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.
"Try" means "try" here, so if someone asks if you want to try something, that person means it. If he asks, "Would you like to try our peach cobbler?" (and you do), you'll get a little sample cup of it. If you were wise and left room for dessert, you'll soon be asking for a full-size one. If not, that's why to-go boxes were invented.
Sometimes there's blueberry cobbler, and either that or the peach is a fine choice. There's plenty of fruit sufficiently bound together with just the right amount of sweet, bready pastry. The bread pudding is done right, too. There's never been a fancied-up bread pudding that surpasses a traditional preparation. Le' Pam's' allows the bread to retain some crust and texture, and it's shot through with raisins and topped with brandy sauce, as is only proper.
Le' Pam's seems to want its guests to try everything. "Have you ever had my fried shrimp?" Graham asked as we were heading out the door. We shook our heads no, and she handed each of us a crispy battered and fried shrimp. The shrimp come on the po-boys and also by the half-dozen and dozen à la carte. They are so fresh, firm, spicy and salty, you'll wish that Le' Pam's offered a fried seafood platter. They'd sit nicely alongside the fried catfish.
To top it off, they're cheap. Entrées come with two sides. That, along with a beverage and dessert, will cost around $18 and no one leaves hungry.
(There is no alcohol, so either bring your own or choose from sweet tea, iced tea or four flavors of Kool-Aid. Yes, really.)
Le' Pam's is located off FM 1960 about a mile away from I-45 north. It's in an area full of used-car lots and low-rent strip centers, one not known for its restaurants. As far as independently owned restaurants go, it's a part of the city that is largely undocumented, and that's exciting. In the same little shopping center as Le' Pam's is a combination soul-food restaurant and wine bar. Down the street are meat markets, pupuserías and a tearoom. It's a breath of fresh air to find out that yes, there is good food in north Houston and you don't have to drive all the way to The Woodlands to get it.
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In an interesting way, Le' Pam's is reminiscent of well-known foodie favorite Himalaya. That Pakistani restaurant is on the other side of town and serves a very different cuisine, but the common factor is how the owners interact with and get to know their customers.
When chefs like Graham and Kaiser Lashkari open a place of their own, it's because they love what they do and genuinely want to give people the best they have to offer. These are endeavors born of pure intentions -- vocations that are not so much choices as they are destinies.
Le' Pam's might not be up for any awards and it may not have the fanciest food in town, but it offers enthusiasm and warmth. That quality has more value to diners than any well-to-do ZIP code.
Seafood gumbo (bowl) $7.95 Fried shrimp (dozen) $11.95 Stuffed seafood bell peppers $12.95 Crawfish étouffée $13.25 Oxtails $14.95 Stuffed Cornish hens $13.95 Peach cobbler $5.25 Bread pudding $5.95