Alibi V.24 No.25 • June 18-24, 2015 

Restaurant Review

Fat Tuesday Every Day

N’awlins Mardi Gras Café brings authentic Cajun to Albuquerque

Crawfish
Crawfish
I was raised in East Texas, among a substantial population of Cajuns. In fact, our neighbors were the Meauxs on the left and the Breauxs on the right, and it seemed like somebody was always simmering a giant pot of gumbo within smelling distance. Oh, and the thickety forest around our neighborhood was home to several meandering bayous on which we, occasionally, had big fun, me-oh-myoh. All this is a way of saying, I know Cajun food, and have long lived by a simple rule when dealing with it: “Don’t eat New Mexican food in East Texas, and don’t eat Cajun food in New Mexico.”

So, I’ll admit, I was skeptical when N’awlins Mardis Gras Café opened up just down the street from my home. I mean, how good could it be, a thousand miles from the nearest bayou?

The answer is “damn good.” Frigging good, even. Way, way better than I would have ever expected. Dig a little into the history of the owner, Chef Eddie Adams, and it doesn’t take long to see why the quality is so high. The man owned a Cajun restaurant in New Orleans. You can’t half-ass that.

I’m going to start, however, with a note of disappointment. My family and I arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and I was excited to find that on special that day were crawfish flown in from Louisiana, boiled up and presented whole, in-shell with butter. I had no choice but to order them, and when they arrived they looked absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, once shelled, the tail meat was chewy and overall seemed a little worse for wear after the long journey from the Gulf Coast. My son enjoyed them immensely, partaking in the long tradition of enjoying crawfish as both meal and anatomy lesson, but I had to beg off after a few bites.

On the other hand, the fried catfish platter, another appetizer special that came with three dipping sauces, easily outclassed the crawfish. The breading was super-savory and lightly crunchy with hardly a trace of grease. The catfish itself was succulent, and the sauces offered some zesty interest, though the fish was good enough without them.

Blackened Catfish
Blackened Catfish
After the mixed quality of the appetizer course, I didn’t hold out much hope for the entrées, but I was soon pleasantly surprised. I ordered blackened catfish, which arrived with a steaming aroma of the kind of lively, tangy, spicy flavors you hope for when you think “Cajun.” Blackening is a tough thing to get right, and it seems most restaurants tend toward underdoing the char, probably out of fear of “blackening” the meat itself. At N’awlins, though, the charred exterior is perfect, a crust of seared-on spice with just a touch of carbon protecting the moist and tender fish within.

My mother-in-law decided to give the crawfish a second chance, and found that N’awlin’s crawfish étouffée is a dish on the same level as the catfish. The morsels of tail were plump and delicious, springy but not chewy, smothered in a dark, sweet roux and nestled into a bed of brown rice. It’s a sloppy, saucy kind of dish, so a basket of garlic bread, for a few bucks extra, definitely came in handy.

For those who prefer their Cajun a bit simpler, like my wife, N’awlins’ version of the classic red beans and rice (with Andouille sausage) makes for a comforting meal. The beans are rich with pork flavor, and the Andouille is surprisingly delicate. It’s the kind of dish that probably cures the common cold or makes your fingernails stronger or something.

Interestingly, none of these items were quite as fiery as the Cajun food I’d learned to anticipate back home, but frankly, they didn’t need to be. The heat is light, but serves as a way to accentuate the flavors rather than overwhelm them, and I appreciated that. Rather than betraying a hesitance to burn tongues, these dishes seemed to be made by someone who understood the power of capsaicin and the precision to use it most effectively.

For dessert there’s the requisite bread pudding, in this case a syrupy cube of rich pudding topped with a lemon-y rum sauce. It’s good, but the bananas foster is the way to go. Our server told us that she had never cleared a dish of the stuff that had any remnant left on it, and even we, with our helping of bread pudding, wound up eradicating every last trace of the caramelized bananas and pecans, not to mention the vanilla ice cream.

As we finished up our meal, I had a sudden shocking, even disturbing thought. It didn’t seem like it could be true. In fact, everything I knew about the way the world worked was suddenly called into question. So I did what any reasonable man does when confronted by a world shattering observation; I checked with my wife. “Does this food seem better than a lot of the Cajun food we had in East Texas?”

Courtney, who spent years of her childhood in Louisiana just outside of New Orleans, put her fork down and looked at me with wide eyes. “Oh my god, it does,” she said.

So there it is: Up is down, left is right, and Albuquerque suddenly has a world-class Cajun restaurant. If you’ve ever had more than a passing interest in Creole cuisine, you owe it to yourself to try N’awlins. And hey, if you’re ever in Houston and come across a restaurant that claims to serve New Mexican food, why not give it a shot? The old rules just might not apply anymore.

N’awlins Mardi Gras Café

3718 Central SE
200-9600
nawlinsmardigrascafe.com

Hours: 11am to 2pm, 4:30pm to 9pm Monday through Saturday
Price Range: $5.95 for a bowl of gumbo, $13.95 crawfish étouffée
Vibe: A quite sort of Mardi Gras
Extras: Live music

The Alibi recommends: Crawfish étouffée, blackened catfish, bananas foster