Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Remember Austin’s Cajun Craze?

The seafood gumbo had a dark, piquant roux that bit back, and the crab meat au gratin casserole was flavorful, if a little too rich for my blood pressure. It was a fine meal at the famous Don’s Seafood in downtown Lafayette, La., a few months ago, but I had to laugh at the thought that I had driven five hours to eat Cajun food as good as what I can get at about half a dozen places back in Austin.

Don’t be so quick to debate a statement that would’ve been laughable just a few years ago. Not until you’ve had a shrimp po’ boy at Evangeline Café or a muffaletta at Sambet’s or the blackened chicken breast sandwich at Cypress Grill or the crawfish étoufée Nubian Queen Lola serves up with so much crazy love over on Rosewood Avenue.

The Austin area is ragin’ with Cajun fare. We’re talking about Orgeron’s in Dripping Springs, opened recently by a couple who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina except a head full of old family recipes. Farther out, there’s Johnny Nicholas’ fabulous Hill Top Café near Fredericksburg, perhaps the only Greek Cajun restaurant around.

To go more upscale, your options are Gumbo’s in the Brown Building and the two Ms. B’s Authentic Creole on Mesa Drive and on East 11th Street.

Let’s go back to the ’80s, when Southern Louisiana cuisine captivated the nation and Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish and Justin Wilson’s colorful patois (“Lookee dat shicken! Don’t it purty?”) spiced up the culinary scene like nothing since Julia Child taught American housewives how to make bouillabaisse. If you lived in Austin during that heyday, I gare-own-tee you had to get in a car and drive at least as far as Beaumont/Port Arthur, with it’s big Cajun population, to get your gumbo and jambalaya fix. I remember asking Austin musician (and native Louisianan) Marcia Ball if she had a local recommendation for Cajun or its citified cousin, Creole cooking, and she said, dismissively, that the only place for Cajun in Austin was Popeye’s Chicken.

And then in the late ’80s, caterer Steve Chaney, whose jambalaya remains unsurpassed, opened Big Mamou on South Congress Avenue where Trophy’s is today. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long, nor did the great Robbie’s Cajun Kitchen at the current location of Rounders Pizza. I was, once again, making yearly pilgrimages to Louisiana to satisfy cravings for softshell crab po’ boys, chicken-and-sausage gumbo, boudin and the like. One thing about New Orleans is that the food is great everywhere, even Off Track Betting on Bourbon Street. I think there’s a city ordinance that if inferior food is served, the customer has the right to slap the cook in the face.

New Orleans is equally a music town and a food paradise. Is there a style of cooking as tightly associated with sounds as Cajun/Creole is with Cajun/Zydeco music? When I hear a conjunto group I don’t automatically think of migas, but when Beausoleil or Boozoo Chavis or Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man” come out of the speakers I’ve got a big pot of gumbo on the noggin. The music is an aural spice.

“When we’re going to JazzFest, we’re not just thinking about who we’re gonna be seeing,” Marcia Ball says, “we think about where we’re going to be eating.” The piano thumper and her band play the annual New Orleans festival Saturday.

If you can’t make it to see all that great music in one setting, there are a couple of places in town that mix the traditional stomp with authentic Cajun food. Every Monday night at Evangeline’s and on Fridays and Saturdays at Sambet’s, you can find the spirit of an old-fashioned fais do-do (Cajun dance party), though at Evangeline the dance floor is barely big enough for two. Both joints are located in mundane strip malls, but when the music is pumping and the air smells of fried oysters or boiling crawfish, it can feel very much like N’awlins inside.

Sambet’s is more of a dive, but the place known for muffalettas, crawfish and inventive boudin po’ boys, turns into a fine dining destination every Friday and Saturday night from 7 to 10 p.m. With live zydeco and brass band music playing, chef Frank Doublet, who used to cook at Emeril Lagasse’s Nola restaurant in the French Quarter, kicks it up a few notches with dishes such as fettucine carbonara, snapper Pontchartrain and four-cheese ravioli with crab, shrimp and crawfish meat in a lemon basil cream sauce.

Sambet’s is also a leading supplier of live crawfish in the area, as co-owner Doug Slocombe drives to Eunice, La., once a week and comes back with as much as 7,000 pounds of squirming mudbugs, which go for $2.65 a pound this spring. Orders are due on Tuesday for weekend pickup.

Curtis Clarke of Lake Charles, who opened Evangeline in 2003, is not much of a crawfish boil guy – “they’re too messy” – but he’s been known to spread the newspapers over tabletops on occasion. As evidenced by the pictures, posters and signs that cover the walls of Evangeline, Clarke’s true passion is Louisiana music. He decided to concentrate on the menu when he opened, thinking his hole in the wall that formerly housed Maudie’s to the Third Power was too tiny for live music. But on Evangeline’s first Fat Tuesday in 2004, he asked Cindy Cashdollar to throw together a Cajun group. Charles Thibodeaux asked if he could open, and they’ve had live music almost every night since, except Sundays, when Evangeline is closed.

