Bryan Miller / June 2013
Bryan Miller, former New York Times restaurant critic, zydeco authority, and honorary Cajun, goes off-road to explore the foodways and folkways deep in Louisiana backcountry.
The narrow country road dissolved into gravel as we drove past sodden rice fields and long water-filled trenches where crawfish dwell. The sun was setting, and we were still, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere Louisiana, Cajun-style. I had come to southwestern Louisiana to hook up with a chef buddy and drive around Acadiana in search of little-known restaurants and food purveyors. We had been tipped off about a Cajun roadhouse that served the best fresh crawfish and crawfish étouffée around. We were eager to try it, but the sun was setting, road signs were nonexistent, and the establishment’s whereabouts remained elusive. Indeed, this place is so out-of-the-way its business card carries no address.
“I can’t believe this,” exclaimed my chef friend Pat Mould, a well-known local ambassador for all things Cajun. “I’ve lived in this area all my life, and I’ve never been out here.”
Squinting over the steering wheel of his dusty Ford Explorer, he spotted an unmarked left turn. Our source had mentioned something about a left turn, so we risked it. Several miles along we came to a clearing that was crowded with pickup trucks and SUVs. A large low-lying wood structure announced itself in bold red letters painted on the door: Hawk’s. (I subsequently learned that this isolated spot goes by the name Roberts Cove, a hamlet that is best known for its annual Oktoberfest. I encountered no one on this trip who had heard of it.)
Louisiana’s Cajun country is a flat waterlogged expanse of mossy cypress trees and still, shallow swamps along the Gulf of Mexico and rolling grasslands in the north. It extends from west of New Orleans to the Texas border. One could argue that it’s among the last cohesive subcultures in the United States, not only for its food, but also for its music, its archaic French dialect, and its buoyant bon temps lifestyle. What’s more, here you find a cultural amenity that elevates Acadiana to the status of a national treasure: drive-in Daiquiri huts.
Hawk’s two wide dining rooms are decked out in swampy paraphernalia. Its small dim bar was inhabited by older men with rough hands and frayed baseball caps. Behind the bar was a petite woman in a black T-shirt who, by my estimate, was about two years short of her driver’s test. Patrons were of all ages, including families with young children. Judging by the number of people table hopping, this was a local joint. A young waitress in shorts and sneakers led us to a table in the back room adjacent to a party of six who were blissfully excavating a five pound hillock of glistening red crawfish. That’s a lot of crawfish.
Hawk’s is open only during crawfish harvesting season, which runs from December to June. The tiny lobster-like crustaceans grow in fresh water, and today virtually all are farm-raised, typically in rice fields that are flooded after the harvest. More than 90 percent of commercial production comes from Louisiana, and the locals devour most of it—and a good portion of that in this dining room.
We started with a bowl of crawfish étouffée—a ubiquitous dish we would sample nearly a dozen times on the trip—and it was spectacular. Étouffée is fundamentally a thick, highly seasoned stew built upon a long-cooked roux flavored with the Cajun holy trinity of sautéed celery, bell peppers, and onions. Contrary to its reputation outside of Louisiana, it’s not tongue-scorchingly hot. Some cooks add a dash of cayenne or hot sauce to the mix, but this is perceived only in the long aftertaste.
Hawk’s étouffée, the fourth on our journey, finished far ahead of the pack. Sweet, and with hints of tomato and garlic, it allowed the crawfish to do their thing. Most notable was its texture. The sauce had not been thickend with a traditional roux. Instead, the cook substituted cornstarch mixed with water, along with some stewed tomatoes. The result was much lighter and less floury, allowing the sauce to ooze down into the traditional rice accompaniment (we’ll get back to this soon).
We followed with a platter of crawfish tails: epiphanic, sweet, plump, rich, as addictive as French fries. Mould demonstrated how to remove the threadlike intestinal tract by twisting off one of the back fins. So why were these so much better than the crawfish we had eaten elsewhere?
The answer came from one Anthony Arceneaux, the owner of Hawk’s, along with his wife, Jennifer. A low-key, likeable man in his early 50s, he sold his first batch of crawfish when in the second grade. “I asked my mother if I could pick them out of a pond out back,” he recalled, “Got eight dollars for them; there was no turning back.”
