Citified, countrified and bona fide
Which is better: living in the city or the country? Both have distinct advantages and drawbacks. The city has more paved streets, a larger variety of places to eat and shop, and more people to dilute the memory of that idiotic stunt you pulled at your senior prom. But there are also parking meters, overpriced necessities and a general lack of concern for your well-being. Country living is simpler. They've got gravel roads, mom 'n' pop chicken shacks and neighbors who'll cheerfully loan you a tractor (if you ask politely). Of course, life in the sticks ain’t all meat pies and rainbows. Chances are you'll have allergies, and those neighbors are probably the nosy type. What you did in high school will be a matter of public record until you die--or at least until you move back to the city.
Louisiana's two reigning cuisines--Cajun and Creole--beg a similar question. There are pros and cons to both, but personal taste dictates which is better. Cajun is country fare--very spicy and rustic with French influences and generous amounts of pork fat. On the other side of the spectrum, Creole style is more citified. It's milder and refined with French, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences, butter and cream. We have an unfortunate dearth of local Cajun and Creole restaurants here, so taking a closer look at locally owned Cajun Kitchen on Osuna was a rare and welcomed diversion.
Some of the city's best restaurants are concealed in nondescript strip malls. This one, however, shines like a beacon thanks to their clever logo--a big-eyed crawfish in a chef’s hat, seasoning a cauldron of good eats. An attached ribbon proclaims “cooking with class."
Owners Lynn Hébert and Arden Hébert Barnes have made a cozy niche for themselves in this storefront with a warm, homestyle atmosphere, excellent service and an exaggerated New Orleans/Mardi Gras theme. The interior design is as colorful as a carnival, thanks to wall murals and festive art, but it was the pervasive cooking scents of Cajun spice and frying fish I was drawn to.
The menu represents both Creole and Cajun dishes nicely. A long list of po’ boy sandwiches--a baguette loaded with fried oysters, shrimp, crawfish (crawdads, if you're in the country) or catfish--are pure Cajun. Crawfish étouffée, though traditionally Cajun (in a browner, spicier sauce), was reddened with tomato, a hallmark of fine Creole classics. (The differences between conventional Creole and Cajun, by the way, are almost indistinguishable to those outside their place of origin. During the course of an otherwise boring lecture in culinary school I learned that the two cooking styles have merged at several points, thanks in part to Chef Paul Prudhomme’s rise to popularity in the ’80s with his “blackened” everything under the sun.)
Cajun Kitchen offers grilled, blackened catfish and tuna. There's also a salmon that's finished with their house crawfish étouffée, thus providing two yummies in one dish.
I ordered the large combination platter appetizer ($15.95) and the chef’s special plate ($12.95) with crawfish pies, jambalaya, filé gumbo and house coleslaw. The food arrived in under 10 minutes, steaming hot and in more than adequate portions.
The combo platter gave me servings of fried catfish, oysters, shrimp and crawfish, a big, fluffy crab cake and a large basket of Cajun-battered fries. Those oysters were a thing of beauty—tender, juicy, salty and flavorful with a very light cornmeal breading. The crawfish and shrimp were just as delicious, fried so you could still taste life in them beyond the fryer basket. In light of its impressive size, my crab cake was anticlimactic. The taste was fine, but I would have liked more crab meat and far less chopped red and green bell peppers. Taming the “I lived in mud” flavor of catfish is one of the hardest things I’ve come across while cooking (tip: try soaking it in buttermilk), but Cajun Kitchen did such a fine job with breading, I managed to forgot my fish’s humble origins.
My entrée included two Louisiana favorites, jambalaya and gumbo. The gumbo consisted of a rich brown sauce with hot sausage and stewed chicken and, although I’ve seen prettier, this stuff is bona fide. The jambalaya was a thick, bright orange sauce with chicken meat, more smoky sausage and rice, and the barest hint of vinegary hot sauce, giving it a pleasantly warm descent from mouth to tummy. The crawfish pies were basically seafood turnovers (Hot Pockets to all you Gen Y’ers). The filling of minced crawfish, onion and peppers was a tad gamy, but it grew on me.
The final pitfall of both Cajun and Creole is that dining out can be expensive in regions outside of Louisiana. You can’t really blame them; seafood isn’t cheap. Still, my ticket came to a reasonable $31.42 before tip, and I'd be willing to pay more for such authentic grub. I'd also be willing to pay to keep my small-town cohorts from remembering a certain prom incident, but that's a story for another day.