Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and File' Gumbo: The Bounty of Lafayette

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Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file' gumbo / 'Cause tonight I'm gonna see my ma cher amio / Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o / Son of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou -- Hank Williams, "Jambalaya"

In late December, Southern Living announced a contest in which 10 "Southern" cities would compete to see which could accrue the most Internet votes to be named the magazine's "Tastiest City in the South." I put "Southern" in quotes because many people initially took issue with cities like Houston and Baltimore being considered Southern.

Many more people, however, have taken issue with the way that each city's votes are tallied. From the very beginning, Lafayette and Louisville (cities which have populations of 120,000 and 741,000 respectively) were handily beating far larger cities like our own in the polls.

While a few Internet commenters suggested that robo-voters were responsible for the drastic difference in votes between the two cities and the rest of the list -- each have around 115,000 votes as of today, while the next closest city (New Orleans, historically known as an important food city) has only 35,000 -- I heard some dissenting opinions and was intrigued.

Dancing to the weekly zydeco concert in Vermilionville's Performance Center.

Friends of mine from Louisiana have described Lafayette to me as the state's Austin: a small town where the young, cool kids and their young, cool restaurants come to congregate. They've also told me that although the town itself is small, its dining scene is huge. "They eat out with as much frequency and interest" as we do in Houston, one friend from Baton Rouge explained. The fact that the little town had pulled so far ahead in voting didn't surprise him.

Paula Disbrowe herself, Southern Living's senior travel editor, had even emphasized Lafayette when we spoke on the phone in December.

"It's good, solid cooking that comes from a really personal place," Disbrowe said of Lafayette's food scene. "Not just gimmick for gimmick's sake or harnessing the next food trends, but bringing refined urban sensibilities to boudin or smoked sausage that their grandmothers used to make."

I'd only been to Lafayette and Louisville once, both times on business. In Lafayette, I ate at Prejean's and wasn't terribly impressed with the food. I ended up instead finding the best boudin of my life in Breaux Bridge, just down the road, and never really thought of Lafayette again. Southern Living had piqued my interest in re-examining both cities, and I set out to Lafayette this weekend, as it's only three hours away by car and an easy drive from Houston.

What I found in the small town charmed me and completely won me over.

The things I found myself loving about Lafayette were things that I can't get in Houston. In other words, the things that make a city or town worth traveling to. Lafayette has a firmly established identity and understanding of itself in this way that makes it an excellent tourist destination. Its message is clear: Lafayette is the capital of Cajun country. You know exactly what you're getting into when you go there.

I found myself instantly fond of the charming, walkable downtown area with shops and museums side-by-side next to wine and craft beer bars and popular restaurants. At night, Rue Jefferson turns into a tamer version of New Orleans's Bourbon Street, with far more hipsters in the street than vomiting frat boys, and local screenprinting companies selling T-shirts that say "Buy Leauxcal" inviting people in instead of strip clubs.

I loved finding traditional ingredients and dishes hipped up in places like downtown's The French Press, a quaint restaurant next door to a reclaimed bicycle shop, where I marveled at a Cajun dip sandwich made with cochon de lait and housemade pickles, served with a ramekin of pork fat drippings. The perfectly crispy po-boy bread -- the lack of which we often lament here in Houston -- melted each time I submerged it into the dipping sauce, forming soft pillows around the tender roasted pork.

The French Press, like many other restaurants in town, makes ample use of local ingredients like Steen's Cane Syrup from nearby Abbeville which only serves to further highlight the culinary bounty of the region.

I was surprised to find some of the best food during my trip at La Cuisine de Maman, the unsuspecting cafe inside Lafayette's living history museum, Vermilionville. A plain old Sunday buffet was elevated by sweet cornbread, pork-fattened greens, livery spoonfuls of dirty rice, excellent fried chicken and a spicy cup of andouille sausage gumbo the likes of which would be revered back home in Houston.

The huge meal was made exponentially better by walking it off exploring the old kitchens of historic Lafayette homes in the Vermilionville village and taking in the zydeco dancing in its high-ceilinged main hall, where locals come to throw down every Sunday.

I was struck by the beautiful setting of the ultra-modern Cochon -- the second location of the famous New Orleans restaurant -- along the banks of the historic Bayou Vermilion and how this setting expertly conveys its mission of creating updated Cajun classics like fried alligator bites with a brilliant chili-garlic aioli. (I was less taken with the rest of the food, but sense a lot of potential in the kitchen nevertheless.)

The restaurant -- which is owned by local boy done good Donald Link -- is distinctly separate from its New Orleans counterpart, and further incorporates itself into its setting by hosting beer dinners with local breweries like Bayou Teche Brewing and serving stunning Southern Louisiana game like wild-caught speckled trout.

What I really adored about Lafayette, though, is how -- by the nature of the strong Cajun culture there -- the town is light-years ahead of other cities in its emphasis on supporting local businesses. Older restaurants in town like Don's Seafood and Prejean's have benefited from this support structure for years, and Lafayettiens patronize newer places such as The French Press and Johnson's Boucanière with the same exuberance.

And although there is an enormous deficit in other cuisines in the city, it's not enough to be a deterrent. In fact, in Lafayette's case, it's a positive. The message here is loud and clear: Lafayette is where you come to get great Cajun food (and where you transport Don's Specialty Meats's cracklins and tasso back to any loved ones who weren't lucky enough to come on the trip with you).

To be clear, this is not a post comparing Houston with Lafayette. They aren't just apples and oranges; they're apples and smoked boudin links. The two are nothing alike. What they do have in common, however, is that both have a lot to offer to an outside world -- Southern Living's readership, for example -- that might not know much about them. And if Lafayette wants to harness the power of its small but vocally loyal food scene to garner more coverage for itself in a big magazine, I say more power to them.

While I'd never declare one town to be "tastier" than the other, the one thing I found that Lafayette does right in encouraging tourism -- especially food tourism -- is offering a clear, consistent message: Come to Lafayette for the Cajun food and the local specialties. In a sprawling city like Houston, with wide-ranging foods and no one "central" cuisine, finding a clear message to consistently convey can be more difficult.

But I find myself thinking back to what Disbrowe said in our interview that day in December, back to a slogan that I think neatly defines our city and all that we have to offer, a slogan that could be put to good use in drawing food tourists from all over: "What's not to eat in Houston?"

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