Long before Hurricane Katrina blew into town and changed New Orleans forever, baker Aaron Hegger had a well-deserved reputation as the "Famous Cajun Pie Man." His pies were served in dozens of New Orleans restaurants, featured at catered events for celebrities and politicians, and named the "Best Pies in New Orleans" one year by local radio food critic Tom Fitzmorris. When Hegger and his family returned home after the storm, they realized New Orleans had changed; crime was up and too many of their friends and pie customers were gone. They eventually relocated to Austin, where Hegger began to re-create the pie business. He rented commercial kitchen space, sold his pies wholesale, and built up a clientele. Then this summer, he expanded into a full-service restaurant. As luck would have it, Hegger's friendly New Awlins Cafe occupies the very same spot that was once home to Sambet's Cajun Deli, in the funky old Barrington Oaks Shopping Center at Spicewood Springs and Research Blvd. Talk about well-established cooking karma in a destination center already known for good ethnic food and bakeries – Chen's Noodle House, Asia Cafe, Camino Real Mexican Food, Asia Market, Dynasty Chinese, Ann's Kitchen Cakes, and Cupprimo Cupcakery are all Hegger's neighbors.
The New Awlins Cafe is a bright and casual place, with folk art murals on the walls and a staff that's friendly and eager to please. It's a family enterprise, so the service is not strictly professional, but the Heggers know how to make folks feel at home. The menu is posted at the counter, and there is always a basket full of single-serving pies there to tempt you. We dropped in for lunch recently and tried a couple of the po'boy sandwiches, which Hegger serves on French bread loaves he makes fresh every day. We opted for the 4-inch ($5.95) rather than the 8-inch ($9.95) version of the sandwiches since we wanted to try sides of Cajun/Creole staples such as gumbo ($3.95), crawfish étouffée ($4.95), and red beans and rice ($3.95). What a feast! My oyster-loving friend was very pleased with her fried oyster po'boy, but I found the big pile of sliced roast beef on mine overcooked in a watery jus. Next time, I'll try one with shrimp, since someone in that kitchen demonstrates a deft hand at the fryer.
All three of the sides we sampled bore the stamp of Louisiana authenticity: the robust chicken, sausage, and shrimp gumbo is based on a medium-dark roux with a nice cayenne back heat and plenty of meat; the étouffée is chock-full of tasty crawfish tails; and the red beans are creamy and redolent of andouille sausage. The only misstep was in the bread basket – a lump of stale, sweet cornbread just didn't live up to the rest of the quality on the table. We opted for individual coconut and buttermilk pies ($3 each) and were rewarded with delicate, flaky crusts and creamy fillings. This man knows his pie.
My second visit was a lunch meeting with one of my writers who has to eat gluten-free, which I didn't think about until we were seated and ready to order. Turned out not to be a problem because the house jambalaya ($9.95) is cooked in a tomato base, rather than starting from a roux, so the ample portion studded with chicken thighs, sausage, and shrimp made plenty for lunch and dinner, as well. This time out, I ordered the crawfish pie ($5) and soon wished I'd ordered a few to take home. The tender crust encases a gently spiced filling studded with plump, sweet crawfish tails. Paired with a cup of the good gumbo, it left just enough room for dessert pie – this time we chose cherry for lunch and a blackberry pie for a mid-afternoon snack. Hegger offers plenty of pie flavors – all kinds of fruit, pecan, and a few custards, such as coconut, buttermilk, and chess – and he's already started taking orders for the upcoming holidays. Give him 24 hours' notice, and regular-sized pies in your choice of flavors can be picked up in the restaurant for $14 apiece.
Aaron Hegger's food is satisfying, authentic Louisiana home-style cooking and his family will welcome you to their table. We hear they're occasionally offering live music on the weekends, and perhaps that will be a draw that helps this new place bring in the larger clientele it deserves.
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