We hopped in his pickup and drove to a nearby building that holds four large U-shaped vats, each filled with circulating cold water. He explained that harvested crawfish have intestinal tracts that contain mud and waste material that can give them a bitter flavor. Placing them in clean water with no food for 12 to 24 hours purges the impurities. At the moment, toward the end of the harvest, he is purging about 4,000 pounds a day.
Arceneaux recalled that, while crawfish is now an icon of Cajun gastronomy, it played a minor culinary role until the 1950s. Before that, it was used mostly for bait. Mudbugs, they called them. When Cajun-mania swept the land in the late 1980s—thanks to the sachem of spice, Paul Prudhomme—these little critters achieved stardom, a status they continue to enjoy down here. And no place more than at Hawk’s.
If you travel around Cajun country, you’ll experience two ineluctable facts of life: humidity and bread pudding. Every restaurant serves bread pudding; often it’s the only dessert on the menu. Some are firm and require a knife to slice; others are spongy, or custardy. My tasting panel agreed that Hawk’s rendition garnered the blue ribbon. Mould, who has probably prepared a thousand of them in his time, was perplexed.
“There’s something in here I should recognize,” he mused. “It’s the bread. What is that bread?” This pudding was on the squishy side, with a texture not unlike brioche. Brioche? In a glorified shack with no address? On the way out, Mould approached a genial woman who was tapping away on a bulky 1950s-style office calculator.
“Excuse me,” he said. “But who made that bread pudding?”
“I did,” she replied with a sheepish smile. “I make four big pans every morning.”
It came out that she was Jennifer Arceneaux, Anthony’s wife. We pressed her for the recipe. Hesitating, as if to mull over this intrusion by nosey city folks, she confided, “OK, it’s glazed doughnuts that I store in the freezer.” She explained that the doughnuts are soaked in sweetened evaporated milk, condensed milk, eggs, and sugar.
Mould shook his head.
“So a lot of the sweetness comes from the condensed milk—yeah, I get it.”
The sauce is made with reduced evaporated milk, condensed milk, vanilla, sugar, and Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
“You have to use Jack Daniel’s,” she cautioned. “If you don’t use Jack Daniel’s, and you use another whiskey, it won’t taste right. So don’t do that.”
Aside from the étouffée, another staple of the Cajun diet is boudin, a sausage of chopped or ground pork frequently including the liver, onions, and rice flavored with cayenne pepper, black pepper, and other seasonings. It bears little resemblance to French boudin, which is a blood sausage (“noir”) or one stuffed with veal or chicken (“blanc”). Cajun boudin is believed to have roots in the Canadian Maritimes, where the Catholic Acadians settled in the early 17th century, remaining there until getting the boot by the English during the French and Indian War (1756–1763). Many Acadians moved south to the only other French speaking territory in North America, Louisiana.
You find boudin everywhere in Cajun country—in supermarkets, in delis, in tourist shops, even at gas stations. Our first stop was the town of Scott, self-proclaimed “Boudin Capital of the World.” We commenced our tastings at Billy’s Boudin & Cracklin, a nondescript brick building that resembles a large delicatessen. Here Mould bought a sampling of boudin balls, boudin sausage, smoked boudin sausage, and a curiosity called the boudin egg roll. The golf ball–size boudin balls are rolled and deep-fried. These were still crispy despite having been out in a display case for some time, moist and generous with pork flavor, and carrying a nice kick of black pepper in the aftertaste. The smoked sausage was knock-down smoky, almost too much for my fragile northern sensibilities. As for the egg roll, it could be better employed as a humorous decorative item, or maybe part of a board game.
Next was The Best Stop Supermarket, which has been a family business for 27 years and is similar in size and appearance to Billy’s.
“We have to be consistent with the boudin because people have been coming here a couple of times a week for years, and they don’t like change,” remarked Robert Cormier, the soft-spoken founder of the family-run enterprise. At 10 a.m., business was brisk, with shoppers loading up on boudin sausage, boudin balls—3 for $1.50—and the gastronomic barbells called cracklin’s, which are insalubrious strips of pork skin and meat from the belly of a hog. The belly of a human—at least one of the non-Cajun variety—can accommodate but three or four handfuls before intestinal lockdown occurs. The boudin balls were excellent, creamy inside, and carried a delicious pork flavor and just the right balance of spice and heat. The smoked version was on the mark, too. The Best goes through 12,000 pounds of boudin a week. Cormier noted that business slowed three years ago in the wake of the BP oil spill and the subsequent shut down of many oil rigs. “Before that, they were coming up here with big coolers to bring them down to the workers,” he said.
The Best’s brightly lit display cases are loaded with everything from andouille (smoked chitterling sausage), chaudin (stuffed pigs’ stomach), and pork tasso (richly seasoned smoked, cured pork meat) to smoked pork shoulder and stuffed beef tongue. Cormier offered to assemble a goody bag for the flight home, but I graciously demurred, noting that pigs’ intestines might agitate those German shepherds at the security gate.
It was already 3:30 p.m., and our dinner reservation was at 6. When I groaned that perhaps we could make it later, Mould countered, “Come on man, are you Cajun or what?”
We headed west on Interstate 10 past Rayne, Frog Capital of the World, to the town of Crowley, Rice Capital of the World, so designated for its history as a major rice growing and milling center. Fezzo’s (pronounced fey-zos), a popular local spot known for its improbably large menu, is not much to look at: mustard-colored walls, brick hearth, bland art, and large wooden tables. I ordered—what else?—crawfish étouffée. My hopes were high, for the rendition I had sampled the day before at a well-known establishment that will remain unnamed was heavy, glutinous, and flatter than a poor man’s wallet. Fezzo’s spicy version did not disappoint. The chicken and sausage gumbo was a winner, too, that is, if you like a strong smoked flavor. Again the Gibraltar of bread pudding, which we loved: almost cakelike, and with a nice lemon/rum sauce.
The following day we tooled around Lafayette, nibbling here and there. The highlight was a small, perpetually packed little place called Olde Tyme Grocery. This cheerful white building with red trim is the cynosure of the Louisiana po’ boy, and a favorite of students at the nearby University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Served on soft rolls—the traditional sandwich is served on hard-crusted rolls—they are noteworthy for the impeccable quality of ingredients, among them: shrimp, oysters, catfish, barbecued ham, pastrami, and more. I ordered the fried oyster po’ boy with no garnishing—why camouflage a perfectly good bivalve?—and it was superb, generous with big fat Gulf oysters that, despite the frying, retained their texture and wonderful salinity. The store sells more than 700 sandwiches a day.
Our final dinner excursion was to a place in Lake Charles that is not exactly remote, but it was new, and worth investigating. Lake Charles, which is a little over an hour west of Lafayette, has a year-round population of around 75,000. It’s a big vacation town for bathing and water sports, and has two large casino hotels. We dropped in to a place called Regatta LA Seafood and Steakhouse, which is housed in a cavernous boathouse-like structure set on pilings over the lake.
The dining room is large and cheery, with a wide wraparound dining deck that would be delightful on evenings of less than 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Early on a Saturday evening, the place was relatively quiet except for a large and gregarious group of young women celebrating a recent wedding, or one that was imminent, it was hard to tell. One thing was for sure, they were hurdling through the menu, and some of the plates looked interesting.
The cooking at Regatta is more or less faithful to the Cajun theme, notwithstanding a sweet and spicy appetizer called kabuki shrimp. Another dish that skirted the line was the highly recommended crispy duck with cane syrup. It was fine, a bit overcooked, with a charred skin and a sweet-spicy sauce. As a side I ordered tasty creamy grits studded with corn kernels. The duck and smoked andouille gumbo was bold and bracing, but again, you have to like that Louisiana-style heavy smoking. As for the bread pudding, it was firm and crusty, with a ginger flavored cane syrup. It’s really hard not to like bread pudding.
Sunday was to be a day of rest and digestion. Then Mould mentioned that a restaurant called Café des Amis, in Breaux Bridge, not far from Lafayette, held a Sunday zydeco breakfast. Having been a guitarist in a zydeco band for 10 years, I couldn’t resist. Mould said he needed to recuperate from our marathon, so I went with two friends from Lafayette.
We made a late start—the queue begins a little after 8 a.m.—so by the time we arrived at 9:30, the place was mobbed and rocking with accordion, fiddle, rub board, and bass. No seats were to be had in the old brick and hardwood dining room. I hung out at the bar with a vodka and cranberry juice. My friends could not abide the volume so we walked down the block, making the charming acquaintance of a little bistro called Chez Jacqueline. Strangely, it was half empty. The Cajun-style bistro menu looked appealing, although at this hour we went for the colossal pumpkin pancakes and eggs Benedict.
While I consider myself a respectable trencherman, I had finally hit the wall. Étouffée fatigue. We headed back to Lafayette at midday, where I stretched out on the bed, counting boudin balls as slumber set in.