Tex-Cajun Cuisine at BB's Cajun Cafe
"It's all about the gravy," New Orleans food writer Pableaux Johnson observed as he sopped up huge mouthfuls of the stuff. He passed the bowl over so I could sample the dish. Judging by the number of people eating it, "Maw Maw's Grillades and Grits" is the most popular entrée at the tiny, diner-like BB's Cajun Cafe on Montrose. The grillades are square-cut pieces of round steak cooked until they are meltingly tender. They come in a bowl full of deep brown gravy. The grits are mounded into an island in the center.
I had one bite and then another. Once you swirl a forkful of grits around in BB's dark chocolate-colored gravy, you're hopelessly hooked. Finally, I passed the bowl back to Pableaux, but I kept dunking french fries in his gravy.
I had ordered BB's cheeseburger with shoestring fries and found it disappointing. The beef patty was thin and overcooked. It came on a big sweet bun with an oversize pile of lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles with plenty of dressing, but it still tasted dry. I cut the burger in half so Pableaux could sample it.
After tasting it, he had a brilliant idea. He dunked each bite of the dry cheeseburger in the awesome gravy. I followed suit. Then we started dunking the shoestring fries. We were done eating when we ran out of gravy.
On a subsequent visit, when my lunch mate ordered BB's roast beef poor boy, I told the waiter to bring some extra gravy on the side and we dunked the sandwich in it as we ate it. My favorite appetizer at BB's Cajun Cafe, the "Tex-Cajun Virgin," had gravy on it too, though I think the dish ought to be renamed "Tex-Cajun Poutine."
The appetizer is a plate of hot-out-of-the-fryer shoestring fries, topped with roast beef slices, the cafe's addictive brown gravy and lots of chile con queso. When I tried to describe it to people at the office, they looked at me like I was crazy. They wouldn't think I was crazy if they came from Quebec.
Poutine is one of the most common fast foods in Canada. It's a bowl (or more likely a paper boat) full of french fries topped with cheese curds and smothered with brown gravy. It's sold in every pub, diner and school cafeteria in Quebec. Even McDonald's sells poutine in French Canada.
The former French colonies seem to have a thing about fries and gravy. The "Tex-Cajun Virgin" also resembles a famous New Orleans dish that Pableaux wrote about in The New York Times five years ago. At Greg Sonnier's Gabrielle restaurant in New Orleans, they used to serve falling-apart roasted duck meat over shoestring fries with pan gravy. I don't know if Sonnier is around anymore, but I am pretty sure Gabrielle is gone.
I brought Pableaux to BB's when he visited Houston a few weeks ago because I was interested in his perspective on the place. BB's combines Cajun, Tex-Mex and New Orleans influences, and Pableaux grew up in St. Martinville, went to college in San Antonio and is now based in New Orleans.
"The gumbo is typically Cajun, the roux is a nice light shade of brown and the spice is perfect," Pableaux said as he sampled BB's stellar chicken-and-sausage gumbo. "But this dark gravy is very New Orleans."
Gravy and fries is a big deal in New Orleans — legend has it that fries, brown gravy and roast beef scraps were the stuffing inside the original poor boy.
Tex-Mex comes on a plate and Cajun/Creole comes in a bowl, but both are "puddle cuisines," Pableaux observed. You see a puddle of chili gravy and a puddle of melted cheese on the bottom of the plate after you finish the cheese enchiladas, so why not brown gravy and chile con queso over fries, right?
Personally, I like the thicker, handcut, double-cooked fries across the street at Little Bigs, I told him. But Pableaux was adamant about the wisdom of the shoestring. "Shoestring fries are what you want with gravy," he said. "They stay crisp longer."
I loved everything I ate at BB's Cajun Cafe except the burger. On a late-night visit, I had a terrific soft-shell crab poor boy. The crab was covered with a thick, spicy crust that burst into juicy bits when I bit in. I doused it repeatedly with hot sauce and washed it down with a cold bottle of Abita Turbodog.
BB's sells Abita beers and also advertises "daiquiris to go." I asked the waiter if that was legal, and he explained that the restaurant had a beer and wine license, not a full liquor license. The daiquiris are made with wine, not rum, so you can take them with you. Sorry, a daiquiri made with wine ain't going anywhere with me.
The oyster poor boy was spectacular — the large, crusty oysters were gooey inside and made a wet filling in the heavily dressed roll. When I ordered the oyster sandwich, the waiter said, "You meant the 'Pearly Whites'?" Each menu item at BB's has a ridiculous name.
The shrimp poor boy is called "Bedtime in the Bayou." The roast beef and gravy poor boy is named "Midnight Masterpiece." When you ask for a sandwich, the server tries to get you to ask for it by its stupid name. Rather than give in, I reverted to the Chinatown tactic of pointing at the item and saying "this one."
My companion had fried catfish, grits and poached eggs — the breakfast the menu called "The Southern Man." I started eating this combo at The Breakfast Klub, and I've become accustomed to their lightly floured catfish filet. The more heavily battered fish at BB's is tasty, but it doesn't mix quite as easily with the eggs and grits. BB's serves breakfast all day, and they are open on Fridays and Saturdays until three in the morning.
We watched a patron at a table nearby devour a pancake that was larger than the plate. The idea is to fold the pancake up with the filling of your choice. Strawberries, chocolate chips, M&Ms and Reese's Pieces are the stuffings available.
For dessert that night, we asked for the beignets. Our waiter, the restaurant's owner, Brooks Bassler, warned us that his beignets weren't like the New Orleans version. But he assured us that each serving was fried to order, so we told him to bring them on.
The rectangular pastries were fat and covered with powdered sugar. They tasted like they were made with the heavy sort of batter used for cake doughnuts. Beside the hot doughnuts on the plate there was a bowl of vanilla ice cream and a smaller bowl of warm Bavarian cream. You do a lot of dunking at this restaurant, I observed as I soaked some doughnut in the hot sweet cream.
Mr. BB stopped by our table and asked how we liked our dessert. We gave him our enthusiastic assessment. "They're different," he said. "We call them Tex-Mex beignets."
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