Shopping Mall Cajun
When a friend first told me a Cajun restaurant had set up in the parking lot of the Home Depot store at Highway 59 and the West Loop, I imagined a ramshackle food booth on a fairground midway. I pictured the same quaint sort of pushcart entrepreneur who sells roasted corn in a Styrofoam cup in front of Fiesta or Wal-Mart. Boudreaux's Cajun Kitchen, it turns out, isn't like that at all.
Boudreaux's is the corner store in a slick, brick-faced strip center, still so new it looks raw, that has sprouted in the sun-baked lot across from Petsmart. The restaurant looks like a high-dollar franchise prototype, its color scheme deep money-green accented with plastic-coated wood, festooned with prefab neon signs and set to a blaring high-energy soundtrack. Customers march from the front door directly up the center aisle to place orders at the counter, then fan out across an air-conditioned acre of tables to await the booming summons of Mr. Microphone.
"No, we're not a chain," one of the youngsters at the counter informed me.
"But we hope to be someday. We're going to open another store soon, 'cause this place is doing real well."
I'll give him that: Every time I've been by, Boudreaux's has been bustling. The counter crew slaps plate after plate of étouffée, fried chicken and catfish onto plastic trays, hollering instructions and encouragement to the harried cooks over the clatter from the open kitchen. Rather than the paint-speckled home-improvement types you might expect from the lumber aisle at Home Depot, the eatery attracts, judging by all the neckties and pantyhose, a steady stream of noontime customers siphoned from the nearby banks and small businesses of Bellaire and the South Loop. Many worker bees return after five for happy hour, too, thanks to weekday drink specials at the full-service bar and a list of snacky fried appetizers, such as onion rings, catfish bits and chicken fingers.
Boudreaux's menu reads like the cookbook ABCs of Acadiana: alligator, boudin and crawfish, of course, as well as red beans and rice, shrimp Creole and three kinds of gumbo. But the preparation method matters more here than the foodstuff: Like most fast-food emporiums, Boudreaux's knows its way around a deep-fat fryer.
I particularly like the fried oysters in crisp cornmeal jackets, which can be had as a full entrée ($8.50), snuggled into a poor boy ($6.50) or fashionably wrapped in a flour tortilla as a seafood taco ($3.25). That taco is a bargain, since you get four or five fried oysters dressed with a fine remoulade and sprinkled with shredded lettuce and bits of fresh red tomato for half the price of the poor boy, with less than half the extraneous bread. My only complaint is a mere footnote: I do wish they'd steam the thick factory-style tortillas first, at least to soften them a touch; mine arrived cold and stiff.
The fried catfish fillets ($8.95) are commendable, too, flaky and moist inside, with a salty, black-peppered cornmeal coating. They could be a bit crisper, I think, but are otherwise blameless. Since all fried entrées, poor boys and other sandwiches come with a pile of french fries, it's a good thing they are decently done and not too greasy.
Once Boudreaux's gets away from that deep fryer, though, trouble ensues. The "New Orleans style" chicken and sausage gumbo (cup $3.95, bowl $5.95) was a bitter disappointment -- literally -- dominated by a strange sour tang that overwhelmed the chicken, the rice, the roux, even what probably started out as a decent smoked beef sausage. We tried doctoring it up with Tabasco, but like a stain that won't scrub out, that sour taste stubbornly resisted all the hot sauce we could apply.
In comparison with the grimly inedible gumbo, both Boudreaux's shrimp and crawfish versions of étouffée are inoffensive, suffering only from middle-of-the-road-itis. Neither is spicy enough to offend anyone, nor flavorful enough to win real fans. The ration of seafood in both is generous, I'll admit; the woe is in the scrawny underseasoned stew. The shrimp version ($8.25), served over white rice, is sadly thin and pallid. The crawfish edition ($8.95) is marginally better, beefed up by a darker brown roux and a sturdier base of dirty rice. Still, at that price, I couldn't help but compare it with more soulful versions available all over town -- Pappadeaux's springs immediately to mind. The jalapeño corn bread ($1.25), although nubbly with corn kernels and flecks of hot pepper, is similarly overgentrified, its texture smoothed with white flour and sugar.
Ah, well, the kitchen makes a full recovery when it comes to dessert. The fat wedge of pecan pie ($2.25) is all that it should be: flaky pastry, a rich, gooey center thickly sweetened with brown sugar and paved with meaty toasted pecan halves. The "Chocolate Fudge Collision" ($2.25) is one of those chocolate overdose concoctions I usually dread, but thanks to its variety of textures, this one actually works. It starts with a crust of crushed cookie crumbs, lightly dusted with cinnamon and studded with chocolate chips, then adds a layer of chewy chocolate brownie and finishes with a slathering of thick sundae-style fudge icing sprinkled with bits of pecans and more chocolate chips. Those pies are so good we ran back through the order gauntlet to grab several more pieces to go.
According to manager Audra Hooks, the next Boudreaux's store will open at Gulfgate Mall, after that property is all refurbished and gussied up, of course. And it turns out that this first store is, in fact, a franchise prototype. "Oh, yeah, we're going to have a lot of stores. We'll probably start franchising within a year or two," Hooks confidently predicts. "And after that we'll go nationwide, for sure."
Boudreaux's will play well in the Midwest, I'll bet, just as it does in second-tier shopping centers here in Houston. Its appeal is all about speed and convenience and the compromises busy people are willing to make when they're hungry. It's easy to find the restaurant, and it's easy to find a parking space. Best of all, you can get in and out in less than an hour, before the noise level drives you crazy. If I worked a tight schedule in a restaurant-starved part of town, I'd eat at Boudreaux's, too. The place may not be great, but it's mostly good, and hey, it beats a drive-thru window.
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