Restaurant Reviews

Barker Cypress Poor Boy

The quarter roast beef poor boy at Mama's Cajun Cuisine on Barker Cypress is piled so high with falling-apart roast beef, I can barely get my mouth around it. The meat chunks in gravy look like the stuff you get on a "debris" poor boy at Mother's in New Orleans. At Mother's, debris is what they call the scraps of meat that fall off when the roast beef is sliced. At Mama's Cajun Cuisine, there aren't any slices — the cook braises the entire roast in mushroom gravy until the whole thing turns into exquisite mush.

The beef is sopping with homemade gravy, and it comes with a little bowl of extra gravy on the side. I accidentally-on-purpose spill gravy all over my french fries while I eat the sandwich.

Was Mother's the inspiration for the poor boy? "Actually, it's more like the roast beef poor boy at a convenience store called Lyttle's near Abita Springs where I ate roast beef poor boys when I was a kid," says co-owner John Pott. Sadly, the convenience store is not there anymore, he says. But thank goodness the memory of that magnificent roast beef poor boy has survived.

Truth be told, the food at Mama's Cajun Cuisine is closer to big-city New Orleans cooking than rural Cajun fare. Pott grew up in Covington on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and went to college at LSU, where he played on the golf team. As you can imagine, the restaurant is decorated in gaudy purple and gold pennants.

All the poor boys at Mama's Cajun Cuisine are enormous. That's because they're made on French bread loaves rather than poor boy rolls. When you get a quarter, you are ordering a quarter of a large loaf of bread. John thinks the best bread for poor boys comes from Leidenheimer's bakery in New Orleans. "We used to buy their bread," he says, "but we haven't been able to get any since Katrina, so now we make our poor boys on Gambino's French bread." Gambino's is a famous bakery in Metairie, right across the bridge from Covington.

From 11 in the morning until three in the afternoon on Mondays through Fridays, there's a $10 lunch special with a quarter poor boy, french fries and a cup of gumbo at Mama's Cajun Cuisine. If you order right, this can be an unbelievably good lunch. You might be tempted to start with the shrimp poor boy, which is admittedly very good. I imagine the oyster poor boy will be wonderful too, once the oysters fatten up this winter. But the gravy-sodden New Orleans-style roast beef poor boy is transcendental. Especially when you spill gravy all over the fries.

The gumbo is another matter. Mama's Cajun Cuisine makes a dark-roux gumbo with a very flavorful seafood stock, but there isn't all that much seafood in it. And personally, I like my gumbo a little bit thicker. But gumbo is a very personal thing, and there is no denying this is authentic stuff. As for me, when I order the quarter poor boy special at Mama's, I ask to substitute shrimp or crab bisque.

When I taste Mama's rich, thick, cream-based shrimp bisque, I'd swear it contains ground-up kernels of sweet corn. John says that the bisque is made to order a bowl at a time and that after the shrimp has cooked with the vegetables and cream, the cook adds a dash of artificial sweetener to mimic the sweetness of corn. It's a nifty trick. While Mama's style of gumbo may or may not appeal, you can't help but love the Sweet'N Low bisque.

Lunch at Mama's Cajun Cuisine was so good, I can't wait to go back for dinner. We order some boudin for an appetizer, and I love the fluffy pork-filled sausage we are served. It has more meat and less rice than any boudin I have ever seen.

My tablemate orders Mama's Special Salad, a big plate of greens dotted with dried cranberries, gorgonzola, artichoke hearts, pecans and avocado chunks, topped with grilled chicken breast. The salad is tossed in Mama's secret-recipe sugar cane vinaigrette. But after a couple of bites, my dinner companion pushes the salad away. When I ask what's wrong, she tells me to try it. The salad greens are gloppy and overdressed. Whoever made the salad dressing was so excited about using pure sugar cane juice that they got carried away. It tastes more like pancake syrup than salad dressing.

I get a bowl of seafood court bouillon, which contains shrimp, crawfish and catfish in a tomato and roux-based Creole sauce with rice. Like the gumbo, it's thin and not all that exciting. We all end up fighting over a simple basket of fried shrimp. Dessert is a piping-hot bread pudding. It's tasty, but I wish it came out of the oven with a crust on top. I don't like the mushy lack of texture in microwaved desserts.

My third visit to Mama's Cajun Cuisine is at lunchtime. I tell my friend to get the roast beef poor boy, while I sample the muffuletta. I'm very impressed that Mama's imports the muffuletta loaves from Gambino's — it's very similar to the round loaf that Central Grocery in New Orleans uses. I have been eating Central Grocery muffulettas for decades.

The muffuletta sandwich is named after the bread, a dense sesame round native to Sicily. Most New Orleans muffuletta makers get their bread at Angelo Gendusa's bakery. At Central Grocery, the eight-inch round is sliced in half and topped with salami, mortadella and provolone and dressed with Central Grocery's secret-recipe olive salad.

There's a special way to eat a Central Grocery muffuletta. I once made the mistake of eating a freshly made muffuletta in the back of Central Grocery. The bread was tough and my forearms were soon coated in olive oil. The sandwich tastes best if you allow a couple of hours for the oil to soak into the chewy bread.

My own technique is to buy the sandwiches, stick them in a cooler with some cold packs and start driving back to Houston. I flip them over in Lake Charles so the oil soaks into both sides of the bread. Then we eat them when we get home. Preferably while we watch a football game.

There is an alternate recipe in which the muffuletta is heated until the cheese melts and the bread gets crunchy. There is usually less olive salad on this style of sandwich; otherwise, the cheese won't hold the top and bottom bun together. This is the style of muffuletta served at Jason's Deli and Mama's Cajun Cuisine. My lunchmates think this muffuletta is brilliant. That's because they don't love olives. I manage to choke it down. But I remain a Central Grocery muffuletta enthusiast.

The muffuletta is also available on the quarter sandwich, fries and soup lunch deal. This time I get my quarter sandwich with the crab bisque. It tastes just like the slightly sweet shrimp bisque, only it contains lots of lump crabmeat instead of shrimp.

One of my tablemates orders red beans and rice. I very seldom encounter red beans and rice in a restaurant that are worth ordering. Mama's imports Camellia red kidney beans from New Orleans and cooks them down with ham and spices until the beans become a sort of spicy soup. They are the best red beans I've had in a restaurant in a long time.

The stained concrete floors, bare tables and sports-bar decorations that seemed so cheerful at lunch are kind of depressing in the evening, especially since we are the only customers. And while the fast-casual format, with serve-yourself drinks and silverware, was expedient for lunch, it doesn't make for much of a fine dining atmosphere.

When I tell my tablemates that I like Mama's for lunch better than for dinner, my error is pointed out. "When you walk into Parkway Tavern in New Orleans, you are going to eat poor boys," a Louisiana native points out. The time of the day doesn't make any difference.

Mama's Cajun Cuisine is a great place to go for a poor boy, a bowl of bisque, or red beans and rice — at any time of the day or night. And the roast beef poor boy is among the best you'll ever eat.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh