Friday, August 26, 2016

Sap’s in Late July and GRILLED PORK!

I have been pretty slammed lately and haven’t posted much, but wanted to relate my report of a recent Thai food fix at Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine South, on Westgate. Art and I were having a planning meeting, and we hadn’t had Thai in a while, so off we went.

Sap's Moo Ping

The first dish we ordered was Moo Ping (S-A8), as an appetizer. Moo ping (moo means pork, and ping means grilled) is a common street vendor dish cooked all over the country. Usually the vendor will have a simple large pot or one burner stove (known as a tao), with a bed of glowing mangrove charcoal on the bottom, and a metal grate across the top. Or, for more volume, they will have the classic skewer grill, where supports hold the meaty skewers suspended over the coals. They will have a tub of thin strips of skewered pork sirloin marinating in a dark sauce made up of cilantro roots, garlic, white peppercorns, palm sugar, fish sauce (or plaa raa, fermented fish sauce, if it is in Isaan), soy, and dark soy or oyster sauce. As the skewers cook they are dabbed with coconut milk to form a dark, sinfully rich caramelized glaze on the exterior. Traditionally they are served with a wad of steamed sticky rice and a dark, funky, spicy, dried chile dipping sauce called nahm jim jaew. My favorite place for moo ping in Bangkok is a vendor named Moo Ping Bangkok Bazaar.

A moo ping skewer cooking at Moo Ping Haeowen, from their Facebook page

It sits near the intersection of Ploenchit and Soi Luang Suan, at the corner of the BKK Bazaar and behind the TOT Phone Building. Owners Decha and Yupa Soonthonthanamukol only operate between 3 and 7pm, Monday through Friday, but manage to serve about 1,000 a day in 4 hours. It’s very popular and very delicious. Their version of the dipping sauce tinges decidedly towards the Northeast-Isaan area, because it tastes stronger and funkier than the standard fish sauce dipping sauce version. The last time I was there the skewers were 3 baht apiece, so ten skewers, a ball of sticky rice, and a bag of sauce costs about $1.25 U.S. I’m sure it costs more these days, but still, an economical meal. A fantastic deal and exceptionally delish. Another really good version is served at Moo Ping Heaowen, a famous cart at the SW corner of Silom and Convent, in front of the 7-11. They serve from 10pm until they run out in the early morning.

Sap’s version of Moo Ping comes as slices of grilled pork instead of skewers, which is actually easier to eat. It has that smoky, caramelized flavor that instantly transports me back to that corner in Bangkok, standing in line at Decha and Yupa’s place. You dip each tender bite into the dark, spicy sauce, and then pinch off a nibble of sticky rice. If you haven’t had Sap’s moo ping before, I strongly recommend it. See the bottom of the page for my recipe, to cook at home in case Sap’s is closed. 

Thai Sweet and Sour with Shrimp and Squid

Art has never tasted Thai sweet and sour, so I ordered S-P28, with shrimp and squid. It is more sour than the classic Chinese-American version, a lot more complex in flavor, and perfectly balanced. The sauce is not gloppy and over-thickened like the typical sweet and sour normally is. Onion, green beans, eggplant, garlic, ginger, cloud ears, chunks of pineapple, and tomato share the bowl with plump shrimp and exceedingly tender squid. It is a very nice version of the classic Thai-Chinese dish. Art was pleasantly surprised. 

Chicken Phat Thai

I haven’t eaten Phat Thai (S-F1) in a coon’s age. When I think of the pantheon of Thai noodle dishes, there are so many others that take precedence with me. Frankly, I resent phat Thai as being a pedestrian dish ordered by folks with no sense of adventure. It’s like going to a Sichuan place and ordering fried rice, or won tons stuffed with fake crab and cream cheese. Well, not that bad. But, I figured, what the hell, it’s been years. Sap does a really nice phat Thai, which we ordered with chicken. He uses tamarind instead of the typical ketchup base that so many Thai joints in America use. I liked it. A lot.

Nuer Ob

The last dish we got was Nuer Ob, S-P46, a bowl of chunks of fall-apart tender beef swimming in a sinfully rich sauce made from slowly braised onion, garlic, tomatoes, fish sauce, and palm sugar. It comes with a side dish of a searingly hot, fresh Thai chile-garlic sauce, which balances the dish perfectly. Highly, highly recommended.

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine
4514 Westgate Blvd., Austin; (512) 899-8525
5800 Burnet Rd, Austin; (512) 419-7244  


Mick’s Moo Ping
2 # pork shoulder, cut across the grain into ⅓ inch thick slices, 1 ½ inches wide
2 Tablespoons minced cilantro stems
6 large cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ teaspoons ground white pepper
2 ¼ ounces grated palm sugar
2 Tablespoons fish sauce, Tra Chang or Red Boat
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoons dark mushroom soy sauce
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon peanut oil
1 ½ Tablespoons cornstarch
¼ cup thick coconut milk (taken from the top portion of an unshaken can)

Nahm Jim Jaew · Dried Chile Dipping Sauce
2 Tablespoons minced shallots
1 Tablespoon minced scallion
¼ cup minced cilantro stems and leaves
⅓ cup fish sauce, Tra Chang or Red Boat
1 Tablespoon lime juice
1 Tablespoon tamarind pulp or concentrate
2 to 3 teaspoons grated palm sugar, to taste
1 Tablespoon toasted glutinous rice, finely powdered
1 Tablespoon lightly toasted and ground dried red chiles (Thai or tien tsin Chinese)

Wood or metal skewers
Sticky rice for service

1. Pound or blend the cilantro, garlic, white pepper, palm sugar, fish sauce, soy, mushroom soy, oyster sauce, and oil together to form a thick marinade. Place the pork into a resealable plastic bag, add the marinade, and massage to make sure that the marinade contacts all of the meat. Marinate for at least 4 hours, up to 8 hours, refrigerated.

