Dixie City Delights
Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie, Filé Gumbo
2531 W. Anderson, 451-2200
Bourbon Street Cafe
11835 Jollyville, 258-6120
The Old Alligator Grill
3003 S. Lamar, 444-6117
McGowan's Cajun Kitchen
1101 W. Pecan, 990-8206
14735 Bratton, 251-1606
After all the Cajun food I've eaten in the past few weeks, it's a good thing I don't have to put my pirogue in the bayou, cher, because it would sink. I've heard "Jolie blon" so many times that I now know the words by heart and I blame it all on James Lee Burke. Somebody gave me a copy of Dixie City Jam this summer and I became so addicted to Burke's tales of Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux that I've been devouring his novels like Cajun popcorn. Burke's writing so vividly evokes the environs of Orleans and Iberia parishes, that while Dave is chasing the bad guys, you can feel the oppressive humidity, inhale the aroma of crawfish boiling, and see the plump, quivering oysters flecked with shards of shaved ice that he consumes along the way.
With my appetite piqued and no funds for a dining trip to southwestern Louisiana, I discovered several new Cajun restaurants in the Austin area. I was pleasantly surprised to find so much good Cajun food available here, considering so many people in Austin these days righteously define themselves by what they don't eat. I've even found delicious, lovingly rendered versions of Cajun specialties at an old Austin stand-by, Magnolia Cafe west, prepared by Karen Rusk in her guest chef appearance there. Her exquisite little crawfish pies in a tender, buttery crust could well prove to be addictive.
Some friends who live in the Northwest Hills area took me to the new Bourbon Street Cafe on Jollyville Road. A longtime Marriot Corp., Food & Beverage Manager, Michael Phelps, and his wife Mary took over the old Casa Daniel location during the summer and opened their first family restaurant venture. Mary Phelps' cousin, New Orleans chef Andre Christophe, formerly of Dooky Chase and Eddy's in the Crescent City and Franco's in Seattle, has been brought in to ensure the quality and authenticity of the Louisiana fare.
Though the menu is not extensive, it offers authentic versions of classic Cajun dishes such as a good Creole Gumbo ($3.95), a tasty Red Beans and Rice with Sausage ($5.25), and a delightful mound of fried crawfish paired with a rich étouffée on the Crawfish Special ($11.95). The excellent Soft-Shell Crabs ($11.95 for two) were large and perfectly fried with a dark, spicy side order of dirty rice to complement them. The best deal here was that they allowed us to substitute a cup of their fine gumbo for the iceberg lettuce salad that usually comes with the dinners. Not too many dessert options here but they do feature New Orleans specialty drinks such as Hurricanes and Rum Punch, and serve Blackened Voodoo, Dixie, and Abita beers.
Back in my own general neighborhood, The Old Alligator Grill on South Lamar has been packing them in since its opening last January. The restaurant books a live music lineup Thursday through Saturday and serves a large menu they describe as "New Orleans' Cookin'" seven days a week. My favorite here is on the appetizer menu - Cajun Kisses ($6.95). The grilled, bacon-wrapped jalapeño halves are stuffed with shrimp and cheese and served sizzling hot - one of the best appetizers in town for the money. The Muffaletta ($6.95) is a good sandwich, but for authenticity's sake, it should be bigger, meatier, juicier, and served up on a disk of crusty bread. I wish these guys would go across the street to Phoenicia Bakery and get them to make the traditional Muffaletta bun they made for the now-defunct Monjuni's restaurant.
A friend who listens to KLBJ talk radio tipped me off about the Mardi Gras Cafe on Anderson Lane across from the Village. Husband-and-wife team Phil and Michelle Yamin opened an Austin location over a year ago after a couple of years of success in San Antonio. Mardi Gras is not the first Louisiana-style restaurant to try this particular spot, but the Yamins are building a loyal clientele with an attractive surrounding, pleasant service, Dixieland Jazz, and many of Michelle's family recipes.
Their large menu accurately reflects the Italian immigrant influence on New Orleans-style cooking and features good pasta dishes such as Capellini a la Antoinette ($14.95), angel hair pasta topped with large shrimp, crab, artichoke hearts, and mushrooms in a light, tangy lemon butter sauce. The revelation here is the Crawfish étouffée ($5.95 as an appetizer, $12.95 at dinner). The perfect blend of brown roux, celery, green onions, red pepper, and succulent crawfish tails napped over a bed of rice, transported me back to the Lafayette home of my friend Pam where I learned much of what I know about Cajun cooking.
For some reason, the bedroom community of Pflugerville has attracted two Cajun restaurants within the past two years. Austin native Billy McGowan and his wife Brenda opened McGowan's Cajun Kitchen in a small strip center north of Pflugerville High School nine months ago. The Crab Cakes ($4.95) on the appetizer were wonderful disks of well-spiced, sweet crab meat, but dipping sauces could use a little more pizzazz. The Red Beans and Rice with Sausage ($2.50 per cup) is a very satisfying version of the Louisiana Monday staple. McGowan's Dirty Rice ($1.25 a la carte) is the best I found in my travels around the area, simmered in rich stock with generous amounts of chopped chicken liver, green onions, and the perfect amount of pepper to leave a your mouth pleasantly warm.
If you still have room after dinner, give the Peach Cobbler ($3.25 a la mode) a try. The giant bowl of piping-hot cobbler topped with a tender, flaky crust under a melting slab of ice cream is certainly enough for two. As business builds, McGowan's is expanding the menu and I know I'll go back for the Cajun Sampler ($21.95) that includes crabs, frog legs, shrimp and catfish.
