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

Categories: On the Road

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Outside La Cuisine de Maman.
I was surprised to find some of the best food during my trip at La Cuisine de Maman, the unsuspecting cafe inside Lafayette's living history museum, Vermilionville. A plain old Sunday buffet was elevated by sweet cornbread, pork-fattened greens, livery spoonfuls of dirty rice, excellent fried chicken and a spicy cup of andouille sausage gumbo the likes of which would be revered back home in Houston.

The huge meal was made exponentially better by walking it off exploring the old kitchens of historic Lafayette homes in the Vermilionville village and taking in the zydeco dancing in its high-ceilinged main hall, where locals come to throw down every Sunday.

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Speckled trout was marred by an overly sweet kumquat sauce but was otherwise beautifully cooked and presented.
I was struck by the beautiful setting of the ultra-modern Cochon -- the second location of the famous New Orleans restaurant -- along the banks of the historic Bayou Vermilion and how this setting expertly conveys its mission of creating updated Cajun classics like fried alligator bites with a brilliant chili-garlic aioli. (I was less taken with the rest of the food, but sense a lot of potential in the kitchen nevertheless.)

The restaurant -- which is owned by local boy done good Donald Link -- is distinctly separate from its New Orleans counterpart, and further incorporates itself into its setting by hosting beer dinners with local breweries like Bayou Teche Brewing and serving stunning Southern Louisiana game like wild-caught speckled trout.

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A pit stop at Don's on the way home is a necessity.
What I really adored about Lafayette, though, is how -- by the nature of the strong Cajun culture there -- the town is light-years ahead of other cities in its emphasis on supporting local businesses. Older restaurants in town like Don's Seafood and Prejean's have benefited from this support structure for years, and Lafayettiens patronize newer places such as The French Press and Johnson's Boucanière with the same exuberance.

And although there is an enormous deficit in other cuisines in the city, it's not enough to be a deterrent. In fact, in Lafayette's case, it's a positive. The message here is loud and clear: Lafayette is where you come to get great Cajun food (and where you transport Don's Specialty Meats's cracklins and tasso back to any loved ones who weren't lucky enough to come on the trip with you).

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T-shirts for sale at Parish Ink emphasize Lafayette's pride in its local offerings.
To be clear, this is not a post comparing Houston with Lafayette. They aren't just apples and oranges; they're apples and smoked boudin links. The two are nothing alike. What they do have in common, however, is that both have a lot to offer to an outside world -- Southern Living's readership, for example -- that might not know much about them. And if Lafayette wants to harness the power of its small but vocally loyal food scene to garner more coverage for itself in a big magazine, I say more power to them.

While I'd never declare one town to be "tastier" than the other, the one thing I found that Lafayette does right in encouraging tourism -- especially food tourism -- is offering a clear, consistent message: Come to Lafayette for the Cajun food and the local specialties. In a sprawling city like Houston, with wide-ranging foods and no one "central" cuisine, finding a clear message to consistently convey can be more difficult.

But I find myself thinking back to what Disbrowe said in our interview that day in December, back to a slogan that I think neatly defines our city and all that we have to offer, a slogan that could be put to good use in drawing food tourists from all over: "What's not to eat in Houston?"



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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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