2. Make the dipping sauce. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a bowl and balance the lime and sugar, leaving the sauce salty and a little on the sour side. Reserve for service.

3. Soak wood skewers in warm water for at least 30 minutes prior to skewering, or use metal skewers. Build a charcoal fire and let it cook down to a layer of hot, gray coals.

4. Place the meat in a colander or sieve to drain, and let come almost to room temperature, catching any marinade in a bowl below. Toss the meat with the cornstarch.  Skewer the pork slices tightly onto the skewers, being careful to evenly distribute pieces with fat. Combine the collected marinade with the coconut milk and reserve for brushing the skewers as they grill.

5. Grill the skewers until cooked medium and caramelized, frequently rotating and brushing with the marinade-coconut mixture. Serve with warm sticky rice and nahm jim jaew dipping sauce.

mick vann ©

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Golden Dumpling Land

Art and I are doing some side restaurant consulting work down in Sugarland, and when you think about it, considering the expanse of Houston, Chinatown isn’t that far away. So I did some research on dumplings in Houston’s Chinatown and came up with a list for us to try while we are down there. Every trip down involves a stop at Weikel’s in LaGrange for some kolaches and cinnamon rolls, and the use of their excellent pee facilities. There is a certain satisfaction involved in attacking an overfilled blueberry kolache or a pecan cinnamon roll dripping in sugar glaze with an empty bladder. 

So after this recent meeting, we headed east towards the intersection of the Sam Houston Tollway/8 and Bellaire Boulevard, and there on the Northeast corner, just west of the H Mart Asian Grocery, sits an unassuming little joint known as Golden Dumpling House. It looked like we had just missed the Sunday lunch rush, because things were winding down and the staff was taking a break and having a bite to eat. The menu is simple and short, and available in a Chinese and an English version. 


After a quick perusal, we settled on what at first seemed like a reasonable order. In the corner is a serve yourself section for table ware, ice water, sauces (mix your own using soy, black vinegar, and chile oil). There is a humongous rice steamer filled with help-yourself rice congee, so we got a couple of small bowls of that thick rice soup to sustain us until the order started arriving. We got some stinkeye from the dude at the next table who looked like he was straight out of central casting for some Chinese triad gang. Apparently we were violating his space a little, but everyone else was cool with a couple of portly roundeyes invading their turf. The staff was very welcoming and friendly. 

Dan Dan Noodles

The Dan Dan noodles came out first, and it was an exemplary serving, with perfectly cooked toothsome noodles, slivers of green onion and cucumber, a garnish of roasted peanut, and a fantastic sauce that tasted like it was based on smooth peanut butter thinned with sesame oil. There was a nice balance twixt peanut and sesame. There were elements of garlic, chile, mala (Sichuan peppercorn), and vinegar to give the sauce some edge. A really good bowl, and a massive portion for $4.25. Dan Dan noodles can be bland as hell, but these were decidedly not.

Scallion Cake

Next the green onion pancakes arrived (2 at $1.95 each). I have eaten a lot of scallion cakes in my day, and these were an artful version, perhaps the best I’ve had in recent years. They were crisp and flaky, and cooked to a golden brown, with just the right amount of green onion flavor. Grab a quarter and dip it into chile oil, and you have yourself a mouthful of goodness.

Pan Fried Pork and Shrimp Dumplings

Then the dumplings arrived. We got two orders of pan fried potstickers filled with minced well-seasoned pork and shrimp, with little bits of water chestnut and garlic in the juicy filling. The skins are the hand-rolled, thick, handmade style that I love so much, and the bottoms are browned nicely with a steaming glaze in a sizzling skillet. Each potsticker is about 3 to 3 ¼ inches long and about 1 ¼ inch wide. These babies are massive. Unbelievably, 10 of them sells for $5.50. Deal of the century, even if they weren’t as delicious as they are. 

Boiled Pork and Leek Dumplings

We also got an order of boiled pork and leek with vegetable dumplings, which are made from the same pasta dough. These get boiled in stock and are roughly ⅔ the size of the potstickers, so they are still huge. Except that you get 18 of them for $5.25. They completely filled the surface of a large platter, and every one tastes better than the one that preceded it. We ate all we could hold, and I really wanted to eat more. Honestly. But we left with a to-go bag that probably weighed five pounds, and the whole meal for 2 was $26. The amazing thing was that we split up the leftovers when we got back to ATX and we  ended up with enough for a meal the next day for each of us. The dumplings may have been just as good reheated the next day. Which brings up the issue of the constant flow of Asian ladies coming in and leaving with big to-go bags. Turns out that Golden Dumpling also sells frozen version of their dumplings: 40 of the pork and leek boiled dumplings sell for $8!, and 40 of the potstickers sell for $16!. We will return, and with a big ice chest!

