A singer with an acoustic guitar warbled popular songs in the big dining room of Abe's Cajun Market in Clear Lake on a recent Friday around sunset. We sat at a table by the front window and watched patrons in rubber gloves eat crawfish out on the patio.
"It makes it look like the crawfish are toxic," my dining companion quipped. I had never seen anybody wear rubber gloves to eat crawfish before. Most restaurants have food service gloves on hand, and crawfish are messy, so it makes sense. But I always figured licking your fingers was part of the fun.
The mudbugs were a little too expensive for my tastes, so I started off with a very fat link of Abe's spicy pork boudin. It reminded me of the green onion-seasoned boudin at Best Stop in Scott, Louisiana, which is one of my favorite Cajun meat markets. Abe's also lists mild pork boudin, crawfish boudin and boudin balls on the appetizer list.
Abe's Cajun Market
1080 Clear Lake City Blvd., 281-480-2237.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Natchitoches meat pies: $5
Crawfish and corn bisque: $4.50
Stuffed chicken breast: $13
Smothered pork chop: $7.50
Lunch specials: $7.25
The seafood gumbo was flavorful, but thin. It seemed to contain all crawfish and crabmeat and no shrimp or oysters. The chicken-and-sausage gumbo was made with Abe's own sausage, and it was pretty impressive. But the most unique soup I tried at Abe's was something they call crawfish-and-corn bisque. The rich soup tasted like the Cajun corn casserole called maquechoux, with lots of butter and cream added and a whole lot of crawfish tails dumped in.
If I had to recommend one entrée at Abe's Cajun Market, it would be the stuffed chicken breast. It's a giant breast seasoned with Cajun spices on the outside and filled with your choice of stuffing — we went for the spinach.
The skinless broiled chicken was perfectly cooked with a little bit of crispy brown along the edges. Thanks to the creamy spinach inside, the white meat stayed moist in the middle. The chicken came with a huge square of cake-soft cornbread, squishy green beans and a baked potato. It was a very hearty meal.
I also tried a smothered pork chop with rice and gravy, green beans and cornbread. It was tasty, but not as exciting as the stuffed chicken.
It took me awhile to figure out that meat dishes were the smart thing to order at Abe's.
The first time I visited Abe's Cajun Market, I mistook the place for your average Cajun restaurant. So I ordered a half shrimp-and-half oyster poor boy. It was an unimpressive sandwich filled with popcorn shrimp and small fried oysters, and it was underdressed with a little mayonnaise and some lettuce and tomato. I also tried some inexpensive crab cakes that tasted like cornbread patties with some crabmeat added. The crawfish étouffée was decent, though a little bland.
The food wasn't awful, but it wasn't great. And there are a lot of outstanding Cajun seafood restaurants in the Bay Area. Floyd's, for instance, is just a few miles down I-45. I was about to write off Abe's as a lackluster also-ran.
But my attitude changed dramatically when, after I was done with my lunch, I started investigating the freezer cases and deli cases that line one wall of the restaurant. Behind the glass doors, I found a huge selection of hard-to-find Cajun meat specialties.
That was when I was first reminded of Best Stop in Scott. Whenever I drive through western Louisiana, I stop at that little Cajun market just off I-10. I always get some hot boudin to eat in the parking lot. I stock up on andouille and tasso for my gumbo and jambalaya recipes, and I usually end up buying a bunch of the other Cajun meats from the deli case. I am madly in love with their stuffed pork chops.
Abe's Cajun Market in Clear Lake sells andouille, tasso and stuffed pork chops too, along with stuffed beef rump roasts, stuffed hamburgers and stuffed boneless quail. I bought some frozen boudin and some pork and alligator sausage on that first visit and took them up to the counter.
There used to be another Abe's Cajun Market in Lake Charles, Louisiana, adjacent to the company's meat plant, the guy behind the counter told me. But they closed the restaurant over there. Now, in an odd arrangement of interstate Cajun commerce, the meat plant is in Lake Charles and the retail outlet is in Clear Lake.
Back home, I heated the boudin in the microwave. I ate the exceptionally spicy pork-and-rice mixture while standing out in the driveway and reflecting about Cajun restaurants.
You don't order steak at a pancake house, and you don't order seafood at a Cajun meat market. Once I grasped this not terribly complex principle, I was ready to try Abe's Cajun Market again.
Our fabulous Cajun meat fest started with Natchitoches meat pies. The famous savory fried pies listed on Abe's appetizer list turned out to be two bite-size pillows of buttery pastry filled with a moist and peppery ground-meat filling. They were served in a tissue paper-lined plastic basket with a remoulade dipping sauce. The meat pies are also available in the freezer case, along with Natchitoches mini-crawfish pies. There's also a larger-size crawfish pie and a shrimp pie to take home.
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The Abe's people make their own sausages, and they are justly proud of their various links. I sampled a sausage poor boy that was comprised of nothing but a poor boy roll spread with mustard and filled with chunks of fried sausage. I got bored of the simple sandwich pretty fast, but I ate all the sausage chunks.
For diehard Cajun sausage enthusiasts, there is a sausage platter on Abe's menu — it's an entire pound of deep-fried sausage served with nothing but Creole mustard, green beans and cornbread.
Stuffed chickens and chicken breasts are the most popular product at Abe's, the counterman told me. The chicken breast stuffed with spinach we had for dinner that night was excellent. They only offered two stuffing choices in the restaurant (shrimp was the other one that night), but there was a staggering variety of other stuffings available in the freezer case, including crawfish, crab and rice dressing. The chicken breasts sell for $2.99 a pound. Abe's also sells whole boneless chickens with the same choice of stuffings for $11-$12, depending on the stuffing, and whole boneless stuffed turkeys for $37 to $42. They make turducken too.
It's nice to have a Cajun meat market like Abe's around to broaden our perspectives on Cajun cuisine. It's also great to have a place where you can stock up on andouille, tasso, boudin, crawfish pie and stuffed pork chops without having to drive all the way to Louisiana. Go try the Natchitoches meat pies and the stuffed chicken breast soon — bring your ice chest.