Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Eating Up Louisiana: Two Tasty Road Trip Stops (Part II)

Read Part I, which details our Cajun feast at Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, Lousiana.

Now, we flash forward to Sunday and road trip stop #2.  We’re leaving Natchez, Mississippi, after a delightful weekend in this historic town on the Mississippi River (stay tuned for a separate post on that!).  

This time, we make our brunch pit stop 1.5 hours south in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the city's #1 ranked restaurant according to TripAdvisor: Juban’s, which is a bit more affordable at brunch.  Located in a strip mall, this award-winning, 29-year-old culinary gem makes you forget all about that once you step inside the gracious interior.  It also provides a contrast to Café Des Amis in that it specializes in upscale Creole cuisine instead of Cajun cuisine.   

Juban's Restaurant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an ideal road trip stop right off I-10. Epicurean dining in a strip mall, though there's a lovely Southern facade out front. 

The difference?  I’m glad you asked, as I’ve always had a bit of confusion about the distinction between these two French-influenced cuisines.  Basically, unlike the Cajuns who migrated from French Canada, Creoles are descended from the early colonial settlers in Louisiana.  Most were of French and Spanish heritage, and most lived in or around New Orleans.  Later, the term included African-Americans as well as those who were mixed race.  Thus, while there’s a strong French element to both Cajun and Creole cuisines, Creole food also reflects other influences, such as from Africa and Spain.

So it’s apropos that the two most famous Creole dishes – gumbo and jambalaya – are both symbolic of this fusion of cultures.  Essentially, both are a big heap of things thrown into one big pot.  In fact, the word jambalaya is the combination of the French word for ham (jamon), the French and Spanish article “a la,” and the last syllable of the Spanish word for a rice-based dish (paella).  Of course, just to keep you on your toes, there is also a Cajun version of jambalaya that later evolved, but unlike the “red” Creole version colored by tomatoes, the “brown” Cajun version has a tasso base. 

Got that straight?  Phew!  Fortunately, at Juban’s, I was able to put my quest for understanding such nuances aside and just indulge my palate.  To try as many things as possible without passing out, we again split three items.  Selections were made while munching on the complimentary sweet potato chips dusted with powdered sugar.  

Sweet Potato Chips dusted with confectioner's sugar, the complimentary snack that hits your table upon arriving at Juban's.  Clearly a secret plot to rev your appetite. 

I would like to thank the heavens now that I started with a Strawberry Mint Julep, which uses strawberry-infused honey bourbon. (Essentially, it’s Knob Creek bourbon that’s had a honey comb and strawberries soaking in it.)  While my meal was excellent, this cocktail goes into the pantheon.  Sweet but not too sweet.  Husky but not too intense.  In sum, the best mint julep I’ve ever had. 

The Strawberry Mint Julep at Juban's.  Perhaps the most amazing discovery of the trip.

Now, back to the food.  First off was the Pain Perdu (“Lost Bread”), the Creole version of French Toast.  Adding as much richness as possible (seemingly the name of the game in any Louisiana cuisine), this dessert-like breakfast incorporates custard and Chantilly cream as well as a topping of wild blueberries.  It was absolutely divine, and it practically melted in my mouth.  

The Pain Perdu at Juban's.  Perfect if you like dessert for breakfast.

Next, we took a sharp turn to the savory with a cup of Juban’s Gumbo, made with smoked chicken, roasted duck and andouille sausage.  Of all the gumbos I’ve tried, this seafood-free, meat-laden version was definitely one of my favorites.  It was incredibly smoky and flavorful with a dark medium roux (a French thickening base).  

A cup of gumbo at Juban's is a must with any meal.  Interestingly, it comes with a smattering of rice on top.

Last, our Monte Cristo Madame arrived, a peculiar-yet-satisfying merger of a Monte Cristo sandwich and a Croque Madame – and of flavors both fatty and sweet.  To break it down, it’s a fried ham and gruyere cheese sandwich topped with a poached egg (that’s the “Madame” component) as well as fruit compote.  Overkill?  Definitely.  But it all melded into one big “I can’t take another bite…but I must have another bite” finish.

And that, in the end, was the gastronomic theme of this entire trip:  where excess meets ecstasy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Eating Up Louisiana: Two Tasty Road Trip Stops

In recent months, I’ve been reminded of how much I love a road trip.  Or more precisely, how much I love plotting a road trip based on where to stop and eat.

