Cajun, Twice Removed
The thick fillet of salmon served at Cajun Town Cafe was broiled until it was pleasantly charred along the edges. There are five toppings to choose from. I went with No. 3, which included small but juicy shrimp and fat crawfish tails in a creamy wine and lemon-garlic sauce. The sauce gave the fish a rich garlic-butter flavor while also keeping it moist.
You wouldn't normally think of salmon as part of the Cajun seafood tradition, but the farm-raised variety of this fish has become so ubiquitous, it's now part of every ethnic cuisine. And with its Central American owners and Greek-American legacy, Cajun Town Cafe isn't a very traditional Cajun restaurant to begin with.
The fish was served on a bed of dirty rice with some baguette slices on the side. It looked pretty messy in the bottom of the square Styrofoam container I was eating it out of. But you can't blame Cajun Town Cafe for the sloppy presentation. I got my dinner to go.
I also got an order of grilled "snapper," which was fairly tasty. The oyster, mushroom and crawfish lemon-garlic-butter sauce topping was a little too rich for my dining companion, but I liked it. The Spanish-speaking guy who took my order at Cajun Town Cafe's walk-up counter assured me that the fish was really red snapper, or huachinango verdadera, as he put it. But I doubted it. Nobody sells Gulf red snapper for $8.95, and nobody who does sell real Gulf red snapper would advertise it on the menu under the generic description of "snapper."
An order of red beans and rice with Cajun sausage was the only disappointment in our takeout feast. I'm used to getting red beans over rice in a soup bowl with chunks of sausage cooked into the beans. Here, the rice was on one side of the box and the beans were on the other, with the sausage link separating the two estranged parties.
Cajun food is kind of fancy for takeout, but I've been operating under special circumstances these days. I'm renovating my kitchen, and it will be out of order for more than a month. My housemates and I got tired of drive-thru food pretty quickly. So I decided that this would be the ideal time to check out restaurants with great food and boring dining rooms.
Cajun Town Cafe is a perfect example. My companion and I sat down to a spicy and succulent crawfish étouffée and an excellent fried catfish poor boy on our first visit to the restaurant. But while she loved the food, she hated the interior so much that she refused to return. And I can't say I blame her. The restaurant's unique combination of fluorescent lighting, industrial carpet and linoleum, and pathetic nautical theme decorations goes beyond merely boring. The place is downright depressing.
But most of the Cajun food here is not only stellar, it's ridiculously cheap. So I took advantage of the restaurant's strengths while avoiding its weaknesses. While the other members of my household were at work or school, I picked up our salmon, snapper and red beans and rice to go. When they got home, we sat around the dining room table and had a nice meal for a change -- even though we ate it out of Styrofoam containers and off paper plates, because there's no dishwasher.
The next morning, I ate a big round piece of Cajun Town's corn bread for breakfast. We had neglected to open the Styrofoam container containing the corn bread the night before, so I stuck it in the refrigerator (which is the only appliance in my kitchen). The cold corn bread gripped my taste buds with unexpected authority. Evidently the green and red chunks in it are chopped chile peppers.
Earlier in the week, I brought home some gumbo and sandwiches from the restaurant. The seafood gumbo had plenty of shrimp and oysters, but the stock, though nicely thickened with brown roux, lacked any deep seafood flavor. It was also a little wimpy in the spice department.
The fried shrimp and oyster poor boys were outstanding. The fried seafood was juicy, the roll was the right size, and both sandwiches were lovingly dressed with lettuce, tomato, tartar sauce and big pickle slices so that the sandwich got ever-so-slightly squishy by the last few bites. Just the way I like it.
If the food at Cajun Town Cafe reminds you of Pappadeaux, it's no accident. Owner Moises Marquez worked at the restaurant chain for more than 20 years. A Salvadoran immigrant, Marquez started as a busboy at Pappadeaux in 1980 and covered shifts as a dishwasher, bartender, waiter and line cook along the way. Eventually he worked his way up to the position of head cook at the Astrodome location. He left in 2000 to open his first Cajun Town Cafe on Little York at Bingle. A second location on Imperial Valley came along two years later.
The Greek-American Pappas brothers originally copied their Cajun seafood format from the Landry gang back in the early 1980s, when the Cajun food craze was at its peak in Houston. So they can't very well complain about Marquez stealing their secrets.
A Salvadoran-owned Cajun restaurant isn't any odder than a Greek-owned Cajun restaurant, I suppose. Cajun Town Cafe may be quite a way from the source, but the proof of the boudin is in the squeezing, as they say.
I asked Marquez over the phone what Cajun Town was doing that was different from Pappadeaux. "It's a small restaurant and we don't have a freezer, so we have to make everything fresh every day, including the gumbos and sauces," Marquez said. "I come in at 6 a.m., and I do the cooking. I am in the restaurants all day, every day. I am always on top of it."
The employees are either family members, friends of family, or neighbors, Marquez said. So it's essentially a family business. The walk-up-counter format keeps the prices low. "It's part fast food, part restaurant," the owner said.
The snapper is not Gulf red snapper, or huachinango, he admitted under intense interrogation. He said it's freshwater fish that sometimes comes from China and sometimes comes from Argentina -- not tilapia, but not very different from it. Another reason we might as well get used to the idea of Cajun salmon.
The fried seafood, poor boys, étouffées, fish dishes and corn bread at Cajun Town Cafe are excellent, and you can't beat the prices. Hopefully, Marquez's immigrant success story will soon hit the chapter where he hires an interior designer. Until then, I suggest you get your cheap and tasty Salvadoran-Cajun food to go.
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