Golden Dumpling House
9896 Bellaire Blvd (Sterling Plaza), Houston, TX 77036
(713) 270-9996
11am-8:30 daily, except closed on MONDAY

mick vann ©

Rancho Winslow Fourth 2016....Yee Haw!


Grover's Paradise Pork Ribs

The aforementioned actual paradise...not as hellishly hot

On the Fourth there was the usual convening of family and friends at Rancho Winslow, and I went over early to gumbat and socialize with Princess Di and CBoy, so we could fantasize about someplace not quite as hellishly hot as the middle of Texas in a post El Niño world. A place came to mind, where it was sunny and 62° for a high that very same day, with forested snowcapped mountains on one side and crystal clear, azure blue salt water on the other. I’d tell you where it is, but then you might want to move there before I do. Don’t want another Austin on my hands. There is already a herd of retired Californians up there, and they can’t keep a secret. Loose lips sink ships (which can change a bucolic little town in Paradise into that parking lot that Joni Mitchell sang about in 1970). 

White Bean Hummus and Pimento Cheese Dips

I had gone to help Di cook, but fulfilling her role as The Martha Stewart of Manchaca, almost everything was already prepped. I had to throw together some Dr. Pepper BBQ Sauce, a spicy green salsa, the pickled onions, and sauté a big wok full of corn. The barbecue sauce was a big hit last year, but unfortunately I just winged that batch from whatever I could find in the cupboard. Anything to prevent the use of CBoy’s favorite, Salt Lick’s “Habanero Sauce”. To me it tastes like a mildly spicy salad dressing; after all, the main ingredient is vegetable oil. You're better than that, CBoy.

Dr Pepper BBQ Sauce                        makes about 3 to 4 cups
½ stick butter
1 large onion, diced
9 cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces Dr. Pepper
1 cup chipotle ketchup
¼ cup tomato paste
½ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup yellow ballpark mustard
⅓ cup Worcestershire sauce
½ packed cup dark brown sugar
1 to 2 Tablespoons Chimayó red chile powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 chicken bouillon cubes, crushed

Sauté onion and garlic in butter until softened. Add Dr. Pepper and reduce the liquid by about half of its volume. Reduce heat to a simmer, add all of the other ingredients and simmer 20 minutes or so. Taste it. You might want to stir in a little vinegar or salt. You can also heat it up with gochujang chile sauce instead of NewMex red chile if you want to go that route. If you want it really smooth, whompulate it with an immersible blender.

Babe's pickled onions

Next up were the pickled onions. Another dish with no real recipe, but a sacred icon to me. I first came up with it under the direction of “Babe” Hardy back in my junior and high school days. Suzanne Hardy and I grew up together and her family lived about 4 blocks from mine. The Sunday afternoon lunch at the Hardy household was a tradition. Suzi’s mom, “Babe” was an excellent cook and the meal was always superb. She claimed to be “part Indian” and could out-cuss any sailor that ever lived. Suzanne’s older brothers Don and Mike would always be there, as well as Suzi’s dad, Harold. The chit chat often revolved about Don’s capers from the night before, and more than once Coach Darrell Royal called Babe to personally plead with her to get Don to quit beating up various members of his Longhorn football team. Darrell and Babe were on a first name basis. Don had a rep as the baddest guy in Austin and lifted weights all the time with Terry Todd, famed conditioning coach and weight training author. At night, Don ran with a bad but loveable crowd and tended to step out of line with regularity. With running buddies like “Tank”, “Hands”, the notorious Overton clan, and “Uncle” Jimmy, just to name a few. 

Don would always agree to Babe’s demands, but would never comply. We loved the stories, and he would drag us with him to all sorts of nefarious activities all over town: cockfights in the cedar breaks west of town (not participating, just there to “meet someone”), high stakes card games, seedy bars all over the bad parts of town, transvestite shows at Charlie’s Playhouse on the East side (where they always made Don check his pistol at the door). He drove a sleeper VW Bug with a blueprinted Porsche engine in the back, which was a blast to ride in. Everybody knew Don, and if his little sister and you were his side crew, you never got static from anyone. ID’s were never checked. A sideward glance was never cast our way. Babe would turn in her grave is she knew that Don used to get us that really killer Vietnamese pot that the GIs brought back home with them from ‘Nam. It came pre-rolled in little shorty cigarette packs, and was a guaranteed giggle fest. Ahhhh, Park Lane pre-rolls. The only good thing about the War in Vietnam.

Park Lanes, pictured in a Rolling Stone article from 1970

Don, of course, dated the prettiest gal in north Austin, Arnett Olson. A stunning beauty back then. Her little sister and brother went to school with us. Carla is known from her band, The Textones, and her stellar rep as a music producer, guitarist, and singer-songwriter. Bobby went off to Italy to be a movie star and model, and now does work in the marble industry, but is sliding back into acting: see Tiramisu for Two (Google “tiramisu for two film” and click on the YouTube link….for some reason, the YouTube link doesn’t work when you cut and paste it).

Tater and Egg Salad
After Babe taught me how, I became the pickled onion whisperer, making them every Sunday. Pretty simple really. A couple of hours before the meal, mix together salt, cracked black pepper, sugar, and white vinegar until you get a good balance of sweet-sour, with a little salt and spice on the back end. Sprinkle in some thyme, and submerge a lot of sliced onion in the marinade at room temperature. Let sit. Eat and smile.

Green Salsa Meets El Molino

The salsa recipe I made comes from my upcoming eBook, Old Mex, New Mex, and Tex Mex:
Favorite Recipes of Regional Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas

Fire-roasted Green Chile Salsa with Tomatillo and Avocado
Yields about 1 quart

1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
6 cloves garlic, peeled
4 to 6 jalapeño chiles, to taste
Vegetable oil
½ teaspoon comino
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup packed cilantro leaves and stems
2 medium avocados, halved and pitted, flesh scooped-out
2 teaspoons lime juice
¼ cup rich chicken stock

1. Preheat the oven to 425° F.
2. Place the tomatillos, onions, garlic and jalapenos on a rimmed baking sheet lined with lightly oiled parchment or foil. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, flipping over while broiling, until the exteriors are moderately charred or blistered and the insides are half-cooked.
3. Remove the chile stems and core the tomatillos, and then place the tomatillos, onions, jalapeños, and garlic in a food processor. Pulse until almost smooth. Let the mixture cool to room temperature and add the cumin, salt, cilantro and avocado. Pulse until the avocado is pureed into the mixture.
4. Whisk in lime juice and chicken stock. Taste for salt and adjust seasonings if desired.
For reduced piquancy, cut the chiles in half after roasting and using the edge of a teaspoon, scrape out and discard the seeds and inner ribs. You can use any type of fresh chile to make this salsa. It is wonderful made with Hatch green chiles, or with pequíns.  This stuff is green salsa crack. You cannot stop eating it. Very tasty on some El Molino Totopos, but a damn good way to ruin your appetite for the groaning board to follow.


THE Kevin O's Texas Caviar

Jill's Avocado Tapenade

Sausage stuffed, bacon wrapped jalapeño platter, 2 minutes after setting it down......

So, the appetizer counter contained a pile of sesame crackers with a pimento cheese dip, and there was also an excellent white bean hummus.  We had THE Kevin O’s version of Texas Caviar, with black eyed peas, corn, black beans, and red onion in a sweet-sour dressing. First time he had ever made it, and we all loved it. BTW, Sarah and Kevin have moved back to South Austin from Ohio, so it was good to welcome them back to the area. Di made a colorful and ripe fruit plate of juicy pineapple, blueberries, and strawberries with a sour cream-honey dip. Jill brought an olive and avocado tapenade that vanished quickly, and Grover had a big platter of bacon-wrapped, sausage-stuffed jalapeños. I missed the initial unveiling, and this is the aftermath only a few minutes later. They almost vanished immediately. Good eats.


The fruit plate and sour cream dip

CBoy had gotten up before the crack of dawn to start the fire for some slow barbecued tri tip and hot links, while Grover was slow smoking pork ribs and chickens across the back pasture. Rancho Winslow and Grover’s Paradise are back fence neighbors. My Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce was there to slather on any of the ‘cue, should the urge strike. My sweet and sour pickled onions were in a bowl, next to a free-range, artisanal pickle platter, with the featured attraction being Kevin’s (as opposed to THE Kevin O) amazingly good spicy pickled okra. I love pickled okra. Kevin makes badass pickled okra.

Pickled Okra and Free Range Pickle platter

CBoy's Trip Tip BBQ

Sausage....yummm, sausage

CBoy’s tri tip was juicy and deeply smoked with a spicy, crusty bark. The sausage was divinely juicy and spicy, and Grover’s ribs were perfectly smoked: not fall apart, but just toothsomely tender enough to have that bite the barbecue judges prefer, with a wonderful porky flavor. The chicken had that deep, dark, lacquered crispy skin you crave, with succulent flesh. The barbecue slate of the menu couldn’t have been any better. Kudos to the boys for their hard work.


Ribs, before slicing

Jill brought a big pot of luscious and meaty pinto beans (apologies...missed them with my camera, but not on my plate!), and Di made a big bowl of chunky potato and egg salad with mustard. I sautéed a huge skillet of corn with butter and lots of garlic, Parmesan, and New Mexico Chimayó chile powder. Di also made her acclaimed marinated salad, as well as a really good slaw. It was a feast of groaning board proportions, and so good that most folks had at least two plates full.

Sauteed corn

Di's Legenadary Marinated Salad

Leave it to Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham to push back from his second plate (or was it his third?.....hell, it could have been his fourth), asking about what was for dessert. Nancy Barnes, Diane’s mom, usually brings an assortment of excellent handmade desserts, but she didn’t want to have to get out in the heat and deal with a crowd, so she begged off. Robert is typically the first to the dessert selection, and was completely crestfallen when he realized in the midst of his meat sweats that Nancy was absent, along with her desserts. Truth be told, he got a little snippy about it, reminding anyone within earshot that there were always desserts afterward, and …what the hell!? He had to make do with a plate of fruit, and I scrounged him up two different types of cookies that were making the rounds, white chocolate macadamia and coconut. Store-bought, but really good. And they managed to shut Robert up…….

