At Gumbo Jeaux’s on Durham Drive, there are about 30 assorted bottles of hot sauce on a shelf under the iced-tea dispensers. Hardly anyone ever fetches one, because dishes rarely lack for heat. There’s enough cayenne in the blackening seasoning mix on the catfish Opelousas that an “approach with caution” warning on the menu might be appropriate. Two spice-covered fillets perch upon dirty rice that’s been dutifully strewn with a goodly portion of liver and ground meat.
Five butterflied and crispy-battered shrimp crown the catfish Opelousas. The étouffée dotted over the top doesn’t add much in the way of flavor, but it does contribute some needed sauciness. A previously frozen medley of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots is unworthy of being on the same plate, but doesn’t prevent the dish from soaring on the strength of its own spicy bravado. That refusal to compromise on heat levels is one of many things to love about Gumbo Jeaux’s.
If there’s a silver lining to soaring commercial real estate prices, it’s that new restaurants are daring to open on less-worn paths in the northwest quadrant of the 610 Loop. Good food is not confined to the quaint streets of the Houston Heights. Add Gumbo Jeaux’s to the list.
It’s located on a nondescript part of Durham just a block over from I-10 West. Next door is the second Houston location of a chain coffee shop named PJ’s Coffee Of New Orleans. (That’s a fortuitous coincidence for late weekend risers, since Gumbo Jeaux’s does not sell coffee and doesn’t mind if patrons bring a cup in from next door.) Both places opened this past spring.
Gumbo Jeaux’s is not fancy at all. Order at the counter and grab drinks, plastic ware and napkins. Food is brought to diners when it’s ready, but otherwise the place is almost entirely self-serve. Dishes are served on disposable plates and in Styrofoam cups. If that’s part of why the food is so economical here, that’s just fine by us. No entrée costs more than $10.99.
The Durham store we visited is actually the second location for the tiny business. The original is on JFK Boulevard, just a stone’s throw from Bush Intercontinental Airport. (A high-profile attorney we know who is also enthusiastic about Houston’s dining scene says the airport location is “legendary among workers in the area south of IAH.” Make note, hungry travelers.)
Gumbo Jeaux’s describes itself as “A Texiana Eatery,” and the food is reminiscent of that at the humble joints off I-10 East just before the Louisiana state line. On the Texas side, Gumbo Jeaux’s offers crawfish-stuffed burritos, blackened fish tacos and East Texas hot links. Not every Texas-Louisiana marriage is guaranteed to work. “Award-winning” Creole chili, with andouille sausage and ground beef, was greasy and the overload of white rice dumped in made it flat and dull.
The part of the menu solidly on the Louisiana side of the border, however, is consistently good. Po-boy ingredients, like fried catfish, fresh red tomato slices and lettuce, are encased in a tender, hoagie-style roll. (Purists might be appalled that the sandwich isn’t made with a stubby French baguette, but the bread is quite good nonetheless.) The roll is toasted golden-brown inside and out on a flat-top grill. That even goes for the top side, which is seared until the surface is branded in deep brown.
Fried fish and seafood are encased in a crispy, flour-based batter. The shrimp is butterflied, which sacrifices some tenderness, but in exchange there’s more of the crunchy coating. A generous helping of eight of the golden beauties comes with a choice of side. We picked the fries, which are unremarkable but saved from dullness by the generous sprinkling of Cajun spice.
The pasta LaShelle is described as “Mrs. Jeaux’s signature dish,” and she has nothing to be embarrassed about, other than the slightly overcooked fettuccine. The “no cheese with fish” rule gets thrown right out the window here, and that’s really not a problem. Perky Cajun-spiced Alfredo sauce brings tail-on sautéed shrimp, crawfish, crab and little slabs of andouille all together under a creamy blanket. Then, that blanket is smothered with fine shreds of Jack cheese. (There’s an Italian chef turning over in his grave right now — and a French one laughing.) It’s all a bit gloppy, but as one dining companion noted, “It’s a good glop.”
The namesake dish at Gumbo Jeaux’s — the meaty gumbo — isn’t exciting, but it’s not bad, either. There are plenty of tender shreds of chicken, a goodly number of sausage hunks and a firm shrimp here and there. Just enough okra is added to lend some thickening power, but otherwise it’s barely noticeable. That’s fine; however, more vegetable matter would deepen the flavors and make the gumbo more interesting — bits of roasted red peppers, diced onion and sliced celery, for example.
Side dishes tend to stick with the theme of being unapologetically spicy. The red beans and rice prominently features Tabasco. It’s not overwhelming, but tiptoes right up to that line and peers over it. The velvety consistency of the beans, though, comes through as strikingly as the vinegary hot sauce does. The long-grain white rice is perfectly cooked as well, as it is in all the other dishes it appears in.
The only serious problem was that the crawfish étouffée had a distinct fishy smell. One bite confirmed that some of the little crustaceans had gone past their prime. In all other cases, the fish and seafood was extremely fresh.
Gumbo Jeaux’s is closed on Sundays, so weekend fried shrimp and catfish cravings will need to be attended to on Saturdays. The airport location isn’t open on weekends at all, and both shops close rather early every night — the airport location at 8:30 p.m. and the Durham one at 9 p.m.
For a little place, Gumbo Jeaux’s has a sizable menu. There was so much to explore that we were sad we didn’t have time for unlimited visits (not to mention unlimited appetites). In addition to everything noted above, there’s Southern fried chicken, a pork chop sandwich, three different Creole-inspired burgers, blackened tuna steak étoufée and much more. The Tex-Cajun adventures at Gumbo Jeaux’s could go on for a while.
What the restaurant does not have is booze — but that’s okay, because diners can bring their own. Abita beer is the no-brainer choice (beer manager Joey Williams of the Spec’s downtown location vouches for Abita’s Turbodog and Andygator for staunch Cajun flavors). Other Houston beer fans say that Bayou Teche beers are worth checking out if they haven’t been sitting on Houston shelves too long. Also, clean, hoppy beers like Real Ale’s Hans’ Pils or saisons like Prairie Artisan Ales’ Prairie Hop will do just fine.
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On the wine side, off-dry German Rieslings will temper the heat of spicier dishes, and for lovers of red wine, those low on tannins like Pinot Noir have the best chance of not clashing with the food.
Dishes are such a good value at Gumbo Jeaux’s that the budget-minded will visit again and again. It is casual, reliable, staffed with friendly people and the kind of place likely to grow on Houston workers as a casual weekday lunch spot.
2199 Durham, 832-203-7270. Hours: Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Red beans and rice (side) $1.25
Crawfish étouffée $5.75
Fried fish sandwich $7.50
Creole shrimp sandwich $8.25
Fried shrimp $8.99
Pasta LaShelle $9.25
Catfish Opelousas $10.99
Iced tea $1.79