There are two television sets blaring at Soul on the Bayeaux, a homey little restaurant in the Third Ward. One set is tuned to a soap opera, the other to a game show. A radio station's also playing. We ask the waitress what's underneath the white sheet on a nearby table, and she explains that it's equipment belonging to the DJ who performs on Mondays. I try to imagine another layer of audio on top of the din.
The building, at the corner of Alabama and Dowling, used to house a Cajun restaurant that went out of business. The place has been fixed up, with Soul on the Bayeaux moving in less than a year ago. The decor is plain and simple. The industrial carpet is shabby, but the freshly painted walls are bright white and decorated with garlands, masks and other memorabilia in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. Jazz Fest-style prints of musicians and their instruments in bold colors hang on the walls. The tables are covered with vinyl tablecloths, and each one is set with a bottle of sport peppers, a bottle of hot sauce, an upside-down plastic squeeze bottle of Heinz ketchup and another of Kraft tartar sauce.
"What can I get you, baby?" the waitress asks. She will also call me "sweetie," "honey" and "sugar" before the afternoon is through. I like her too. The service here seems to be provided exclusively by affectionate black women.
The smothered pork chops I order for lunch cut like butter. I mix up the gravy with the rice they're served on and dig into the soft and savory plate. The chops are much better than the smothered short ribs I had last time. Short ribs are trendy at top restaurants these days, and I thought it would be cool if Soul of the Bayeaux turned out to have a remarkable version. In fact, they buy the ribs cut lengthwise. What you get are little round islands of meat and bones in a long stream of gristle. I won't try those again.
I douse a side order of mustard greens with the spicy vinegar from the sport pepper bottle. The yams are sweet, and the red beans, while nicely seasoned, are just too filling. But the okra cooked with tomatoes and corn proves to be the favorite side.
Since Soul on the Bayeaux closes early, all three of my visits are at lunchtime. The best thing I've tried may be the fried catfish. A huge pile of golden battered fillets comes to the table straight out of the fryer. They're so crisp, you can pick them up and eat them like candy bars.
The catfish poor boy puts the same fantastic fish fillets on a toasted sandwich bun well dressed with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce. A spectacular shrimp poor boy is similarly dressed and overstuffed with big juicy fried shrimp. One of my lunchmates removes the top bun and tears off little pieces of bread to make each shrimp into a tiny open-faced sandwich. I think she's on the fashionable new "no top bun" diet.
A shrimp and crawfish étouffée comes in a thick sauce over rice. The sauce tastes more like tomatoes than roux. And oddly for a seafood dish, it also contains chicken. So does the seafood gumbo, which the menu describes as a "Cajun soup." But the chocolate-colored broth also contains lots of big pieces of unshelled crab, shrimp, sausage and okra. It isn't like any Cajun gumbo I've ever had, but the flavor is deep, dark and satisfying.
The menu at Soul on the Bayeaux describes the place as a "Cajun Soulfood Restaurant." It also says "We zydeco everyday!" and "N'awlins cooking at its best." No doubt this mixed bag of cultural catchwords is going to get people riled up. They'll write letters explaining that there aren't any Cajuns in New Orleans and I need to take a trip to Opelousas or Mamou or somewhere.
I'm used to it. Every time I write about Houston restaurants serving food from Louisiana, somebody sends a letter to the editor calling me an idiot. I don't mind -- really. Because the truth is, people in Louisiana don't agree on this stuff either. And they call each other idiots all the time. It sort of makes me feel like part of the family.
"Most people really don't know the difference, but we do," huffed self-anointed "Cajun Queen" Caroline A. Picard in a letter to the editor (January 27). She complained that a restaurant we reviewed called Cajun Town ("Cajun, Twice Removed," January 13) was actually serving Creole food, which comes from New Orleans. "Neither the Cajuns nor the Creoles enjoy the confusion," she wrote.
To which I say, "Amen, sister." I don't enjoy it either. Take the time I attempted to explain the various definitions of Creole. That one got me into a violent argument with a black restaurant owner who insisted that Creoles were French-speaking blacks of Southern Louisiana, period, end of story.
He'd never heard of the definition of Creole used in New Orleans that's derived from the Spanish criollo and means whites of pure European stock born in the New World. When I read it to him out of the dictionary, he complained that the dictionary was prejudiced.
"The word 'Creole' is a fucking minefield," says my friend Pableaux Johnson, a Cajun food writer and author of the just-released foodie guidebook Eating New Orleans. "Every time you use it, you piss somebody off." If the argument forces people to think about the complexities of Louisiana's culture, then maybe that's a good thing, he rationalizes.
Well, if you like complexity, what do you make of a restaurant that serves "Cajun Soulfood"? Since Cajuns are descendants of the French Acadians who once lived in Canada, they are mostly white, Johnson explains. But there are plenty of African-Americans who married into Cajun families and hence have Cajun ancestors, so you have to be careful making blanket statements. Anyway, Johnson doesn't think the term "Cajun Soulfood" should be taken literally.
Based on my description of the menu, he says it sounds like the same "pan-Louisiana fusion" that has become common in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It's a mixed bag of Cajun food, soul food and the many definitions of Creole. And while this jumble of poor boys, red beans and rice, jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo may not be authentic, it gives the tourists what they're looking for.
I think he's right in guessing that the food at Soul on the Bayeaux doesn't represent any specific tradition. But it is obviously made with great care. And as Rick Bayless once said about that inauthentic cuisine called Tex-Mex, "When you cook from the heart, there isn't a right or wrong way to do it." I highly recommend this cozy little "Cajun Soulfood Restaurant," especially if you work downtown and are looking for an interesting new place for lunch.
And if you're picking up a pen right now so you can write an indignant letter about what Creole really means, let me save you the trouble: Your definition is absolutely correct, and I'm an idiot.
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