Happy birthday, America!

mick vann ©

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sothwest Louisiana: Part Two of the Food Travelogue


The next morning we went down to Johnson’s Boucanerie in Lafayette for a little pre-drive breakfast snack. Johnson’s is a BBQ, sausage, and boudin spot, but their breakfast sandwich has a huge following. It’s called the Nenaine Special (nenaine means “godmother” in Creole). It’s a huge buttermilk biscuit done grilled cheese-style with aged cheddar, filled with a fried egg and slices of boudin sausage, all glazed with their house made Creole-style BBQ sauce. One hell of a sandwich, and a great way to start a day of food scarfing. Their barbecue “tots” turned out to be hashed browns and not remotely similar to tots, but, what are you gonna do?

the Nenaine Special from Johnson's

Just down the road to the west, in Scott, sits Don’s Specialty Meats, a past winner for best boudin and cracklins. We were going to need some pork meat to snack on while driving north to Alexandria for lunch, for more pork. We went to the counter and ordered a couple of Cajun specialties to go along with our snack of delish spicy boudin balls.  A pistolette is a savory beignet-like dough that is shaped kinda like a jelly doughnut, and stuffed with boudin sausage at Don’s, before they get fried to a golden brown. Pistolettes are a specialty of the Lafayette area, and they are usually stuffed with seafood or crawfish. Tasty little units! A Cajun stuffed bread is like a savory pie-ish bread dough, mini cake-shaped morsel that is stuffed with a spicy, well-seasoned mix of ground pork and ground beef and fried or baked. Similar to Lasyone’s Cajun Meat pies up in Natchitoches, but those are a whole lot more like empanadas. 

Boudin balls...2" diameter

Pistolettes of spicy boudin

Slightly out of focus and torn open Cajun Meat Pie, from Don's

We loaded up on frozen packages of spicy boudin, tasso, pork sausage, and spicy andouille sausage for the ice chest, to make future batches of red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo, and poboys. And we couldn’t leave without a bag of cracklins to nibble on while driving north to Alexandria. Don’s cracklins are more typical of the standard form, being little crispy golden brown rectangles of skin and pork belly with a kiss of salt and cayenne. The skin is definitely more toothsome than the belly portion, and they make a fine chewy treat on the road (and pair nicely with good bourbon later on). 

What Don's cracklins look like...tasty little porky tidbits

When I think back on the drive north, one word comes to mind: green. Everything is verdantly tropical green, whether it’s the trees, the plains, the bar ditches, the surface of the ponds, or the crops. Mostly fine textured and deep green, with an occasional variation thrown in, like a dark, swampy looking patch of water, or a farmhouse. Opelousas is really the only town of any size that you pass through, and we could have stopped there to eat at Pearl’s Country Kitchen, The Crawfish House, Billy Ray’s Boudin and Cracklins, or Mama’s Fried Chicken, but we were on a mission. 

The order counter at L'il Cajun Kitchen

A week before out trip, the 42nd Annual Cochon de Lait Festival was held in Mansura, which was off to our east in Ayovelles Parish, as we drove north to Alexandria on I-49.                
Cochon de Lait is a butterflied pig cooked on a vertical frame in front of coals from a wood fire. The “de Lait” part refers to the size of the pig, meaning they are supposed to be milk-fed. Little guys, still sucking on the sow’s teat. But typically the pigs cooked at the festival are more teenaged-sized (but not what might be called hogs). At any rate, we missed the festival, but I did find a spot in Alexandria that claimed to have the real deal, authentic cochon de lait poboys. That sandwich is always the crowd favorite at NOLA’s Jazz Fest, but it’s hard to find them on a regular menu year ‘round. Hence my excitement at hearing about Lil’ Cajun House.

Swamp Pop

Located at the end of a strip center, and just west of Alexandria’s mall, Lil Cajun House is an unassuming little joint, and their poboys are highly recommended. We decided to split a cochon de lait poboy and a roast beef with debris gravy poboy, and I wanted a fix of their red beans and rice on the side. They were pushing a local artisanal soda called Swamp Pop, and there was some weirdo hanger-on who felt like it was his sacred duty to describe his interpretation of the taste of Swamp Pop to anyone who would listen, but we were focused on pig. My name was called and I picked up our tray. We both went for the cochon de lait at the same time, and I was stunned. Art looked up at me and said, ”That’s probably the best pork I’ve ever eaten, and definitely the best pork sandwich I have ever eaten.” I heartily concurred between moans and groans of satisfaction. The best.

Cochon de Lait, bitches!

The bread was perfect, with just a kiss of heavy Creole mayo, thin tomatoes, and a little lettuce leaf, but the pork was ethereal. Melt in your mouth tender and moist, with a porcine flavor as if little roasted piggy angels floated down from heaven and popped in your mouth. It had bits of crunchy golden brown skin mixed into the juicy pulled pork. Outstandingly good pork. Not that the beef poboy was any slouch, but it never had a chance against that cochon de lait. Lil Cajun’s red beans and rice were exemplary, loaded with spicy seasoning and heavily flavored with lots of excellent tasso and andouille sausage. We could have eaten at Pamela’s Bayou in a Bowl, or at Clairese’s, but nobody can hold a candle to the cochon de lait at Lil Cajun House. It’s now on my all-time great list. 

