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 ©


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