Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and File' Gumbo: The Bounty of Lafayette
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.
Outside La Cuisine de Maman.
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.
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.)
Speckled trout was marred by an overly sweet kumquat sauce but was otherwise beautifully cooked and presented.
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.
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.
A pit stop at Don's on the way home is a necessity.
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).
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.
T-shirts for sale at Parish Ink emphasize Lafayette's pride in its local offerings.
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?"
Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords