Café Orleans Express
With each bite, the big, fat fried oysters burst into the lettuce, tomato and mayo dressing. The result was a moist, delicious mess in the middle of the poor boy roll. I added a little more Tabasco sauce with each big bite. If you like your oysters juicy, then you can't beat the magnificent oyster poor boys at Café Orleans Express in the Nottingham Center at Kirkwood and the Katy Freeway. And wait until you try the New Orleans-style Creole gumbo.
There are several reasons why you have never seen or heard of this wonderful little poor boy stand — it just opened, it doesn't have a sign and you can't see it from the road.
And to raise the difficulty level, it's located at the corner of the eastbound access road of the Katy Freeway and Kirkwood, both of which are under construction. Even if you know where it is, it's hard to find an entrance to the shopping center. It was only because of a fortuitous accident that I found the place to begin with.
My friend Paul had a discount coupon for a golf course out in Katy. On the way, he needed to stop at a car dealership near Kirkwood and I-10. I hadn't had lunch and didn't see any reason to sit around at the dealership, so I jumped out of the car to find some food. I told Paul to pick me up at the Starbucks in 15 minutes.
I could get a microwave burrito at the Shell station or a scone at Starbucks if worse came to worse, I figured. When I got to the parking lot, I surveyed my other options. La Fiesta Mexican restaurant was in the back of the center. I had eaten there before and it was pretty good. But 15 minutes would be pushing it.
That's when I noticed a steady stream of people making their way into the mysterious storefront hidden behind the Starbucks. "Café Orleans, Now Open," read a small sign on the door. I approached the place and through the plate-glass windows, I could see lots of people and some exciting-looking sandwich baskets. I walked inside and perused the menu mounted on the wall. "Real New Orleans Food," it said.
There were poor boys, seafood platters, gumbo, red beans and rice, and "French Quarter Platters." My heart raced at the sudden wealth of possibilities. I figured I'd better get a sandwich so I could eat it in the car. There were no less than a dozen poor boys, burgers and muffulettas on the menu to choose from.
Everybody behind the counter seemed to have Louisiana accents. And so did the heavy-set guy who walked up and hung a couple of strands of Mardi Gras beads around my neck. His name was Aaron Smith, and he said he was the new restaurant's owner.
I quizzed him about his restaurant experience. Turns out Smith is the president of a company called Airport Express Management that operates franchise restaurants like Taco Bell, Popeye's, Smoothie King and Pizza Inn inside Bush Intercontinental Airport. Smith also runs a bakery operation that he designed from scratch.
He told me he that he always wanted to open a fast-casual New Orleans-style restaurant. A friend of his who owns the Nottingham Center encouraged him to try it there, so I am guessing that Smith got a great deal on the less-than-ideal location behind the Starbucks. Smith said that he hoped Café Orleans Express would become a chain someday, but at the moment, this is the only one.
A prototype location for a proposed chain restaurant is sort of like a pilot for a new TV show. It tends to be a lot better than the subsequent installments. Which means that Houston poor boy and gumbo lovers are in for a treat, at least as long as Aaron Smith is trying to prove something with his new place.
I ordered my oyster poor boy and grabbed a copy of the restaurant's to-go menu. While I was waiting, a bowl of gumbo, a fried oyster platter and a cheeseburger poor boy passed by my table, and they all looked damn good.
The back of the menu featured a detailed history of the poor boy sandwich and an ambitious essay titled "The Difference Between Cajun and Creole Cuisines." Every time I have broached that subject in these pages, angry letters and phone calls have ensued, so I read the passage with great interest.
Good luck to Aaron Smith with the urban-versus-rural explanation he expounds. "Creole cooking came from the kitchens of New Orleans restaurants, supplied by the commerce of a rich port...," the back of the menu explains. "Conversely, Cajun cooking came of the country, using whatever could be trapped, hunted or harvested from swamps..."
Justin and Michael are the fry cooks at Café Orleans, and they are masters of their craft. The shrimp and oysters are lightly battered to order with a spicy cornmeal coating, and they always come out juicy. Justin, nicknamed Pooh, sports a tattoo of Winnie on his forearm. Michael wears a beard and cornrow coiffure. When the two large black men start bumping into each other in the narrow confines of their workspace, Michael calls it "the clash of the titans."
In four visits to Café Orleans, I fell in love with the juicy fried oysters and big fried Gulf shrimp — on overstuffed and perfectly dressed poor boy sandwiches and over a huge pile of French fries on a seafood platter.
At first I thought the French fries were hand-cut, since they have bits of potato skin attached. But while observing Justin and Michael's technique, I noticed that the fries came from a freezer bag. The fries taste pretty good, for frozen. And the restaurant certainly doesn't skimp on them. I never could eat them all.
The hamburger poor boy is made from a half-pound frozen oval patty of ground meat. It's cooked on the griddle and sprinkled generously with an orange powder from a shaker bottle. Five bucks says its Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning.
When it's done, the burger patty is cut in two, and the halves are set side by side on a poor boy roll with grilled onions and lettuce, tomato, mayo and pickles. I got the cheeseburger poor boy with Swiss, and I was pretty happy with it. If they used a hand-formed, never-frozen patty, it would have been stellar.
The Creole-sausage poor boy was disappointing. There wasn't enough meat for the size of the roll, and the sausage, which was split in half lengthwise, was all dried out. I suspect it had been microwaved. The muffuletta was similarly out of whack. There was a generous amount of meat and cheese on the mediocre round bun, but not nearly enough olive salad to moisten it. The red beans and rice were nothing special either.
But don't miss the sublimely spiced New Orleans-style gumbo, which contains a "kitchen sink" mixture of sausage, chicken and jumbo shrimp in a dark roux. Bottles of filé powder are lined up beside the pepper sauces for doctoring your gumbo at the table.
How long Café Orleans Express can keep up the quality of their outrageous gumbo and overstuffed shrimp and oyster poor boys is anybody's guess. Which is why I recommend you stop by sooner rather than later.
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