Good to Go is a column where our food writers explore Dallas’ restaurant scene through takeout orders, delivery boxes and reheated leftovers.
Since The Free Man Cajun Cafe & Lounge opened in 2011 in Deep Ellum, the vision has always been Big Easy vibes, live music and big plates of Cajun favorites. They pretty much nailed it out of the gate. But right now, owner John Jay Myers is a bit rattled.
“If this [shelter-in-place order] lasts a month, we got this, if it lasts two months, it's going to be scary, if it lasts longer than that …” wrote Myers via Facebook Messenger. He’s simply not sure what happens after “that.”
Last week, a GoFundMe page appeared on The Free Man's Facebook page where Myers laid it out:
“We have gone through the ringer, we expanded, live music 7 nights a week on 2 different stages from 7 pm to 2 am, this is unheard of! We just kept doing what we do, the City of Dallas tried to destroy us, and we made it through that. The amount of miracles it has taken to get us here is mind boggling. In the end, we knew if we could just be open, we could make things happen.
“Well we can't be open.”
He goes on to explain that The Free Man has $12,000 a month in debt payments plus $15,000 in rent. “To our credit ... we had been making it,” wrote Myers. “We just kept doing what we do.”
Then, a pandemic hit and although takeout is better than he expected, it’s still only 10% of what they were bringing in when they were fully open. Essentially, it’s allowed him to keep a few of his crew on staff.
“We are trying to get the economic injury loan, the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan for our employees and rent, and a consolidation loan to bundle all our previous debt into a more manageable sum,” Myers says. “It's hard to imagine taking on more debt after everything, but I can't imagine letting this stop us. So, off we go.”
Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler
So, let’s talk sandwiches. The muffuletta found its way to America via Italian immigrants in the French Quarter in the 1890s. It’s made on a round sesame seed loaf with marinated olive salad, mortadella, salami, ham and provolone. More than 100 years later, it’s a Crescent City staple right up there with beads and floats. And regret. But, another story!
When I crave a muffuletta, which I’ve done a lot in my years, The Free Man always comes to mind first ($12.95). My husband and I used to run around Deep Ellum when we were younger and didn’t have kid-curfews, so I’m nostalgic about the area.
I called in my order and picked it up about 20 minutes later. A great thing happened on the drive home: The soft bread soaked up the marinade from the olives. After my first bite, I instantly regretted only getting one; I should have ordered two and saved one for the next day. All of the flavors coalescing together overnight would have been phenomenal.
That regret aside, the melting cheese was gooey and worked in perfect harmony with the meats and olive bits.
I also ordered The Ella, a pasta dish soaked in a lemon-caper cream sauce with blackened shrimp atop. This too traveled well, although I did eat two of the perfectly blackened shrimp while sitting in front of the restaurant. The scent was too much; I needed something to quell my hunger for the drive.
I asked Myers about his kitchen staff over the long haul, and it turns out he’s had the same cook, Donald Kiggins, since just three months after they opened.
“Donald has become a great friend and our most trusted employee,” Myers said. “When I wanted to do a music venue mainly with some of my mom’s flair for big Cajun dishes, Donald is the one who has made sure our food is on point.”
I didn’t get the boudin balls, which are sort of a house specialty. As is the voodoo chicken sandwich. I just always go for the muffuletta. Trust me, get two; the sandwich on day two is probably better than day one.
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For now, Myers will be busy working his way through the paperwork, phone calls, emails, internet sessions and whatever else is required to apply for assistance to keep the lights on. He’s grateful he still has a few of his key staff employed and is keeping his chin up.
“We don't know what we are going to end up with or how long it will last,” Myers says. “But, I think we are in better shape than some, and I hope everyone makes it.”
The Free Man must be accustomed to late nights; they're offering delivery and pickup until 1 a.m.
The Free Man Cajun Cafe & Lounge, 2626 Commerce St. (Deep Ellum). Takeout: call 214-377-9893. Delivery: UberEats and DoorDash. 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.