Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and File' Gumbo: The Bounty of Lafayette

Categories: On the Road

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A little bit of everything at La Cuisine de Maman.
Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file' gumbo / 'Cause tonight I'm gonna see my ma cher amio / Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o / Son of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou -- Hank Williams, "Jambalaya"

In late December, Southern Living announced a contest in which 10 "Southern" cities would compete to see which could accrue the most Internet votes to be named the magazine's "Tastiest City in the South." I put "Southern" in quotes because many people initially took issue with cities like Houston and Baltimore being considered Southern.

Many more people, however, have taken issue with the way that each city's votes are tallied. From the very beginning, Lafayette and Louisville (cities which have populations of 120,000 and 741,000 respectively) were handily beating far larger cities like our own in the polls.

While a few Internet commenters suggested that robo-voters were responsible for the drastic difference in votes between the two cities and the rest of the list -- each have around 115,000 votes as of today, while the next closest city (New Orleans, historically known as an important food city) has only 35,000 -- I heard some dissenting opinions and was intrigued.

Dancing to the weekly zydeco concert in Vermilionville's Performance Center.

Friends of mine from Louisiana have described Lafayette to me as the state's Austin: a small town where the young, cool kids and their young, cool restaurants come to congregate. They've also told me that although the town itself is small, its dining scene is huge. "They eat out with as much frequency and interest" as we do in Houston, one friend from Baton Rouge explained. The fact that the little town had pulled so far ahead in voting didn't surprise him.

Paula Disbrowe herself, Southern Living's senior travel editor, had even emphasized Lafayette when we spoke on the phone in December.

"It's good, solid cooking that comes from a really personal place," Disbrowe said of Lafayette's food scene. "Not just gimmick for gimmick's sake or harnessing the next food trends, but bringing refined urban sensibilities to boudin or smoked sausage that their grandmothers used to make."

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The Cajun dip sandwich - a local twist on the French dip - at The French Press.
I'd only been to Lafayette and Louisville once, both times on business. In Lafayette, I ate at Prejean's and wasn't terribly impressed with the food. I ended up instead finding the best boudin of my life in Breaux Bridge, just down the road, and never really thought of Lafayette again. Southern Living had piqued my interest in re-examining both cities, and I set out to Lafayette this weekend, as it's only three hours away by car and an easy drive from Houston.

What I found in the small town charmed me and completely won me over.

The things I found myself loving about Lafayette were things that I can't get in Houston. In other words, the things that make a city or town worth traveling to. Lafayette has a firmly established identity and understanding of itself in this way that makes it an excellent tourist destination. Its message is clear: Lafayette is the capital of Cajun country. You know exactly what you're getting into when you go there.

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The Green Room allowed us to sample local craft beers from Bayou Teche Brewing and Abita that we don't get in Houston.
I found myself instantly fond of the charming, walkable downtown area with shops and museums side-by-side next to wine and craft beer bars and popular restaurants. At night, Rue Jefferson turns into a tamer version of New Orleans's Bourbon Street, with far more hipsters in the street than vomiting frat boys, and local screenprinting companies selling T-shirts that say "Buy Leauxcal" inviting people in instead of strip clubs.

I loved finding traditional ingredients and dishes hipped up in places like downtown's The French Press, a quaint restaurant next door to a reclaimed bicycle shop, where I marveled at a Cajun dip sandwich made with cochon de lait and housemade pickles, served with a ramekin of pork fat drippings. The perfectly crispy po-boy bread -- the lack of which we often lament here in Houston -- melted each time I submerged it into the dipping sauce, forming soft pillows around the tender roasted pork.

The French Press, like many other restaurants in town, makes ample use of local ingredients like Steen's Cane Syrup from nearby Abbeville which only serves to further highlight the culinary bounty of the region.



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29 comments
DaBrock
DaBrock

Thanks for the Great Write Up, AWESOME JOB, also check out Champagne's Swamp Tours only a few miles from lafayette.

