Thursday, June 16, 2016

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 ©  

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