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. 

No comments: