green olives, black olives, lots of garlic, red pepper, olive oil, oregano, and parsley (and maybe some capers, occasionally even an anchovy), is the soupy heart and soul of a muffuletta; the bread has to be big and sturdy enough to soak up the juices.
Muffulettas from the grocery are at room temperature, but the Dallas version is often toasted very lightly till the cheese melts. Cajun Cowboy's sandwich was on a sesame-seeded round of bread, soft on the bottom, so we heated it through when we got home, to crisp and freshen the bread. This is a good sandwich--the deep, sexy salt of the olives setting off the slick fat of the ham and salami, the flat softness of the cheese mellowing it all. With a cup of Cajun Cowboy's excellent crawfish etouffee, also available frozen, and a cold beer, a quarter muffuletta makes a great supper.
Cajun Cowboy's jambalaya also is good, the sauce dark, the big chunks of chicken hidden in the rice coated with sausage fat and soaked with flavor--a rich, flavorful stew.
A few weeks ago, when I mentioned in this column how happy I was to see Zapp's potato chips on the grocery-store shelf, I got a phone call from someone at Big Easy in Plano, pointing out that the cafe had sold Zapp's chips for months, in several flavors, and that, by the way, its olive salad was also pretty damn good. So I found my way to Big Easy, which was hard, it being located at that tricky intersection of Central Expressway and Park Boulevard that always tries to shoot me back into Garland. It's not a promising location--but in this particular Cajun quest, I was getting used to that. A corner of a strip mall, with two walls of plate glass, this is a laminated lunch spot furnished with heavy wrought-iron chairs (for that rotted Anne Rice look), and a bunch of tattered Mardi Gras souvenirs that look like they've been picked up at Discount Party Warehouse. But, at one table, there was a guy with a black goatee and in a Hawaiian shirt--a promisingly authentic Louisiana look. And there was not only a clip rack of Zapp's right next to where you placed and paid for your order, but a row of beers, including Dixie and Blackened Voodoo. Behind the counter, several guys were cooking what looked like etouffee in big black iron pans.
Big Easy's big, messy muffuletta was slightly warm; its olive salad included mostly whole olives and artichoke hearts, too, so the end result means that you have to mind your manners and eat this over your plate or you'll find olive juice running up your sleeve and green olives shooting out on the floor at every bite. The po' boy--crisp fried oysters on a soft French roll (not that Euro-crusted bread we're now all so accustomed to)--came "dressed," with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayonnaise. (They say that the po' boy was known as "la mediatrice" because it was what dallying husbands brought home to their steaming wives to assuage them. Cheap penance--it wouldn't work for me--but maybe the truth is those New Orleans women weren't so sorry the old man was gone so long.) This one was full of fresh-fried oysters.
For some reason, it wasn't until I was leaving that I noticed the most telling note of Big Easy's authenticity: For the most part, this looked like a typical North Dallas lunch spot--a soulless, squeaky-clean box of a room with linoleum floors and Formica tables in typically antiseptic franchise style. With very few changes, this could be a Zuzu's or a Dairy Queen. But behind the counter near the window, there's a stack of shelves well-stocked with soldiers of hard liquor. That's real Louisiana style, though I didn't actually see any Tanqueray. Or Gatorade.
Big Easy, 1915 N. Central Expressway, Ste. 200, 424-5261. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Cajun Blue's Cafe, 3701 W. Northwest Highway, #173, 350-3234. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m.
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Cajun Cowboy Cafe and Catering Company, 5000 Belt Line Road, #920, 991-8838. Open Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, pickup and delivery by appointment only.
Cajun Blue's Cafe:
Seafood Gumbo (cup) $3.75
Wee-Z-Ana Platter $12.95
Shrimp Etouffee $12.95
Voodoo Baby Back Ribs $12.95
Cajun Cowboy Cafe:
Crawfish Etouffee (quart) $12.25
Muffuletta (whole) $9.95
Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya (pint) $6.95
Regular Oyster Po' Boy $4.95