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 maĆ®tre 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 ©  

Friday, June 10, 2016

Saturday at Sap's South

Pork satay...we messed up the symmetry of the toast slices on the plate....our bad. Looks messy, tastes great. 

A couple of Saturday’s past, Art and I met at Sap’s South for some lunch, and Leah was supposed to join us, but got sidelined somewhere. Unfortunately (well, not really) we had ordered for three before we knew she was a no-show. So we were in for a major league belly stuffing.

For an appetizer we chose Sap’s excellent satay (S-47, two orders) made with pork. The tender, charred skewers are loaded with complex flavor even before you dip them into the spicy curried peanut sauce, or adjust the taste buds with some of the sweet and sour ajad pickled cucumber relish with shallot. 

Tom Khlong

Tom Khlong (S-NS15) is our favorite soup, and you can order it with chicken (how we usually order it), tofu, Chinese broccoli, green bean or bok choy, or mixed seafood, which was our choice this day. Normally it comes with a noodle (vermicelli, wide rice, or bean thread) but we always get it with no noodles and brown jasmine rice on the side. Tom khlong is like a jacked-up version of tom yum, and spicy as hell. All of the robust aromatics, including galangal, shallot, Thai pepper, and thick slices of garlic are roasted first, which adds a ton of depth to the rich chicken stock. Lemongrass, Thai lime leaf, lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar round out the spice palette, before it gets garnished with fried red chiles and Thai basil. If you’ve never tried it before, do yourself a favor. I may get it next time with only squid. When poached in that stock, they are unbeatable. 

Guay Teaw Kua Gai (with chicken)

For a noodle it’s hard to beat Guay Teaw Kua Gai (S-F11). Sen yai flat rice noodles are stir-fried with a meat - I prefer ground pork - beaten eggs, bean sprout, pickled radish, and a Thai-Chinese mother sauce that is soy-based. It comes with a lettuce salad on the side, and you get a ramekin of a honey-flavored Thai dressing to dribble over the whole plate. Add just a touch of fish sauce, a dusting of ground Thai chile, and some of the roasted chile sauce, and you have a noodle dish that will kick pad thai’s ass any day of the week. It really bothers me when I see folks go into a Thai restaurant, any Thai restaurant, and pass up all of the amazing noodle dishes to order pad thai. Nothing wrong with pad thai, but live a little, you nimrods!

Pad Prik Khing Nuea

Pad Prik Khing (S-P22) is an old stand by for me. I used to cook it at home all of the time, and the crunch of the green beans fit nicely with the rest of the dishes at our table. We ordered it with beef, and got a big bowl of spicy dry curry glazed beef and crunchy green beans, flavored with Thai lime leaf and palm sugar. It is a delicious reminder that I need to cook it at home more often, and I need to find a source for brown jasmine rice. I’m hooked on that nutty flavor. 

Pad Prik Gaeng

Pad Prik Gang (S-P47) is a stir fried curry made with a red chile curry paste flavored with coconut milk, serrano chile wedges, Thai basil, Thai lime leaf, and crunchy, flavorful green peppercorns. We ordered it with chicken, and loved it. This a dish that will put some fire in your belly. I think it has 4 or 5 chiles on the special menu, but suffice it to say that between the serrano chiles, the red Thai chiles, and the green peppercorns (the original heat of Thailand before the Portuguese brought chiles in 1529) it packs a very tasty wallop.

Another excellent meal at Sap’s. Actually two excellent meals at Sap’s, because there were ample  leftovers for dinner later that evening! The photos would look better if I could remember to take the shots before we start loading up the plates.......

Sap's Fine Thai Cuisine
South: 4515 Westgate · 512-899-8525
North: 5800 Burnet Rd.· 512-419-7244

Mick Vann ©