L'il Cajun's excellent red beans and rice, with roast beef poboy

With lunch out of the way, we were now headed south on Hwy 71 towards the small village of Lecompte for dessert. Lea’s Lunchroom is famous for their pie, and has been since 1928. They have a big, long glass dessert case full of pies, and pretty much every person at every table is eating pie at the end of their meal. After hearing the long list available, I went for cherry and Art asked for blueberry. They either heated the pies, or they could have still been warm from the oven, but I prefer my pie cool or at room temperature. The crust was flaky, with a nice flavor, but my cherry slice had an almond taste to it, like it had been juiced with some almond extract. Of course, I could have been in the process of having a stroke instead, but I think not. And the ratio of fruit to jell was a little whack. I wanted more cherries and less goo. Art definitely won the pie battle. His slice of blueberry was excellent.

Water glass at Lea's


Lea's blueberry pie

Heading south down Hwy 75, we took a left at the little town of Bunkie, heading west towards the little burg of Cottonport, situated on a bend of a lazy feeder stream that eventually joins the Mississippi. T Jim’s Market and Grocery is known far and wide for their cracklins and boudin, and they were conveniently on our way to an early evening supper in Baton Rouge. T Jim’s opened in 1964 and their specialty is boudin, especially red (blood) boudin, spicy boudin, pork sausage, smoked sausage, hogshead cheese (excellent), cracklins, and items like stuffed gogs (pig stomach stuffed with fresh sausage). I got a link of spicy boudin, which was excellent, and a bag of their cracklins (the densest of all that we had tried so far). Sometimes a little tough gnawing, but loaded with great flavor. The counter guy said that there was a maître d from a fancy hotel in New Orleans who drive up every week to pick up a big order of their cracklins for the hotel guests. Both the boudin and cracklins at T Jim’s are first rate. 

T Jim's butcher shop

Baton Rouge, view of Exxon Mobil Refinery just north of the central district, I-10 bridge downstream

We took a leisurely drive down little, narrow back roads, following the bayous just west of the Mississippi, all the way to the outskirts of Baton Rouge. It was a maze of truck farms and crawdad ponds, and green as all get out. After a slight navigational miscue on the dreaded I-110 in central Baton Rouge, we finally made it to Delpit’s Chicken Shack. The Chicken Shack is famous for serving “wet” batter fried chicken, like the much heralded Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans. Chicken Shack, as it turns out, is the oldest continually-operated restaurant in Baton Rouge, at 81 years of age. 

Delpit's, way back in the day.....

We got sidelined at the order counter behind some prissy, pissed off Nubian princess who couldn’t decide what she wanted to eat. Her frustrated boyfriend kept going through the lengthy list of sides available, and all the options regarding number of pieces and sides, and she would sorta whine and say “nuh” with each dish mentioned. I thought that the elderly Black lady running the counter was gonna climb through the window and tear Princess a new asshole, but she held her cool and princess finally made a decision and got out of everyone’s way. Bitch was thriving on the attention, while poor homeboy was embarrassed as hell. 

Wet batter three piece with greens, red beans and rice, and rice dressing, lemon chess pie and a yeast roll on the side

I ordered a three piece plate, with red beans and rice, rice dressing (think dirty rice without the “dirt” {liver}), mustard greens, and yeast rolls. I got a small lemon chess pie on the side. The batter was spicy and thin but crispy, with the chicken underneath exceptionally moist and flavorful. All of the sides were tasty as could be. It was my first experience with “rice dressing” and I liked it. The lemon chess pie was fantastic. With that, we got into the line of traffic heading back towards Lafayette on I-10. That day long leg of food treasures was well worth the effort.  

front of Delpit's catering truck....says it all, yo

That night I decided to check the Centex weather, and I am VERY glad I did. They were calling for massive, training rain storms from a closed-off Low centered right over Central Texas. We were going to begin the next morning with a leisurely starter of plump beignets and chicory coffee at Poupart’s Bakery down the road from the HoJo, and then slip a few doors over to T Coon’s Restaurant for an early Cajun meat and three (they are both at the corner of West Pinhook and Kaliste Saloom St.). Instead, we decided to hightail it out of Louisiana early the next morning, pushing hard to beat the coming rains. We hit some intermittent rain in Houston and near LaGrange, but the skies were ominously low and heavy, with the clouds sodden and ready to dump. The sky looked angrier the closer we got to Austin. When we got near COTA it decided to deluge, raining so hard that you couldn’t see the road. We escaped the western edge of it into Austin, and it was sunny all the way home to my place. But that afternoon and evening on TV coverage I saw US 71 AND 290 both get shut down due to flooding, with massive rainfalls of 16 inches around LaGrange, Smithville, and Bastrop. Everything washed away, lives were lost. So glad to have missed that, and not get marooned on the highway. 

I’d call the road trip a complete success. We tasted some amazing Cajun food, saw some landscape different from the usual palette of CenTex, and got to learn the true importance of gravy. I had the best pork of my life, and got to nibble and gnaw on all manner of cracklins. Other than the plague of nitwits running our motel, it was a very pleasant respite. 

Johnson’s Boucanerie
1111 St John St, Lafayette, LA 70501; (337) 269-8878    

Don’s Specialty Meats
730 I-10 S Frontage Rd, Scott, LA 70583; (337) 234-2528
104 Hwy 1252, Canreco, LA, (337) 896-6370        

L’il Cajun House
2154 N Mall Dr # A2, Alexandria, LA 71301; (318) 787-6046

Lea’s Lunchroom
1810 US-71, Lecompte, LA 71346; (318) 776-5178    

T Jim’s Market and Grocery
928 Dr H J Kaufman Ave, Cottonport, LA 71327; (318) 876-2351        

Delpit’s Chicken Shack
413 N Acadian Thruway, Baton Rouge, LA 70806; (225) 383-0940 (+ 2 other locations)      

Mick Vann ©


Southwest Louisiana: A Travelogue in Two Parts

Art and I both got bit by the “get outta town bug” between semesters, so we decided to take a two day jaunt around Southwest Louisiana at the end of May, in search of good food. Neither of us had been in that neck of the woods in a long time, and it was the right distance away to make it anywhere but here, but still not an epic journey. After calculating routes, finding a couple of reasonable cheap motel rooms, and researching food options along the route, we took off, heading towards Houston and points east. 

Kolache counter at Weikel's, looking sideways

NO trip along 71 east, twixt Austin and Columbus is complete without a stop at Weikel’s for a tray of kolaches. On a previous trip we made the mistake of stopping at Hruska’s across the highway, and found them to be pretty damn pedestrian when compared to Weikel’s. We got suckered into Weikel’s lemon bars the last time we were in there, which led to the great powdered sugar fiasco. Folks still speak of the horror. By the time we had each eaten a lemon bar while driving, the entire front cabin of the SUV looked like a powdered sugar bomb had been deployed. There was powdered sugar everywhere. As much as I love me a great lemon bar, and Weikel’s makes one that’s truly exceptional, I will never try that again unless I have an apron completely covering my front, goggles, and gloves, with maybe a washdown hose on standby, like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It will require sheets of plastic, like a murder scene from Dexter. I went with cherry, peach, and apricot, while Art succumbed to blueberry, prune, and poppy seed. Weikel’s makes a damn fine kolache. But I digress. We had cross-Houston traffic to contend with, but amped-up and sugar-fueled by excellent kolaches, it was of little concern.

The "Golden Triangle"...refineries as far as the eye can see

The further east we went into “the golden triangle” of Orange, Beaumont, and Port Arthur, the more repugnantly fragrant the air became, and the more frequently we saw huge oil refining plants with distillation towers piercing the sky, and massive flames leaping from burn-off pipes. Every body of water we traversed had a barge holding tanks of some flavor of petrochemicals. Food stop number two was coming up in Lake Charles, and we were amazed at how good the roads became as soon as we crossed the Texas border into The Bayou State, where every truck stop and gas station, no matter how small, promises untold fortunes to be won in their casino. And they all have a “casino”. The Louisiana highways didn’t stay that good, but they say it’s all about first impressions, no?

In Lake Charles we were headed for Hackett’s, a meat market of some repute, known for their plate lunches. What we didn’t know was that the plate lunches are so popular that they sell out pretty damn early, and we were definitely on the tail end of the lunch rush. We settled for a spicy sausage po boy, figuring a meat market should know there way around some stuffed gut. In my research, I had watched a short Southern Foodways Alliance film about the plate lunch scene in Lafayette, which had a segment about the religious respect Cajuns have for a side dish known simply as “rice and gravy”.
It will usually be a nutty, long grain Cajun rice like Kon Riko, Cajun Country, Creole Rose, Falcon, or Zatarain’s. But at Hackett’s it’s the gravy that makes the dish, and this is in-your-face, intense beefy goodness that is concentrated by long reduction. Some folks cheat and thicken it with a bit of dark roux, but it’s really supposed to be about braised beef juices, seasoned with a little thyme, bay, cayenne, and the Holy Trinity, reducing down to become the elixir of the gods. She asked me if I wanted beef or chicken gravy, and I asked, “…which is better?” She cocked one eyebrow and replied, “Well, we do lotsa beef here, so……” Beef it was. 

Great sausage, really crappy bun

I have eaten a lot of Southern soulfood beef gravy in my day, and have produced tankers-full quantities of demi-glace in various restaurant kitchens, but never have I had gravy this good. It had the thickness, and substance, and body of demi-glace, but tons more flavor, with a cleaner mouthfeel. It’s darker in color, like the funky mud on the bottom of the swamp, and so intensely flavorful and complex that it boggles the senses. The sausage was really delicious, but tough to bite through, and the bun was a poor excuse compared to the proper buns which would follow. No Cajun could be proud of that bun. But that gravy and rice was worth the drive all by itself. To quote Justin Wilson from his Cajun cooking show from the 1950s, “Heh, heh, heh, heh….I’mma told you what!!!!” 

Gravy of the Gods, from Hackett's

While we were eating a sunburned, grizzled old coot approached the counter. I was curious to see what he ordered, and was instantly flummoxed but fascinated. He was speaking what sounded vaguely like English, in a gravely tone affected by a couple of packs of cigs a day, but I could not understand a single word he said. Counter lady taking his order didn’t even blink. She knew what he wanted and dished it up forthwith. I’d imagine that many folks in those parts sound just like him. I would love to have an accent like that, but would definitely require a bottom screen crawl with subtitles in English if anyone needed to know what I was saying.

Hackett’s is also known for their cracklins, small rectangles of pork belly and skin deep-fried until golden brown and crispy, and then dusted lightly with some cayenne and maybe a touch of salt. You buy them by weight, served in a brown paper bag. The cracklins at Hackett’s are almost like piece of a spicy very thick strip of bacon, if you could get the texture to come out like a toothsome cheese puff. These are some great cracklins, but different than what most think of when they picture Cajun cracklins. Instead of Hackett’s we could just have easily gone to catch lunch at Mama Reta’s Soul Food or Tasterite Jamaican Restaurant, but that gravy made our choice a wise one.

We waddled on down the road to our base camp in Lafayette while nibbling on cracklins, and checked into our crappy but delightfully inexpensive Howard Johnson’s motel. The son working the check-in counter was efficient and easy to deal with. His dad, on the other hand, was a complete dick and managed to take 5 times as long as his son to perform the identical task, while making it three times as difficult. Plus, the key card didn’t work when I got to the room, and I had to go back to the desk and repeat the process all over again. Twice.

Bon Creole exterior (note empty sign holder on roof, and faded mural)

We took a brief bourbon-fueled break from driving, while deciding where to eat for supper. That decision was compounded by the fact that most of the Soul and Cajun meat-and-three joints close at 2, which left us the option of expensive seafood at Poor Boy’s or Don’s, or Lao chow at Mae Sone Noodle House. As tempting as Lao sounded, we were there for Cajun-Creole-Soul, so we headed down the road south, to New Iberia, in search of the legendary Bon Creole Lunch Counter. The directions looked simple enough, and the map on the screen matched my notes, but when we got to where it should be, it wasn’t there. We circled the block a couple of times, looking in vain while driving right by it repeatedly. I finally hollered to a younger dude on the sidewalk, a half mile past where we should be, asking him if he knew where Bon Creole was. With no hesitation, he directed us exactly where to go, telling us that we had picked one of his favorites. He said, “Yeah, it’s easy to miss. Their sign blew down a while back in one of the big winds, and they just never put it back up. Hell, everybody in town knows where it is anyway. Don’t really need a sign.”

Bon Creole kitchen

Sure enough, right where he said it was, we found a faded mural of shrimp on the exterior of an old block building, with not one, but two empty sign holders. One on the roof, and another on the edge of the parking lot. When we got inside, the kitchen was spotless, and the folks working the counter as friendly as could be. We decided on “small” versions of the oyster poboy (for Art) and the mixed seafood poboy (for me) and that we’d split a crawfish burger. We also each got a “small” gumbo. I selected chicken and andouille sausage, while Art went for seafood. Add a couple of Abita root beers and we were set. 

Bon Creole menu

While we were waiting, the older woman at the next table asked us who we were and why we were there, introducing herself as Bea. Not in an accusing way, simply interested in our story, and we obviously looked like a couple of out of place oddballs. She was just finishing one of Bon Creole’s cheeseburgers (½ pound for $6.99, with fries) which she said were the best anywhere around (it did look fantastic). She unfolded from her chair and asked if we were going to be around for 10 minutes, and then mumbled something which we couldn’t understand, except for the part about “…nobody but me makes it anymore…”, and she left. Confusing, but we were now starving and were concentrating more on waiting for what promised to be a great meal.

"small" Oyster poboy from Bon Creole (approx. 7" in length)

They called my name at the counter and I got the tray, not believing what I was seeing. The “Half” poboys were probably 7 inches from end to end, and so packed full of seafood that the bread was held apart at a 90° angle. The loaf was perfect, with a light, airy interior, and a thin, crispy, shattering, golden brown crust. My poboy held over a pound of oysters, crawfish, shrimp, and catfish, all perfectly cooked and delicately coated with a golden brown crust. There was just the right amount of heavy mayo, a couple of tomato slices, and a little bit of crisp, torn iceberg lettuce. This was a magnificent, delicious poboy sandwich, and it came with a side of thick French fries.

Bon Creole's "small" Mixed Seafood Poboy in all of it's GLORY!

The crawfish burger had a 1 ½ inch thick layer of crispy crawfish tails, and the gumbo was dark, rich, and scintillating. About ⅔ of the way through the meal, Bea returned, bringing us a bottle of homemade spicy ketchup that she makes herself. It was really piquant and tasty, but we were blown away that this older woman made a special trip home and back to give two strangers some homemade ketchup for our meal. What a sweetheart. We were stuffed to the gills, and every single bite had been a delight. If I lived anywhere near Bon Creole, I would eat there every day. According to scuttlebutt, they also do superb plate lunches, with two choices a day, Monday through Friday. Hell, I'd probably eat there twice a day. Plate lunch at noon, and poboy and gumbo, or burger and shrimp salad for supper. It’s that good. 


The Crawfish Burger

 · · · continued in Part Two

2247 TX-71 Business, La Grange, TX 78945; (979) 968-9413    

Hackett’s  Cajun Kitchen
5614 Gerstner Memorial Blvd, Lake Charles, LA 70607; (337) 474-3731     

Bon Creole Lunch Counter
1409 E St Peter St, New Iberia, LA 70560; (337) 367-6181

Mick Vann ©