Cher Thing

The Zydeco Louisiana Diner doesn't stand on ceremony

There are now two Zydeco diners -- one on Pease, the other on Travis -- and, as far as I'm concerned, that's not nearly enough. In a perfect world, there'd be dozens of Zydecos -- one of them right across the street from my house.

You won't find fine dining at either Zydeco. Better than that, you'll find good dining. Haute cuisine is great, and I'll defend it till the day I die. Be honest now. Who among you hasn't wept with pleasure at the sight of a nice mousse d'avocats aux crevettes et coulis de tomates? Whose pulse hasn't raced at the mention of oeufs en gelee a la julienne de legumes? I'm a fool for stuff like that. But I wouldn't want to eat it all the time.

Dull would be the soul who didn't enjoy a bit of exoticism occasionally. But exoticism -- precisely because it is exotic -- is apt to pall. We all crave variety, yes. But that's just part of it. We crave the basic as well, the quotidian, the familiar syntax of the everyday. Let me put it in musical terms. Wagner's great. Wagner's swell. Wagner is very often grand. But there are times when I'd much rather listen to Patsy Cline.

I don't know if the short-lived Ms. Cline ever sampled Cajun food. But I can say this with certainty: She'd have loved the Zydeco on Pease. As she was, this cafeteria-style restaurant is solid and down to earth. There's no standing on ceremony here. So be warned, those of you with airs and graces. The Zydeco has made an ethic of being unpretentious.

The place has a pleasing ramshackle quality. The tables -- some in disrepair and each with its magnum of Tabasco and sufficient file to fill a sandbox -- have bright red plastic tops, and the chairs -- also the worse for wear -- sport bright red Naugahyde seats. License plates grace one wall and signed photographs another: Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, the now-disgraced Vernon Maxwell and George Jones, who is represented twice: one picture bearing the phrase "To Marty," the second "To Greg." The other decorations are no less rudimentary: a map of Louisiana, a neon crawfish, an accordion that, like much else here, is falling apart; several washboards; and a saxophone old enough to have belonged to a young Adam.

So unadorned is this place, so makeshift, that visiting it for the first time, I decided that some natural disaster I hadn't heard about -- a meteor or a tidal wave -- had struck down the real Zydeco, and the restaurant had for the moment moved to temporary quarters. I'm glad that not all Houston restaurants are this indifferent to decor. If they were, some of our best designers would be sacking groceries or sorting mail.

By the looks of them, most of the people who eat here are regulars. The atmosphere is so collegial, one has the feeling of having strayed into someone's den or office picnic. Pity, then, the newcomer who doesn't know the ropes. I was caught off balance when I entered and found my way barred by a waist-high wall of beer cartons. Before I could collect myself, several people entered behind me, and I was swept against my will toward the counter, where a man waving a ladle unleashed a series of questions, none of which I understood.

It wasn't an experience I'd care to repeat, but lunch more than made up for it. As often as not, it's the simple things that provide the greatest pleasure, and at the Zydeco, simple things abound. Black-eyed peas ($1.25), for example, perfectly seasoned and given heft by the presence of bacon. I don't imagine it takes a lot of skill to cook black-eyed peas. But God, how I love them. Were they for some reason ever to disappear suddenly, I'd end it all in the morning.

While not as crumbly as I like it, the corn bread (40 cents) was good as well. (This version was moist and had a tighter texture.) And the mashed potatoes ($1.25) were superb. Because they had a yellow hue, I mistook them for parsnips and nearly didn't eat them at all. Boy, am I glad that I did. That yellowness, it turned out, was lots and lots of butter.

Just as good are the red beans and rice ($2.75 a cup) and the jambalaya ($5.95). There's no such thing as a classic jambalaya for the reason that Cajun cooking, being largely freeform, has few rules. Cajuns, who are fond of saying they'll eat anything that doesn't first eat them, care little about technique. Their only requirement of food is that it taste good. The jambalaya at the Zydeco tastes great. Yellow in color, it's moist and piquant.

I also liked the shrimp po boy ($5.50) with its many competing textures: crisp batter encasing soft shrimp; pliant bread playing off a resistant crust. There's nothing capricious about any of this. Palates have short concentration spans and bore easily. Fail to hold their interest and, before you know it, they're sound asleep and snoring loudly.

Another highlight was the chicken-sausage gumbo ($2.95 a cup), which was smoky and pungent. But it lacked complexity. Gumbo should leave an afterglow, and this one didn't. It should have attitude -- "don't mess with me, fella; I'm right mean" -- and it didn't have that, either. It was young, I suspect. To achieve greatness, a gumbo needs to age a day or two.

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