I have a knowledgeable and discerning friend who describes truly memorable culinary events as "twist and shout" meals. After eating at Gumbo's Restaurant in Wells Branch on a recent Saturday night, all six of us wanted to twist and shout about the marvelous meal we'd had, but we were just too full. I've been enlisting friends to help me sample restaurant food for over two years now and this is the first time that I can remember an evening where everyone at the table was thrilled with their own appetizers and entrées as well as every other choice on the table. Do not be daunted by the distance, the food is well worth the drive.
A small, friendly restaurant in an unassuming strip center, 16-month-old Gumbo's is owned by Baton Rouge natives Michael and Yoli Amr. It is quickly growing in popularity and reputation, so expect a wait on weekends. We chose a wide variety of appetizers and entrées and each featured enormous servings of perfectly prepared seafood at very reasonable prices. Perhaps the best among equals were these: Shrimp and Crawfish Pasta in a Lemon Butter Caper Sauce ($8.95), a large, beautifully dressed bowl of al dente noodles studded with plump shrimp and crawfish tails in a slightly tangy sauce with a hint of tarragon; Blackened Catfish ($8.50), this exemplary version of an Eighties Cajun classic is topped with a generous serving of the house special Shrimp Gumbo and was paired with a buttery stewed cabbage; Fish St. George topped with crabmeat ($11.95), this particular night the fish was an elegantly sauteed filet of trout and the crab claws on top numbered 16. Remarkably, six of us ate appetizers, entrées, and dessert for just under $100.
What is considered authentic, traditional Cajun food will vary from parish to parish and house to house. Just read The Prudhomme Family Cookbook to see the variations in recipes among the famous chef and his many siblings. Controversies rage about things like whether or not there should be tomatoes in true étouffée (sacrilege according to my Cajun food expert) or what color the roux should be for the best gumbo (medium brown for some, chocolate brown for others). Debates are all part of the passion in a locale where outstanding food can be purchased even in the convenience stores (the Crawfish Boudin at Comeaux in Lafayette will make you cry).
The people of south Louisiana approach food and cooking with a lusty zeal that borders on religious fanaticism. The sensual enjoyment of their excellent cuisine is a unifying feature of their daily lives. For the length of a meal, at least, you can be spiritually at one with our Louisiana neighbors by choosing wisely in any of these local restaurants.
The Boiling Pot
700 E. Sixth St., 472-0985
M-Th, 4-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm;
Sun, 12-10pm Good boiled seafood, as a general rule, rarely happens more than an hour from the coast. Even though its preparation is deceptively simple (heat water, spice water, boil to taste), a cook without timing or spice sense can transform a batch of perfect blue crabs into a mealy, overcooked mess in a matter of minutes. Most landlocked crawfish and crab addicts either boil at home or do without. Finding a good commercial boiler in Austin is the equivalent of discovering a fantastic Mexican joint in Hurdsfield, North Dakota - a medium-sized miracle.
So the Boiling Pot counts as a sizable coup for the shellfish-deprived. The Pot serves up a damn respectable mix of boiled seafood (crabs, shrimp, and crawfish along with traditional boiled corn and red potatoes) lovingly spilled onto paper-covered tables. The patient waitstaff explain the options to novices and current market prices are clearly posted to prevent a la carte confusion. It's the perfect full-contact meal with no silverware allowed - hands and hammers only.
The Pot successfully avoids the cardinal sin of overcooking common to inland boiling joints. Crabs and shrimp (both currently in season) came to the table plump and sweet, without the slightest hint of mush or rubber. Even crawfish (shipped from California during the August/November off-season) fared decently, with a little red pepper thrown on for recreational afterburn. The standard boil is well-balanced but fairly mild, so those who crave pepper sweats can special-order to match their threshold of pain.
With the texture thing licked, the Pot provides an admirable range of sauce options for post-boil spicing. Your personal seafood spill comes with two color-coded squeeze bottles. The yellow sauce is a mustard-based jalapeño sauce, but the red sauce is the key. They mix a standard Cajun cocktail sauce (horseradish, Tabasco, and ketchup) and give you the bottle instead of individual ingredients. (Why hasn't anybody else thought of this?) If you need more kick, just ask for extra horseradish or Tabasco and mix yer own. Order a cold beer from their ample selection and go to town. There's no place like home, there's no place like home... - Paul M. Johnson
Sambet's Cajun Store
8844 Spicewood Springs, 258-6410.
M-Sat 11-6, Closed on Sundays A holdover from the days before corner gourmet markets, Sambet's Cajun Store continues the grand
tradition of importing south Louisiana's food culture into Central Texas.
Located on Austin's far northwest side, Sambet's inventory covers the
waterfront of spicy things, with over
200 different brands of hot sauce at a serve-yourself tasting bar. Hardcore pepper addicts can test drive sauces before buying - just belly up to the bar, crack open a few bottles, and slather some saltines with your choice of sauces and salsas. If you lean toward mess-you-up habanero and scotch bonnet sauces, bring along a drink to cleanse the palate between tastes. If you get caught without, run to the nearby convenience store for a frosty Big Red - the only real cure for what ails you.
Sambet's also carries some of the more obscure ingredients for folks who make Cajun dishes in their home kitchens. If local variations don't quite satisfy your sausage jones, Opelousas-made andouille and Lafayette boudin fill a freezer in the back of the store. They also keep a good stock of the elusive tasso, a spicy, cured smoked pork that's used as flavoring in many traditional Cajun dishes. Though it's available as a special-order item at local gourmet markets, Sambet's keeps both pork and low(er) fat turkey versions for those last-second tasso attacks. They also maintain a respectable stock of the lesser-known spice blends and other specialties (Community coffees, Carolina brisket rubs, Filipino pork marinades, etc.).
- Paul M. Johnson