On a road trip to Los Angeles over the holidays, that meant arranging our drive around stops at two places:  one a new and unexpected favorite in western New Mexico and the other a California roadside institution since the ‘20s.  The first was the Wow Diner, a surprisingly good “silver bullet” diner found in a truck stop off I-40 in tiny Milan, NM.  My partner Kevin discovered it while shooting a film nearby last fall.  With a worldly menu (lobster rolls!?) and daily specials, it’s a gourmet twist on retro comfort food. 

Sitting on the patio at Shields Date Garden in Indio, CA (near Palm Springs).

The second was Shields Date Garden, the home of the legendary date milkshake as well as the kitschy short film, “Romance and the Sex Life of the Date.”  For nearly a century, travelers have stopped at this tourist attraction off I-10 in Indio, CA, to stretch the legs, buy dates (they grow 10+ varieties) and get a yummy date shake for the road (you have to try one to understand how good it is).  Happily, Shields has now expanded into a full-scale restaurant, where we enjoyed bountiful salads on the sunny, palm tree-filled patio.

Given how much these stops helped to buoy our taste buds and break up our drive, I knew I needed to apply the same approach to my upcoming road trip from Houston to Natchez, Mississippi, with a college friend now living in Houston.  (This is the same girlfriend from previous gastronomic getaways to Austin and Cape Cod, who, like me, lives to eat.)  It was about six hours in between, which meant we could stop for lunch on the way there and back to break it in half.  The question was:  where?  

Our road trip route. A is Houston, Texas (starting point).  B is Natchez, Mississippi (destination).  Most of our drive time was spent in Louisiana, though. Click to enlarge for better legibility.  

Neither of us had ever done this drive (which follows I-10 through Louisiana’s swampy Cajun Country most of the way), and I didn’t want to take the risk of winging it.  We all know how it is to get ravenous and just give in to crappy roadside food or chain restaurants.  But I wanted the real deal.  Fortunately, we live in an age of Yelp and TripAdvisor, where everybody can share everything about a trip or a meal.  Before departing, I had our plan for the drive there – and by the time we left Natchez, I had a plan for the way back.  

Cafe Des Amis, located in a historic building in downtown Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

Road trip stop #1 was a place I saw raves about online over and over – Café Des Amis in the cute little town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, dubbed the “Crawfish Capital of the World.”  Not surprisingly, Cafe Des Amis is known for its crawfish etouffee, a dish that perfectly represents the bountiful seafood of the region and the distinctive influence of the Acadians, French settlers who migrated from Canada to Louisiana in the 1700s.   Eventually, they became known as “Cajuns,” while the region (which comprises 22 Louisiana parishes in the “heel” of the state’s boot shape) became known as “Acadiana.” 

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana (population 8,100) is just a few miles east of Lafayette, Louisiana. From Houston, it's about 3.5 hours to Breaux Bridge.  From Baton Rouge (which is to the east), it's about 45 minutes.

Five minutes south of 1-10, Café Des Amis is not just famous for its food – but also for its Saturday morning Zydeco Breakfast.  We were coming through on a Friday, sadly, but the meal alone made our toes tap.  We started with an appetizer that sounded too ridiculous not to try:  Alligator Sausage Cheesecake.  This savory delicacy involves crawfish, sausage made from alligator meat, gouda cheese and cream cheese baked with herbs and spices and then smothered with a rich crawfish sauce (read:  more cream).  In a word:  awesome.

The mouth-watering (and heart-stopping) Alligator Sausage Cheesecake at Cafe Des Amis.  

Next was the Pepper Jack Shrimp Poppers, which are an even better example of how Cajun food is clearly designed to shorten your lifespan.  Because who would want to eat four ostensibly healthy shrimp unless they’re stuffed with Cajun tasso (intensely flavored smoked pork) and Pepper Jack cheese, wrapped in bacon, breaded, then deep-fried…and then covered with more of that crawfish sauce?  Yes, they were insanely good, and yes, I was beginning to realize that there was no way around gaining weight on this trip. 

The Crawfish Pie at Cafe Des Amis.  The puff pastry just went "poof" upon being punctured!

Then came the entrée – which we split after all that gluttony.  Called Crawfish Pie, it’s a puff pastry filled with crawfish etoufée and accompanied by corn macque choux (a Cajun dish involving corn and veggies braised in – what else? – bacon fat) and dirty rice, both of which were outstanding.  The entrée itself?  I decided crawfish is a bit fishy for my taste.  And we could have done without the puff pastry, which collapsed into nothingness, as shown above.  But it’s probably for the best, because if it had been an irresistibly thick crust, I might have died of a heart attack on the spot.

Read Part II, which dishes on our Creole meal at Juban's in Baton Rouge on the drive back.