Lilybmoskal
Lilybmoskal

The food in Lafayette is only surpassed by the delightful, friendly people who inhabit the town.  You will love Lafayette and Lafayette will love you right back!  Come see!L. Moskal

Aida
Aida

As a Lafayette native I have to disagree with you on your comment, "there is an enormous deficit in other cuisines in the city", but I think it's just because you didn't have enough time to take in it all. Pamplona Tapas, Pimon Thai, and best of all, La Fonda's. It is a Lafayette tradition to go to La Fonda's onn Friday night and drink margaritas and see all your friends. And more than anything, you need to try The Taco Sisters, Katy and Molly Richard, with their smoked fish tacos. C'est bon cuisine! Mardi Gras is February 21st, so that's the best time to go. It's a much cleaner Mardi Gras than New Orleans, and just as fun. Allons a Lafayette, mes amis!

Gigi
Gigi

I'm from the Lafayette area (now living in the Houston area) and this is an accurate description of Lafayette. The first thing we do before a trip home is plan put our meals. The culture is rich and the food is uniquely amazing. It seems that you went to some great places, but missed out on 2 of our local, old favs ~ Olde Tyme Grocery for poboys and Dwight's for Sunday plate dinners, especially the always tender pork steak plate. I hope you'll take another trip and venture out to some of the outer communtities for more Cajun culture and amazing food. Southwest Louisiana has a lot to offer to a true foodie and culture connoisseur.

Ali
Ali

Great article, Katherine!

I was born in Lafayette and spent most of my childhood living in Breaux Bridge. When I go home to  visit, my granny usually cooks or we have a big crawfish boil so I don't actually hit the restaurant scene very often except to go family favorite spots that we grew up with.

Alesi's pizza will always be my favorite pizza place in the universe. My parents went there every Sat night for their dates in high school and it's our one stop we always try to make when we're home. The pizza is very thin with great toppings like bacon and shrimp. I usually get ground beef, mushroom and bacon with extra cheese. I've been ordering that pizza since I was old enough to speak. The key is the cheese they use. It's extra smokey and just... yum. It's one of those places that people either love to the point of ridiculousness (like us) or hate. The decor is old and dark, the waitresses have been there since my parents were in high school (they graduated in 1970) and Mr. Alesi is really getting up there in age but the pizza is still my favorite ever, even after many trips to NYC and New Jersey.

Our other favorite is Keller's Bakery. I'm not sure what they do with their brownies, but I've never eaten anything like them. I don't like bakery brownies, typically. They are either too rich, overrun with extra stuff or too dry. Their brownies have pecans and are bite-sized with a thin layer of white icing on top. I can eat them like chips. They also have sand tarts (similar to mexican wedding cookies) that literally melt in your mouth. Their biggest attraction are their amazing king cakes. So many flavors and so incredibly delicious. My favorite is pecan cream cheese. They got so famous that they started a mail order service. I'd order some for my office every year and people would literally be at my desk all day waiting on them.

As for grattons (cracklins) and boudin, I do like Dons, but just a little further up I-10 towards Houston is a little town called Scott that has a shop called "The Best Stop" and it is "da bes". They season their grattons so well and have the best chicken sausage I've ever eaten.

The big difference, I think, in Houston cuisine vs. Lafayette is simple: the people. Cajun folks are born into families that cook and have everyone and they momma over for dinner every day. It's a way of life and that culture is represented in the food scene in the region. Houston food is great and diverse and delicious, but it lacks the heart and soul of Louisiana cooking. That's why they won.

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Bodl
Bodl

I lived in Lafayette for 10 years, and while I loved the cajun food, I wished there was more variety.  At the time (15 years ago), Lafayette had dozens of excellent cajun restaurants, but a very limited selection of other types of food.  I think there is a greater variety now, and I think Lafayette is a fantastic place for a weekend visit, but I would still feel limited by the food choices if I lived there again.

Kelly Parks Strenge
Kelly Parks Strenge

Thanks for the article Katharine. You're welcome in Lafayette anytime.

Kelly Parks Strenge
Kelly Parks Strenge

Thanks for the article Katharine. You're welcome in Lafayette anytime.

Chere Coen
Chere Coen

Fantastic story. You get our town and we SO appreciate it. Come back and stop by my house for some gumbo.

Jim Ayres
Jim Ayres

Sounds like a wonderful weekend trip. Very convincing article!  

Glenn Livet
Glenn Livet

I talked to a younger guy from Lafayette. He said when he was in his early 20's, most of his friends scattered to places like New Orleans, Brooklyn, LA, Austin, the usual suspects. Apparently after a decade or so they're all moving back to Lafayette. Can't resist its charms, I guess. Probably easier place to race a family as well.

Cindy
Cindy

I could go on and on what Lafayette has to offer in local cuisine, don't miss the local beauty of Jolie's Bistro or Village Cafe, but run by young executive chefs, Manny Augello and Jude Tauzin, respectfully.  Come visit us Houston, nothing like Cajun hospitality.  

Ruthie J M
Ruthie J M

Great write-up, K. Makes me wanna road trip.

Darius
Darius

La Fonda's was horrible. It's a meat market. The Margaritas are doused with everclear and you have to be terribly wasted to even eat that dog food.

Living in Lafayette for most of my late teens to early 20's, I ate out every night. I could cook but why cook for one? Working in the bar business gave me the funds to go anywhere and every where to eat.

I complied a list for next time. Remember, Lafayette isn't just Cajun food!

The top resturaunts to go eat would be:-Dwyer's: A must. The plate lunches put meat on your ribs. Anything from the old man's line will make you smile.

-Pete's: Still to this day one of the best burgers I have ever had. Big Pete is not for those weak at hard. Try the fried sliced jalpenos with the nacho cheese. It's a hard attack worth having.

-Deano's: For my money, one of the best pizza I have ever had. The brick oven makes this pizza crispy and crunchy through out each bite. The T-Rex is a meat lover's dream.

-Mel's Diner: CFS TIME!!! A favorite of mine after a long night of tending bar. The CFS is spicy and crunchy but not overly crispy. The cream gravy adds a texture that makes the CFS melt in your mouth.

-The Filling Station: Tex-Mex Louisiana style. The Colorado Burrito is a task in itself. If you want to get a "real" margarita, go here. Not everclear with tequila.

Night life changes. When I worked for Shannon Wilkerson, the place was littered with his bar. If you want to see how The Green Room evolved from teens to hipsters, check out the Bulldog. The $1 burger night on Wednesday is a staple for all ULL students. It's fell off but a good sociology study on people evolve in their nightlife habits.

I could write a million more places to try but I think this is a good start for you Katherine. Next time you go to Lafayette, you have some work to be done!!!!

Ali
Ali

YES. Old Tyme Grocery! I've had family member who went there first for a "snack" po-boy then went to Alesi's for pizza. So fatkid but hilarious. They were in for a funeral so they were eating their feelings.

Aida
Aida

Great comments, Ali!  I grew up so close to Alesi's we could walk there, and often did!  You're right on point with every observation of Lafayette.  Passez un bon temps, mon amie!

Aida
Aida

Lafayette has many genres of food now, not just Cajun and Creole, although that is our signature food.  I hope you go there for a road trip sometime soon so you can revel in the bountiful flavors we have there.

Latiolaisa
Latiolaisa

We have definitely grown in the variety aspect! There are a lot of great Japanese restaurants now along with Greek, Thai and Mexican. I LOVE living here though I can definitely see what you mean by there being a lack of choices in years past, however we have to showcase what we truly know to be good...and that's mama's cajun cooking :)

P2j2maughan
P2j2maughan

We lived in Lafayette for 6yrs and loved it.  We are now back in Texas, being natives, but loved the culture and food there.  Thanks for the great article.  Made me homesick!!

Mr. Pinkeytoes
Mr. Pinkeytoes

Oh, you would know about racing families, wouldn't you mister bozo

Ali
Ali

I have serious cravings for Alesi's. I think they are trying to figure out a way to ship their pizza because of so many people that have moved away and want it. I hope they figure it out!

Ed T.
Ed T.

And did you find the time to make a trip down to Avery Island?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Not this trip, although I have been there before. (Thanks, Mom!)

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