‘You will miss the food,” my friend told me over the phone when I revealed to her that I was leaving New Orleans for Houston. She’d moved to Seattle eight years before and po-boys, barbecue shrimp and beignets were all she could dream about anymore. But Houston is no Seattle. In fact, the only reason I’ve been thinking about the food of New Orleans more than I imagined I would is that I keep spotting gumbo on menus all over town.
Can Houston lay claim to gumbo? Absolutely not. Gumbo is Louisiana’s most emblematic dish, the epitome of Creole cuisine — the traditional filé seasoning (ground sassafras) comes from Native Americans, the addition of okra from Africans, and roux from the French. What is evident: Gumbo is well-represented at a wide range of restaurants in Houston, and there are no doubt numerous chefs here who grew up on the stuff. Not surprising, given the strong Cajun and less known but common Creole influences found in the city.
But the question remains. Is Houston gumbo legit?
The answer is yes. Well, kind of. Now, there are many debates as to how a good gumbo is made — Should you add tomato? Should you add filé? When should you add filé? Should rice be served in the bowl or on the side? Do you mix seafood and meats? Do you, or don’t you, even think about adding potato salad? Every chef and home cook in New Orleans has her own way of doing things, usually aside from starting with a roux, adding the holy trinity of celery, bell pepper and onion, seasoning well and leaving the gumbo to simmer for hours. Recipes are usually passed down through the family for generations, with viscous or thick, dark or caramel-hued versions of varying spiciness and proteins served around New Orleans, and also in the country, where Cajuns also offer myriad preparations on the dish.
From what I’ve tasted of Houston’s gumbo so far, chefs here are very familiar with all of this. Still, I can’t place my finger on it. Almost every gumbo I tried had something missing. Maybe it’s just voodoo.
It should be said that my favorite gumbo is a dark, not too thick roux with loads of meat. Prejean’s in Lafayette is my absolute favorite, with a mythically mahogany-tinted roux that’s so swampy you’d expect cypress knees to be jutting up from it. The kind of roux that forms an oil slick of grease at the top if left to its own devices for too long. The kind that is spicy enough that it’s best served with a cooling, creamy heap of potato salad, which Prejean’s (and most Cajuns) is well aware of, serving a small bowl on the side. The pheasant, andouille and quail gumbo that they sell in the scorching heat of Jazz Fest (held every last weekend of April and first of May in New Orleans) is the best on Earth.
But back in Houston, here are my favorites:
Served up cafeteria-style every day of the week, Treebeard’s gumbo features duck meat on Monday, chicken and sausage midweek, and what I had — seafood — on Thursday and Friday. The roux was mildly spicy and dark for a seafood gumbo. Overall, it was rather light on the seafood and heavy on the coarsely chopped okra, onion, and red pepper, not a complete sin at the cheap $4.50/cup cost, especially when paired with a giant slab of cheesy jalapeño cornbread for just a buck-fifty more.
4601 Washington, #130
The gumbo at this Washington Avenue eatery, which is settling into a new location (know the feeling) and recently landed an alcohol permit, has the best roux among those I tasted: swampy, dark brown mud that’s made for a meatier gumbo. And it is meaty, with perfect proportions of chicken and sausage. The addition of seafood, in this case crab meat that floats unobtrusively, neither adding nor taking away from the dish, and shrimp, which was jutting up all dramatically from the center of the bowl like an iceberg in a post-Trump ocean, felt a tad out of place. At $16, you’re looking at a bowl of gumbo that has the potential to be legendary and a cost to reflect that.
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Goode Company Seafood
10211 Katy Freeway
The seafood gumbo is pretty much as good as it gets, with huge oysters, shrimp and crab meat intermingling in a medium-spicy, light brown roux that’s just as casual and delightful as the restaurant itself. I noticed a person a few bar stools away blowing on a spoonful of gumbo to cool it down, though mine wasn’t as warm as I’d have liked. Overall, it was a great experience, complete with an accompanying shrimp Creole pie (empanada-style) that was wonderfully messy enough to require help from a utensil and a napkin. Also, the fact that a business guy next to me stopped complaining to his buddy about a Sky Miles hiccup to request a glass of Glenlivet 12 on the rocks, pointing at my water glass and saying “In that size, thanks” without a hint of irony, kind of makes me love this place.
1801-B North Shepherd
Let me start by saying, the gumbo here is truly delicious. It’s unique in that chef Graham Laborde’s housemade andouille — pork sausage of the Acadian variety — gives a smokiness to the well-seasoned, mud-dark roux that’s unique and rustic. Tender shrimp and marinated crab claws both lend themselves well to the dish, which boasts a hearty amount of sliced okra in the mix. The broth itself is reminiscent of camp cooking, as if you might expect a gaggle of hunting buddies to sidle up beside you for some cold ones. This is not, however, the vibe that emanates from Bernadine’s, an ode to I-10 in every respect but for decor and ambience. Something about the restaurant’s chicness seemed rather cold-hearted, and the experience was less than stellar. After serving my $14 gumbo, a bartender disappeared apparently all the way to Lafayette to retrieve a spoon. I had to wait even longer for a water, while the other, rather surly bartender fiddled with changing a beer keg, complaining rather loudly “of course.”
Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar
Fried oysters are a great accompaniment to the Cajun-influenced seafood gumbo here, a good bargain for $8.50, that comes with an option to have your bowl served with potato salad instead of rice. I’m the type of person who prefers both rice and a side of potato salad; yes, a woman who wants to have it all, food-wise anyways. The bar service for a solo diner at this restaurant is stellar, with extremely friendly and prompt service. The potato salad was also delicious, with a mild kick thanks to the addition of Creole mustard, but you don’t get much of it. The gumbo, with its dark roux and lightly battered oysters, had a mildly bitter aftertaste that is usually a telltale sign of a burnt roux.