Service goes a long way in the restaurant business. A waiter's friendly demeanor can convince a small party to order two desserts instead of one, or stay for one last drink instead of slipping out the door for a nightcap. Service is what makes a customer come back to a restaurant again and again, instead of letting the experience fade into a sea of other options. A welcoming staff provides the connection; great plates are gravy.
As much can be said for Alligator Café, which opened its second location in the former Rosemont space, next to Rudolph's Meat Market, this fall. The first location opened on Live Oak Street in 2002, when chef and owner Ivan Pugh crammed a whole bayou's worth of Cajun food into a run-down fast-food restaurant. Pugh's first location lacked aesthetics, but it was close to downtown and even closer to Baylor Medical Center, and his amicable staff and reputable food earned him a bustling lunch crowd.
That location moved to the Casa Linda Plaza in 2012, and Pugh soon announced that he'd also taken over the small block building that juts up from a crumbling parking lot in Deep Ellum. While a significant amount of the old Rosemont remains — the lines of the slate-gray woodwork, the blond maple bar, the trendy scooped stools that will cradle you in ways that no other stool has cradled you — Pugh has obliterated the quiet, creamy tones of the dining room's past. Chartreuse paint lights up the walls, almost as brightly as the purple neon Abita sign that hangs near the bar. What doesn't glow is covered in silver faux-alligator skin. Televisions flicker with sports, and it doesn't take long to find a desiccated alligator head or two.
While it's safe to say the Deep Ellum location looks little like the Cajun restaurants that dot Louisiana, Pugh's cooking is in line with what you might expect from one of the casual cafés. The closer he stays to those tried and true culinary traditions, the better the food in his own restaurant.
Perhaps nothing gets closer than the boudin Pugh serves on a bed of collard greens. Boudin (pronounced BOO-dan) is the official fast food of rural Louisiana. Gas stations serve hog casings stuffed with a blend of rice and various pork parts as a riff on the French boudin blanc, and then sell it as a roadside snack.
It's the stuffing that's the hard part, according to Pugh, who says he tried to make boudin a few times at the restaurant before deciding it was easier to buy it in Louisiana from the people who have perfected it.
Back in Dallas it's frozen, then poached in boiling water when a customer places an order. This link is finished on the grill for a little color and plopped on your plate with some greens as an appetizer.
A purist will tell you boudin should be eaten within a few feet of the gas station where it's purchased, and squished from the casing like toothpaste from a tube. Tradition is important, but it's undeniable that the sausage of rich meat and rice is improved when served on top of briny greens spiked with vinegar. Ordering boudin balls (the same mixture rolled into golf balls and breaded and fried) is another option, but it's dry and inferior.
The other usual suspects are here. It's hard to get upset with the oyster po'boy, especially when you get the rice and beans as a side. The roll is heaped with oysters, lettuce and tomato, and begs for the creamy mustard labeled "Alligator sauce" at the condiment station. The beans are made with andouille sausage from Rudolph's and finished with a scoop of toothy rice.
Sometimes Pugh steps further away from his Cajun inspiration, and his dishes suffer. Your bottom lip may quiver, for instance, if you've paid extra to have your étouffée embellished with dirty rice, only to find the grains nearly spotless. There's some ground pork scattered about, but there's no liver or other bits of offal that lend the earthy, mineral flavors that make dirty rice dirty.
A bowl of gumbo suffered even more one evening, smelling of shellfish well past its prime. On another night the odor was gone, replaced by the rich scent of chocolate-brown roux, andouille and garlic. The stew smelled delicious, but it lacked a certain vibrancy. If you agree, you shouldn't worry, because the solution is simple. Pugh and his kitchen staff dabble in culinary Voodoo.
Wave off the offer to have the kitchen add the chunky hot sauce directly to your dish and ask that a bowl be brought to the table so you can add the sauce in increments. Be cautious but not afraid — the mixture of hot sauce and spicy peppers clocks in somewhere between the subtle glow of Tabasco and a bite from the top of a fresh jalapeño.
The Voodoo sauce works wonders with an étouffée that's offered with shrimp or crawfish. And I can't see the harm in lifting the bun on a muffeletta filled with shaved ham and olive tapenade to smear a little Voodoo beneath. In fact, while it may turn your cheese grits an odd shade of Creamsicle, there's not much on the menu that wouldn't be enhanced with just a bit of the sauce. Consider the order mandatory for every table.
If you're craving fried seafood, choose the coconut shrimp over popcorn for a bigger, sweeter bite. The catfish is farm-raised and tastes a little flat, though it's not greasy and the mild flavor is preferred by some, and the oysters stay crisp when other dishes fall limp. If any of the combinations of fried things, soups and sandwiches on the menu don't suit you, speak up. The staff seem almost excited to make substitutions.
During my last visit I ordered two desserts, hoping I could find one that had half the personality and character of that Voodoo sauce. I ended up with a chocolate pie with a collapsed meringue and a terrible banana pudding. Still, the dessert order was telling.
Put yourself in the treadless shoes of a young, soft-spoken food runner instructed to deliver a banana pudding with absolutely no bananas in it — as if suddenly the restaurant is BYOBananas. In a confident yet properly apologetic way, he did exactly that, winning over the table.
The pudding was less loved, with a stiff consistency closer to cannoli filling than the cascading ribbons of glistening dairy that made Jell-O Pudding commercials so seductive. The dish went unfinished, but everyone left with a desire to return, maybe for that oyster po'boy and maybe for the boudin, but more likely because the staff has a little Voodoo of their own.