Although Clarke worked in Mexican restaurants the 24 years before trading enchiladas for étoufées, he honed his Louisiana cooking style at the barn dances hosted every Sunday in Lake Charles by accordion great John “Maw Maw” Theriot. “When the music’s cooking, it really inspires you in the kitchen,” Clarke says.

On a recent Monday night at Evangeline the place was packed even before Thibodeaux and the Austin Cajun Aces started playing. When the button accordion and the fiddle announced themselves, the giddy crowd tapped their toes and thumbed out a rhythm on their tabletops. It’s a total scene, made heavenly by the tantalizing plates of food being toted from kitchen to customers. Life is grand every Monday night on Brodie Lane.

Like Clarke, who greets most customers by name, Sambet’s owners Doug and Catherine Slocombe are non-Cajuns whose addiction to Louisiana cuisine overwhelmed reason. She was an interior designer and he a general contractor when they bought Sambet’s in 1998. Opened in 1982 by a Cajun couple named Sam and Bette, it had previously been a store that sold bottled spices, rubs and sauces. The Slocombes, who lived nearby, were regulars. “Sam would keep a Crock-Pot going, so customers could sample some of the box meals he sold,” says Catherine, who runs the counter while Doug oversees the kitchen. “We were always telling him that he should open a restaurant there.” Using some of the spices they bought at Sambet’s, the Slocombes won two first-place ribbons at a Cajun cooking contest sponsored by Central Market, and when the spice shop came up for sale, they bought it.

“I waited tables to put myself through college,” says Catherine, “so I had had my fill of restaurant work. This was the last thing I wanted to do.” But Doug persuaded her to take the plunge and, 10 years later, she couldn’t be happier about their decision. “I love coming to work every day. It’s so rewarding to see a new customer you had one day, show up the next day with three friends” in tow, she says. The joint gets crazy at lunchtime, but if the line’s too long, you can go two doors down to Asia Cafe, arguably the best Chinese restaurant in town.

Central Grocery in the French Quarter invented the muffaletta (pronounced

Muffaletta at Evangeline’s on Brodie Lane

“muffaLOTta” by locals), round buns of crusty Italian bread filled with layers of sliced provolone, genoa salami and cappicola ham, with olive spread. I get one to go every time I’m in New Orleans and I’d have to say the sandwiches at Sambet’s are better (though I scrape off about half the chopped olives). It’s the bread, fresh-baked every day at Sambet’s, that makes their sandwiches supreme.

Meanwhile, the Orgeron owners Rob and Julie Orgeron have their bread shipped in from Gambino’s, the famous bakery in New Orleans. “It’s unlike any bread you can get around here,” says Rob, a mortgage banker turned first-time restaurateur. “It’s so light and crusty, whereas most French bread you can hit a home run with.” Orgeron has almost all its seafood flown in; it’s not battered until it’s ordered.

Rob and Julie, a former flight attendant, loved their Lakeview neighborhood in New Orleans, then had to watch it become engulfed in 10 feet of water after Katrina trounced the nearby levees. The couple have a friend who offered his ranch near Dripping Springs as a place to stay and, thinking about how much they missed New Orleans Food & Spirits restaurant in the old neighborhood, they woke up one morning with the idea to open a Cajun restaurant.

And why not? Cajun cuisine is nothing if not survivor food, created from scraps by a proud, hardworking people yanked from their homes and sent to an unfamiliar part of the world.

As described in the epic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Evangeline,” French Canadian Catholics, who had settled in Acadia (now Nova Scotia) in the early 1600s, were exiled by the ruling British Protestants in 1752. Many of these Acadians (Cajuns) ended up in the then-French colony of Louisiana, where they adapted their rustic French cooking to available ingredients of the bayou country, including rice, shellfish and catfish. With a thick roux as the foundation, Cajuns perfected the one-pot meal.

“There’s a misconception in Texas that Cajun food is hot and spicy,” says Gene Tumbs, a New Orleans native who opened Gene’s New Orleans Style Poboys & Deli on East 11th Street in 2000. “It’s got a little bite to it, but it’s really only as spicy as you make it.” Some heat lovers drench everything in Tabasco sauce.

“I didn’t think anything like I was filling some hole here by opening a New Orleans-styled restaurant,” says Tumbs, whose signature item is the smothered pork chops he serves on Thursdays. “Not until the week I opened, when everyone kept telling me they’d been lookin’ all over town for Cajun food and so they were happy to find me.”

The search has gotten easier in recent years, but that doesn’t make the payoff of having an authentic Cajun meal any less satisfying. Can I get an Ai-YEE! people? Doesn’t hearty Cajun/Creole food just seem to have a bit of history, a touch of personality, in each taste? This is food of a higher power, and with the price of gas nearing that of cabernet, it’s great that so much of it is just minutes away.

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