Eighth Wonder of the Cajun World
Curved and turreted, the former nightclub that now houses Rodeaux Cajun Palace reminds me of a miniature Astrodome. Okay, maybe a cross between the Dome, squashed flat, and a demented Spanish mission, what with its hemispheric roof, glassy portholes, bell tower and facade executed in neon kitsch colors, a cheerful mishmash of orange tile and yellow stucco with red trim. This improbable structure is perched right on the corner of Interstate 45 and Wayside, so you really, really can't miss it.
Like the Dome, it's got an enormous parking lot, too, which is jammed full on Friday and Saturday nights, I've noticed. I can't help but wonder how people discovered it so quickly; it's only been open some four weeks. Maybe it's the music; I'll bet they can hear those weekend zydeco bands for blocks around. "Lots of our customers can really dance to that Cajun music," our waiter told us, grinning. "We push back the tables to make room for the dance floor, and you should see them get after it."
Inside, Rodeaux is a cavernous space, but not unpleasantly so; there's plenty of room for both dancers and diners. By day, the best seats are closest to the curving sweep of windows at the front. The place gets darker as you wander into the further reaches, past the fish tank, finally halting at the full bar in back, murkily lit by glowing beer signs. During a recent lunch, an entire department of office workers trooped in and got swallowed up back there. We heard their faint rendition of "Happy Birthday," but we never saw them again.
We could have stuck to Rodeaux's short lunch menu, which looked attractive, pricewise, with nothing more than $8, but no. We waded right into the full dinner menu, which was almost as weird, er, eclectic as the building's artsy face. There were dozens of Cajun dishes, of course, but also Tex-Mex platters of fajitas and enchiladas, a scattering of pasta options, plus burgers and poor boys and some odd hybrids of all of the above: Tampico shrimp with Cajun spices, for example, or "Cajun burritos." Hmmm. Maybe scattershot smorgasbord is the secret to filling those 300 seats. What the heck, we managed to adequately feed a vegetarian and a die-hard meat-and-potatoes fan, along with three culinary thrill-seekers from the same menu; no mean feat.
The adventurers started with fried alligator ($5.75), which was battered and deep-fried and remarkably tender, served with a mildly spicy picante sauce for dipping. "This really does taste like chicken," I thought. Then I realized that the chunk I'd just eaten actually was chicken, presumably a refugee from the Cajun chicken finger basket ($5.25). Our hands-down favorite appetizer, though, was the Flamiadeaux ($7.95), a huge serving of sautéed shrimp, scallops, blackened oysters and crawfish tails in a rich Newburg-ish sauce prickly with cayenne pepper, topped with a thick layer of cheese melted under the broiler. We liked that a lot. Throw in a couple of decent fresh rolls from the breadbasket, and this dish would make a full meal.
The vegetarian wasn't quite as pleased as the omnivores. After a great deal of thought, she picked the red beans and rice with smoked sausage ($5.95) for her appetizer and threw the sausage to us ravening meat eaters. Too bad she missed it, because that was an excellent long link of top-notch andouille, lightly spiced and crisp-skinned from the grill. Shorn of the sausage, her red beans and rice seemed bland and soulless to me, but she graciously allowed as how it was a generous portion. Her only other appetizer choice would have been the veggie o' the day ($2.75), which was steamed broccoli; certainly not my idea of an appetizer, at least. And the picky-plain diner didn't do well with her cold boiled shrimp ($4.50, half dozen) either. They were jumbo but overcooked and not as fresh as we would have liked, a worrisome sign for the seafood orders to come.
Imagine her relief when the Rodeaux seafood platter ($14.50) she'd cautiously chosen turned out darn near perfect, at least for deep-fried seafood. The otherwise predictable assemblage of shrimp, crawfish, oysters and catfish was ever so lightly breaded with cornmeal and beautifully fried crisp; the fried oysters were particularly notable. We'd have fought for the leftovers had there been so much as a crumb to squabble over. The Atchafalaya grilled snapper fillet ($14.95) was equally good, flaky and moist in its browned-butter wine sauce, and loaded with sautéed shrimp, chunks of crabmeat and sliced mushrooms. Another pleasant surprise was the bold dark-roux base of the shrimp and crawfish étouffée ($13.50), a half-and-half combo plate. After some debate, we decided we preferred the shrimp version, which had more tomato flavor, but the crawfish side, strong as black coffee, was a close second.
Sloppy reading skills led us astray with another seafood platter ($14.95); we overlooked the first line, which read, "New Orleans blackened filet with sautéed shrimp," and skipped straight to "Crabmeat and blackened oysters." So we were taken aback at the sight of a mysterious fish fillet with only a token topping of the crabmeat and oysters we thought we'd ordered, and even more discouraged to find the fish fillet dense and woefully overcooked. We couldn't even begin to guess what sort of fish it was. Ling, maybe? We'd have been more upset if those oysters hadn't been delicious. They weren't really blackened at all, thank goodness, but seared with judicious restraint. Go figure: a Cajun kitchen that messes up boiled shrimp, but turns out perfect oysters?
It wasn't until we closely examined the Cajun burrito ($7.95) that we realized how much dirty rice we had managed to collect. Each of the seafood platters came with its own mountainous scoop of the rice -- and some tasty steamed and buttered vegetables, our non-carnivore noted happily -- so we were already hip-deep when we discovered that the burrito was just a lot more dirty rice wrapped in a flour tortilla. All the goodies advertised in the menu description, the catfish, shrimp and crawfish, were simply ladled over the football-size package and topped with a soupy cream sauce. We wished it had been better dirty rice, but it wasn't; the crumbly grains tasted an awful lot like that 60-second stuff. Our only really disappointed diner put on a brave face and nibbled the seafood off the top.
The desserts were also a split decision. On the key lime pie ($3.75), the jury awarded points for fresh lime flavor, token demerits for inauthentic meringue topping, and went absolutely crazy for the tangy fresh mango puree that graced the plate in bright yellow ribbons. And what about the brownie with ice cream ($4.25)? Again, you'd think another no-brainer, but the brownie was thin, dry and tasted unappealingly of carob. Hurray for the tart drizzle of raspberry coulis on that plate, since the "hot homemade chocolate sauce" was missing in action. (I wonder if the kitchen would consider selling those fruit purees solo? That way we wouldn't have to lick our plates.)
As we left that day, we noticed that giant spotlights had been wheeled into position in the parking lot for Rodeaux's scheduled "grand" opening, poised to light up the sky and wake anyone in the area who can sleep through the music. There's nothing shy about this place, no sir. And once you've separated the winners from the losers, it's a darn good time.
Rodeaux Cajun Palace, 2401 Wayside, 2401 Wayside,
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