Deer Lease Chic at LA Bar
See how those chargrilled oysters and po-boys are made at LA Bar in this week's slideshow.
It took me a few visits to put my finger on exactly what LA Bar — the newest restaurant from the arm of Houston's vast Mandola family that owns the neighboring Ragin' Cajun — wants to be. But during a recent dinner, as I sat and waited for a friend to arrive, it finally occurred to me. I think it was the fact that the many flat-screen TVs scattered around the small, relaxed dining room were all tuned to one of four channels: the Outdoor Channel, the Sportsman Channel, the Golf Channel or ESPN.
"My father would be in heaven right now," I mused to myself. And then it hit me: LA Bar is the classy man cave of seafood joints. I looked around and realized that the number of men in the restaurant outnumbered the women four to one.
Happy businessmen off work, enjoying the dregs of happy hour, were finishing off heaping trays of crawfish and enjoying the last few sips from a motley selection of Louisiana-branded pint glasses (LA Bar cheerfully mirrors the same jumbled Cajun aesthetic as the adjoining Ragin' Cajun). Plastic bibs covered their dress shirts as they huddled together around four-tops or perched at pub tables. In the few booths that line one wall, what looked like groups of golfing or hunting buddies were doing the same, albeit in Under Armour shirts and Cabela's caps.
The waitress taking care of the tables around me was chipper and welcoming, taking orders as if she were taking care of her own brothers or father. Although it left me a bit cold that my own waitress — who seemed to have the critical thinking skills of a toddler, frequently forgetting to bring requested items or simply failing to take basic care of her patrons — was so unfriendly, I admit that she was an aberration from the normally friendly and competent service I've experienced at LA Bar. I did wonder, however, if at least part of her indifference that night stemmed from the fact that mine was the only table of women in the joint. Groups of guys tend to tip pretty girls better, after all.
'This place was totally decorated by a guy," my boyfriend noted during my first visit to LA Bar. The same mad jumble of Mardi Gras posters and Louisiana memorabilia that has coated the walls at Ragin' Cajun for nearly 40 years was toned down considerably here, but the dining room itself is styled in tones that can best be described as "deer-lease chic."
Mismatched light fixtures add a homey touch to the space, as does the constant presence of at least one member of the Mandola family — most often native son Luke Mandola Sr., who in 1973 opened the liquor store that previously occupied this spot and still welcomes patrons as they enter. Ragin' Cajun came a year later, and for those familiar with the festive restaurant's offerings, LA Bar's menu will come as a comfortable update to some of those standards.
The boudin links and red beans and rice that I've ordered at Ragin' Cajun on nearly every visit since my father first took me there as a small child also are found at LA Bar. They are oddly muted and bland here, though (yes, Cajun purists — even blander than they usually are at Ragin' Cajun), so I'd recommend steering clear of them and sticking to LA Bar's own creations. Same goes for the toned-down seafood gumbo in a gritty broth and the boring crawfish etouffee.
Where LA Bar shines is in its specials, such as chargrilled oysters crowned with lemon, garlic, butter and Parmesan cheese and then given an aggressive blast of heat that melds the flavors without shrinking the plump meat — especially at happy hour, when they're deeply discounted. Equally good at happy hour are airy, juicy crab balls that come with LA Bar's terrific, tangy house-made tartar sauce, although its barbecued shrimp — a much-touted house specialty — were oddly mealy when I ordered them and insultingly overpriced at $16 for only five shrimp. I did, however, sop up every last drop of the peppy Tabasco and Worcestershire-laced sauce with the crusty French bread that accompanied the shrimp.
Among the lighter dishes such as grilled salmon in an orange beurre blanc and pan-seared mahimahi, the standout was a simple plate of blackened catfish. No muddy flavor here but fine and dewy flesh that was seasoned lightly with garlic, lemon, paprika and plenty of black pepper and given a good turn across a skillet that left it ideally dark outside but still moist inside. I could have done without the jumbo lump crab on top, however, since it's both an added cost I'm not interested in bearing and an unnecessary attempt at gilding the lily.
Fried-seafood platters are pretty run-of-the-mill — save the fried oysters under a light batter that allows them to retain that briny sweetness but come with a fluffy corn pudding that's good enough to order on its own. The same deft touch with corn-based starchy sides is seen in the mini corn muffins that arrive when you sit down; they're irresistibly snackable. And although most of the pasta dishes I've tried have been forgettable, I was stunned to find that my favorite dish off this ostensibly Cajun menu was a side of spaghetti in Mandola's signature "red gravy."
I shouldn't have been surprised, though. The extended Mandola family runs some of the city's most notable Italian restaurants, from the giant Carrabba's chain to the demure Damian's, which recently turned 30 years old. That red gravy is silky and buttery, coating each fat strand of pasta, with the sharply acidic bite of tomatoes slicing through it all. But if ordering spaghetti at a Cajun restaurant seems too weird, you can get that same sauce — along with homemade meatballs and melted Provolone — on one of LA Bar's po-boys at lunch.
When LA Bar first opened, I wondered how it would distinguish itself from both its big sister and nearby competitors like Pappadeaux and Bayou City Seafood. The former has far better Hurricanes and a much more elegant dining room, while the latter boasts outstanding gumbo in addition to better happy-hour deals and a "power lunch" special that gets you in and out quickly and cheaply. Both are Houston stalwarts, and Ragin' Cajun itself is right up there with them.
Since opening less than a year ago, however, LA Bar has done a good job of making itself stand apart from the pack. Beer choices are better here, for example, and the well-priced wine list provides an option that Ragin' Cajun certainly doesn't. (Try the unexpectedly good Mandola family's Pinot Grigio from Slovenia with your oysters on the half shell, but watch the price on those curiously expensive Gulf bivalves; they're far cheaper elsewhere.)
LA Bar is comfortable without being too divey; it's neat and clean without being too uppity; and even if some of its dishes are total misses, the rest are very solid to above-average seafood entries in a coastal market that usually (and happily) will find more room for fried oysters and boiled crawfish in its dining rooms.
It also occurred to me in that moment during my last visit, surrounded by bowhunters and golfers and SportsCenter anchors, that I am probably not the target demographic for LA Bar's heaping platters of fried seafood; enormous rounds of cheese-topped, chargrilled oysters; or overpriced barbecue shrimp. But the demographic it does serve — quite ably, it seems — is one that's curiously overlooked in today's dining market: the man who wants to hang out with his buddies at a guy's-club-style spot that's neither a sleazy breastaurant nor so overtly masculine that he can't take his wife or girlfriend for a nice dinner and doesn't mind dropping a few extra bucks to do so.
LA Bar is exactly that restaurant.
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