Restaurant Review: Nubian Queen Lola's Cajun Kitchen
Lola Stephens feels she's blessed to have her cafe open, but trust us: Austin diners are the ones who are blessed
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., Jan. 27, 2006
Nubian Queen Lola's Cajun Kitchen
1815 Rosewood, 542-9269
Monday-Saturday, 9am-9pmLola Stephens moved here from Lake Charles, La., in 1980, after growing up cooking at the sides of her grandmother and mom. It was supposed to be a brief pit stop on her way to California. Money ran out, so she got a cashier's job, and she liked Austin so much that she never left. In the late Eighties, times got tough. Stephens lost her job and was homeless for two years. Optimist that she is, she never lost her faith, and fought her way back. She now raises four daughters, ages 11 to 17, three of whom she adopted from a friend in need.
About two years ago, she was passing the corner of Rosewood and Chicon and saw a for-rent sign out of the corner of her eye, on what used to be Nanny's, a neighborhood soul-food joint. With $500 scraped together from savings, friends, and donations from the congregation of her church, Stephens was able to secure the spot for a month. She cleaned it up and did some painting and decorating, the predominant colors being purple and yellow, "the colors of Mardi Gras and Jacob's coat," she says.
For three months, she didn't have the money to actually open the door, but an inquisitive contractor repeatedly stopped by to see when she was going to open. Her answer was always the same: "I'm trying to scrape the money together for pots and pans, equipment, and refrigeration." Not long after, he stopped again, picked her up, and took her on a $1,000-plus donated shopping spree. All he wanted was a place to get some good Cajun food, and to help a fellow human in need.
Nubian Queen Lola's is small, with one long communal table running down the middle. Mardi Gras beads hang from the ceiling, and inspirational messages and knickknacks line the walls. By the kitchen door is the coolest James Brown figurine you'll ever see.
For a Cajun cafe, it's surprising that one of the things Stephens is most known for is her amazing burgers ($2 single, $3 double, $4 for the massive triple). These burgers are things of beauty: a hand-formed patty on a moist bun, with all of the fixin's (red-ripe tomatoes, even in January!). The chicken and sausage gumbo (four sizes, priced from cheapest to cheap) is loaded with chicken, complex and smoky, and not overwhelmed by the dark roux (as faux Cajun gumbos often are). Folks next to me were raving about their pork chop sandwich.
The fried fish, available as a huge side ($3), sandwich ($4.99), or dinner ($6.95) is some of the best catfish I've ever had. The crust is spiced but not piquant, not too heavy, and done to a golden-brown. The interior is moist and cooked to the perfect point. The shrimp étouffée ($6.95, that day's special) is outstanding: a creamy, spiced, cooked-down sauce loaded with moist and tender shrimp, served over white rice. It's comes with "mixed vegetables," which are more like a thick vegetable stew. The menu also lists barbecue, "but I haven't been able to add it yet. I'll do it when I pull outta this struggle."
The restaurant is closed on Sundays, when Stephens feeds local homeless in the cafe's back yard for free. She has organized several benefits for the displaced New Orleanians here in town, and has volunteered and cooked for them at the shelter. She's a firm believer in Luke 6:38, which reads, "Give and it will be given to you." Stephens feels she's blessed to have her cafe open, but trust us: Austin diners are the ones who are blessed.