Le' Pam's House of Creole could probably run exclusively on the high-energy personality of its owner, chef Pamela Graham, but it doesn't hurt that she makes good food, too. Customers are enthusiastically greeted with exclamations like "Hello, my babies! Have you been here before? Come here and try my gumbo!" as soon as they walk through the door.
She fills little plastic sample cups with her andouille sausage gumbo on the spot and presses them into her guests' hands. Unlike many gumbos, Graham's doesn't have a dark roux, nor is it made with tomatoes. Instead, it has a rich chicken stock base, and it's not uncommon to find some gizzards in a pleasing state of tenderness. Lucky diners might even find a chicken heart here and there. The gumbo is chock-full of long-grain white rice -- perhaps a little too much, truth be told.
"I don't cook with pork," she says. "That's not good for you." Well, perhaps not, but that doesn't stop Graham from adding a generous amount of sliced andouille. The seafood gumbo -- to which freshly boiled crab and shrimp have been added -- is the way to go, and a dash of pepper sauce doesn't hurt a bit.
Le' Pam's is outfitted modestly, with a steam table near the front door and a smaller table next to that where the register sits. It's one of those places that look as if they might be cash-only but thankfully do take credit cards.
The main dishes change depending on the day of the week, and a menu board has the list. You may not even have to look at it, though, because Graham will already be giving recommendations, like "You have to try my trio!"
The "trio" includes a mound of the darkest, moistest dirty rice we've ever seen, well seasoned with plenty of chicken liver and a Creole spice blend. On top was a big, mild white fish fillet with a crispy cornmeal crust, made reddish with spices. Surely this wasn't catfish. The thick fillet was completely free of the dank, vaguely dirty taste of that bottom feeder.
"Yes, that's catfish," Graham said during a visit to our table. "I pay a lot to get that fish because it's much better. I've been using it for about a year and a half now." The finishing touch is a dark étouffée strewn through with little crawfish tails that have curled into little crescents.
The "trio" comes with a side dish in a single-serve Styrofoam cup. We chose the red beans and rice, but it was one of the few items that lacked seasoning and depth. The hot-sauce-spiked greens, okra and stewed tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and tender macaroni and cheese are all top-notch choices for sides.
After you order at the counter, Graham shoos you off to the "living room" to wait for your food. The "living room" is a dining room all done up in a Mardi Gras theme. There are big gold-painted masks hanging on the wall and purple tablecloths. (Our tablecloth had a few spots on it.) Each table has a slightly worn-looking bouquet of yellow and purple silk flowers and a feathered mask sticking up out of each of them. A wall-mounted television blares Family Feud or whatever else of interest is on at the time.
The only day not listed on the menu board is Sunday, because that's when Graham pulls out the china and cooks her special soul-food dishes. Those are the days when she makes Cornish game hens stuffed with a broth-laden cornbread stuffing, stuffed bell peppers and meltingly rich stewed oxtail.
Pedestrian examples of stuffed bell peppers abound, but the version at Le' Pam's is something special. It's baked long enough to allow the pepper to change from green and raw to mild and pliable.
For the stuffing, Graham sautés ground beef that's only 12 percent fat and does not add rice. Instead, she elevates the whole thing with the addition of peeled shrimp and crabmeat. "Not just crabmeat!" she exclaimed when asked about it. "Whole lump crab!" She grinned, snapped her fingers, wiggled her hips a bit in triumph and then walked back to the kitchen.
Le' Pam's is a casual, joyful spot. It's not exactly the kind of place to take someone who's impressed with fancy surroundings or high prices, but those whose hearts long for homestyle food and a warm welcome will rejoice. If you do happen to take a date there and he or she loves it, hang onto that one. That person's priorities are straight.
The employees regularly check on you to see if you need anything, whether it be a refill of sweet tea or a sample of their cobblers or bread pudding. They know their customers' routines, too. "You getting dessert today?" one of the ladies called out to a gentleman sitting alone. "Your oxtail is coming!" Graham called out to another.