Every now and then, someone opens the big metal exit door and a shaft of blindingly bright sunshine slices through the cool, dark interior of Roadhouse Cajun Bar-B-Q. It takes your eyes awhile to adjust to the dark again.
When you're partying at Roadhouse, it's hard to remember that it's actually mid-afternoon outside the pitch-black bar, dance hall and restaurant. Especially since the band starts playing at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and everybody's pretty much tanked by the time the music ends at six. It's a sort of early-bird special for music, food and booze lovers.
Today's Saturday, and the performance features a six-person zydeco band. (On Sundays, it's always a blues show.) The show was in full swing when we walked in around four-thirty, and the dance floor is packed. A muscular young black man with braided hair under his white straw cowboy hat is leading a line dance. In his tight blue jeans, big silver belt buckle and high-heeled cowboy boots, he has the rapt attention of the dozens of women following his lead.
When the band takes a break, some recorded music comes on and a seemingly mild-manned suburban housewife walks out on the dance floor and starts doing a raunchy pole dance. My date and I look at each other in utter amazement as the crowd cheers her on.
I'm drinking Budweiser and eating boudin spread on saltines and doused with Tabasco sauce. The boudin at Roadhouse is meaty and moist, though not very spicy. The hot sauce helps a lot. I'm used to squeezing boudin out of its casing onto crackers (or into my mouth). Squeezing the hot goo out of a shiny length of pork intestine like toothpaste out of a tube makes some sensitive types queasy. But the boudin at Roadhouse is thoughtfully pre-skinned, which makes for a much more genteel dining experience.
When the band starts up again, my date wants to dance, but unfortunately I'm wearing sandals. Next time I'll wear my dancing shoes, I promise her. Unable to scoot my boots, I find a diversion in the form of five giant television screens lining the wall behind the bar. All are tuned to sports events, including three intensely close college football games. Two guys who look to be in their early thirties are sitting at a table next to ours. They're also watching football while drinking shots and beers.
The tables at Roadhouse are extra-high because the seats are all barstools. The tall seating proves dangerous to one of the guys at the next table. He topples forward out of his stool when an overheated woman in a white blouse suddenly grabs his arm and begins to drag him toward the dance floor. He's protesting that he doesn't know how to dance, but the woman, who's larger than he is, will not be denied.
His wide-eyed friend grabs his beer and makes a break for it, but it's already too late. Another woman swoops in and cuts him off like a linebacker breaking up an option play. On the dance floor, the two hostage dancers move stiffly and look annoyed while all around them whites and blacks, people young and old, jump energetically to the washboard-driven beat.
Roadhouse Cajun Bar-B-Q is located at the corner of Dixie Farm Road and Galveston Road across from Ellington Field. It used to be called Pe-Te's Cajun Bar-B-Q. The walls of the cavernous space are covered with hundreds of license plates from every sector of the planet, along with photos of the astronauts who frequent the place. The lighting on the dance floor is supplied almost entirely by neon beer signs. Throughout the hall, stolen golf course markers inform you of par and distance to the pin.
The eccentric barbecue restaurant and Cajun dance hall was founded by Les "Pe-Te" Johnson, who also hosts the Cajun music show Pe-Te's Cajun Bandstand, which airs early Saturday mornings on KPFT/90.1 FM. After 25 years of barbecue and dancing, Pe-Te got tired and closed the place five months ago. It was revived and reopened recently, and the new owners have kept things pretty much unchanged.
As the musicians whip the crowd in double time, we get up and check out the kitchen. I sample the Cajun barbecued brisket plate, a generous portion of extremely tender beef slices served with a coffee-colored, vinegary-tasting sauce and several slices of white bread.
The meat has a faint smoke aroma and tastes a little watery, as if it was steamed. I suspect it was smoked awhile and then finished in the oven until it became tender. The ribs are much better. They have a smokier aroma, and although tender, they aren't quite as watery. The sides, pinto beans and finely chopped slaw, taste pretty generic.
My dining partner gets crawfish étouffée, which turns out to be very bland. There's a good amount of crawfish mixed in with the onions, green peppers and celery, but the étouffée sauce tastes utterly unseasoned. I try drenching it with Tabasco sauce, but the hot sauce ends up making it taste way too vinegary. The peach cobbler, made with canned fruit and a thick pastry crust, isn't exactly homemade, but it's still tasty.
I do much better on a lunchtime visit in the middle of the week. Chicken-and-sausage gumbo is the daily special, and it's made with lots of both meats. It's thin because of a shortage of roux, but it has a nice cayenne kick. A generous portion served over rice in a Styrofoam bowl makes quite a lunch.
A side of Cajun potatoes turns out to be made by mashing whole potatoes with lots of green onions. The menu also includes several other gumbos, red beans and rice, and just about everything else considered edible east of the Sabine.
I can't lie. The food isn't stellar. But I love the place anyway.
Readers from Louisiana often write letters chastising me for failing to differentiate between Creole and Cajun cuisine. In Louisiana, these are important distinctions. But here in Houston, "Cajun" restaurants blend all the styles together into a sort of Louisiana fusion. We like New Orleans red beans and rice, and we like Cajun gumbo. What are you gonna do if we mix it all up -- go tell your mama in Mamou?
We do the same thing with Louisiana music. Sure, we know that Cajun and zydeco are two distinct styles. But there are hardly any Cajun musicians left around here. And there are lots of zydeco bands. So at Cajun dance halls like Roadhouse Cajun Bar-B-Q, we all dance to zydeco.
There are a lot of Louisianans in Houston. But after a couple of generations, they seem to forget about some of their historical cultural divisions. The blacks and the whites and the country and the city stuff all get thrown together on the same dance floor -- and the same menu. The resulting Gulf Coast Cajun-Creole mélange may not be authentic, but that's not stopping anybody from dancing -- or eating.
Houston Press music editor John Nova Lomax told me that he was happy to see Roadhouse open again. Pe-Te's Cajun Bar-B-Q was one of his favorite places to bring people who were visiting Houston for the first time, he said.
"The food is not that great," I said.
"Yeah, but ," Lomax began. The zydeco bands that play on Saturday and the blues bands that perform on Sunday aren't really the best of either genre, he freely admitted. And while he always gets a bowl of gumbo, he wasn't that enthusiastic about the cooking either. "The food is just an afterthought," he said.
But while the two of us agreed that the food and music are only average, we're also both convinced that Roadhouse Cajun Bar-B-Q may be the coolest place in town to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
Don't expect brilliant cuisine or musicianship. But don't let the lack of either dissuade you from taking in this Louisiana-come-to-Houston spectacle. Roadhouse Cajun Bar-B-Q on a weekend afternoon is an amazing synergy of live music, cold beer, hot boudin, colorful characters and frenzied dance-floor performances.
Go check it out -- and don't forget to wear your dancing shoes.
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