Heading east on Interstate 10 with a couple of days to kill in Lake Charles can turn into an unexpectedly delicious road trip. If you're like us, the journey toward an awaiting pool and swanky hotel room would usually be undeterred by billboards promising the "Best BBQ in Texas" or "World Famous Jerky." But this trip was different. Back-to-back visits for the same po-boy, a divey-doughnut shop in the middle of town, surprisingly authentic Vietnamese food and a down-home fried chicken place that rivals any Houston bird joint made for one of the tastiest quickie vacations across state lines.
The coordinates were entered; T-minus two hours and 30 minutes away was the best-tasting po-boy west of the Mississippi River. Darrell's has been home to famous po-boys since 1985. Located at 119 West College, the restaurant is a simple roadside spot off Loop 210, the business alternative that takes you into Lake Charles.
We scored sweet rates at the luxurious new Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles. With a few toiletries, a swimsuit and our trusty swivel travel Scrabble board packed, we booked it out of H-Town with a mission to get to Darrell's before it closed at 10 p.m.
The bread is soft and toasted for a light crunch on the outside. We found Darrell's back in 2011 through word of mouth from a friend of a friend whose neighbor's mom thought these sandwiches were worth a few hours' drive into Cajun country.
Menu decisions are easy: po-boy, chips and a beer. Don't expect any frills, soups, salads or appetizers. The Darrell's special is highly recommended, packed with roast beef, ham, turkey and roast beef gravy.
My personal fave is the Surf & Turf, with that tender roast beef and shrimp sautéed in the meat gravy and butter sauce. Each po-boy is finished with shredded lettuce, jalapeño mayo and a pickle spear presented on the side.
The selection of craft beers is pretty righteous as well. Local Louisiana breweries, like Parish and Crying Eagle, were on tap.
We heard about a place a couple of miles into town that baked a perfect king cake. Delicious Donuts & Bakery sells more than 20 varieties of king cake during Mardi Gras season and offers a wide selection of cake and yeast-based doughnuts and a few specialty "kalotchies," like the spicy boudin with cheese. Velvet cake doughnuts looked yummy, but the chocolate and vanilla-filled doughnuts were fabulous.
Delicious Donuts & Bakery is located at 2283 Country Club. Hours are Monday through Thursday, from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday through Sunday, 4 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Inside the Golden Nugget are a bevy of Landry's Inc.-operated restaurants, including Saltgrass, Vic & Anthony's, Claim Jumper and Landry's Seafood. Casino-goers, as well as locals, dine regularly inside the casino-hotel. An Asian eatery called Lillie's offers Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine. Usually Asian fusion places aren't my favorite, but after surveying this menu, I was intrigued.
Authentic Vietnamese dishes like thit kho (braised pork with boiled eggs), chao (congee or rice porridge), banh bao (Vietnamese steamed pork buns) and muc rang muoi (salt and pepper toasted calamari) caught my eye. Prices at this casino-restaurant were definitely higher than for food found in good ol' Chinatown, but the flavors were spot-on and I was tickled to have a fish-saucy broth alongside perfectly cooked jasmine rice, tender pieces of pork shoulder and a soft-boiled egg.
After two relaxing days lying poolside, floating in the lazy river surrounded by sky-high palms and sipping on piña coladas, it was time to head back to Houston. A search on Yelp for fried chicken along Interstate 10 revealed something magical. Deep in the heart of Beaumont, in a quiet neighborhood at 797 North 5th Street, is an old white house with a wrap-around porch hidden by the shade of big oak trees.
Republic Chicken opened less than nine months ago in this sleepy town. Co-owner John D. Swift and executive chef Andre Glassey have found a formula for serving good Southern food, family style, in a comfortable and welcoming historical home.
Diners can choose a main entrée, like Cuero fried catfish, chicken fried rib eye, gumbo or the delicious bone-in fried chicken, and all the sides arrive family-style for sharing. The sweet creamed corn is better than any we've had, the green beans and mashed potatoes were exceptionally seasoned, and the homemade biscuits arrived with a house-churned butter. Eat all the sides you want; servings are all-you-can-eat with the purchase of a main entrée.
The fried chicken itself left us ordering more to go. Every piece was moist and tender, not overly seasoned, with just the right amount of crisp and crunch. The staff is super-friendly at Republic Chicken and the food is truly memorable.
The house was built in 1903 and since has been converted into a restaurant space. Prior to Republic Chicken, a restaurant called Bryan's 797/Bistro LeMonde, serving elevated comfort food, had operated in the old home since 1997.
Exploring Lake Charles and side-winding through East Texas on the way home was a great idea. It's the twists and turns that are the most interesting parts of the ride.
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Golden Nugget Casino & Hotel, goldennugget.com
2550 Golden Nugget Boulevard, Lake Charles, LA
Darrell's Famous Poboys, darrellspoboys.com
119 West College, Lake Charles, Louisiana
Delicious Donuts & Bakery, deliciouskingcakes.com
2283 Country Club, Lake Charles, Louisiana
797 North 5th, Beaumont, Texas