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Soul Mama Smackdown

Not Cajun, but great: Mama Assumption's chicken and waffles.
Troy Fields

The cup of gumbo at Mama Assumption's is served in a pretty big bowl. I wonder what the bowl of gumbo looks like — I'm guessing it comes in a bucket. This terrific okra, shrimp and sausage soup has a crab shell hanging over the lip of the bowl waiting to be cracked and sucked. It's what Sara Roahen would call a "homestyle gumbo."

Since reading Gumbo Tales, Roahen's wonderful book about New Orleans foodways, I have expanded my gumbo vocabulary considerably. Homestyle gumbo is so named because it reminds everybody of the gumbo back home. An elegant gumbo with impressively dark roux (like Danton's) is what Roahen calls a "restaurant gumbo." Roahen also writes about a style served in humble soul food eateries run by ­African-American women, like Two Sisters Kitchen in the Treme District, which she calls "Big Mama gumbo."

Mama Assumption's is one of two new Houston soul food restaurants that brought Roahen's book to mind. Big Mama's Homecookin' in Pearland is the other. And after eating the same dishes at both of these restaurants, I couldn't help comparing the two.

I visited Big Mama's Homecookin' a couple of weeks ago after playing a round of golf in Pearland. It's a brightly lit, bare-bones, ­cafeteria-style steam table restaurant that offers your choice of sweetened or unsweetened iced tea. My golf buddy and I were both famished, so we ordered "meat and three" plates for lunch at 11 bucks each. The plates came with homemade cornbread.

I brought some hot pepper sauce to the table on my cafeteria tray, intending to put some in my bowl of mixed mustard and collard greens. Luckily, I tried some first. These greens were off the charts in the seasoning department. My mouth was so lit up after eating a few bites, I just sat there looking at the unopened hot sauce bottle and shaking my head in wonder. What was I thinking?

The okra, which was loaded with shrimp and spicy andouille sausage, was among the best I've ever sampled, although in truth it tasted more like the okra stew I read about in Roahen's book than a vegetable dish.

The porky butter beans were smooth and creamy, and the yams were loaded with sugar and pumpkin pie spices. My friend got a slice of sweet potato pie, and made me taste the yams and pie side by side. You could barely tell the difference between the pie filling and the vegetables.

Big Mama's soul food steam table vegetables are as good as they get. But I was disappointed with the entrées. The fried catfish had been sitting on the steam table for a while. It had plenty of flavor, but it lacked any crunch. I avoided the fried chicken for the same reason. The best bet at a cafeteria steam table restaurant like Big Mama's Homecookin' are cooked-to-death entrées like Creole meatloaf, baked chicken and smothered pork chops. That's why I selected the oxtails with gravy. But Big Mama's oxtails were terrible. Every mouthful yielded a nasty chunk of gristle.

I would have given Big Mama's a pass in the oxtail department — they are very hard to cook well, after all, but then I had the oxtails at Mama Assumption's.

There was no comparison. At Mama Assumption's, every shred of cartilage had been cooked into gelatinous submission until the meat was as soft as velvet. And then there was the gravy.

Big Mama's gravy was a matter-of-fact brown sauce that tastes good enough with white rice. Mama Assumption's gravy was rich, roux-based Creole gravy that clung to the meaty bones and obscured the bed of chunky homemade mashed potatoes beneath. Mama Assumption's oxtails and gravy blew Big Mama's away.
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Mama Assumption's Cajun Grill & Oyster Bar is named after Assumption Parish, a rural part of Louisiana sparsely populated by Cajuns and African-Americans. The food isn't very Cajun, but I think the owners actually chose the Cajun label to avoid the misunderstandings that come with the word "Creole." (Some major American food writers have gone to the mat over this term.)

In fact, Mama Assumption's feels a lot more urban New Orleans than rural Cajun. The interior is dominated by a black tile bar. Lots of spooky voodoo stuff and black chandeliers hang from the ceilings. The walls are turquoise with Mardi Gras-gold trim.

There is a big ice pit in the middle of the back bar filled with boiled shrimp and raw oysters. The half shell oysters at Mama Assumption's are shucked in advance and sitting around getting all shriveled up. I don't eat raw oysters in July. And even if I did, I sure wouldn't be tempted by these nasty specimens.

The menu is a mixed bag. They have boiled crawfish, which is pure Cajun. And they have red beans and rice, which is a New Orleans dish. And then there's the fabulous oxtail stew. You can call oxtail stew African-American, soul food, or even Creole if you dare, but it isn't Cajun. Mama Assumption's also has great chicken and waffles — and they aren't Cajun either.

"What does that say?" my dining companion asked, passing me her plate of chicken and waffles and pointing to the middle of the waffle. The chicken pieces were all huge wings fried exceptionally crispy. The Belgian waffle was big and fluffy, with a smooth rectangle in the middle. After studying the text that had been imprinted by the waffle iron at close range, I was able to decipher the message.

"Holiday Inn," I said, passing her back her plate with a few bites of waffle and a couple of wings missing. I guess Mama bought her Belgian waffle iron at a Holiday Inn going-out-of-business sale.

The wings were so good, I had high hopes for the other fried foods. On a subsequent visit, I tried the catfish. But it was disappointingly soggy. I also figured that a restaurant with such outstanding New Orleans-style gumbo would do an exceptional job with red beans and rice. Wrong again.

The red beans were served on one side of the plate and the unseasoned white rice was served on the other. A couple of pieces of sausage were placed on top. Sorry y'all, that's not red beans and rice with sausage any more than a pile of sliced cabbage with a cup of salad dressing on the side is coleslaw. I sent the beans back. If you want to know what red beans and rice are supposed to taste like, go get some at Frenchy's Fried Chicken on Scott.
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I had to declare the Mama smackdown a draw. Mama Assumption's has better meats and fried foods. They also make better mac and cheese, which is served in a casserole that's run under the broiler to give it a cheesy crust.

But Big Mama's Homecookin' runs away with the vegetable honors. There is nothing at Mama Assumption's that even comes close to the greens, the okra, the field peas and the butter beans down at the Pearland steam table joint.

I guess you have to decide what you like to eat first, then pick your Mama.


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