Zydeco Louisiana Diner in downtown Houston has been a reliable lunch spot for more than 28 years. It would be interesting to calculate how many warm bowls of étouffée, platters of fried seafood and bowls of gumbo the diner has served through the decades. For all its steadfast adherence to tradition, though, Zydeco has just done something rather surprising. In addition to lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Zydeco has added dinner hours from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
We asked Zydeco co-owner Marty Venable, "Why add dinner service now?" He pointed out a window and down Pease Street where new condos are under construction. “That. That, and having a new kid,” he joked. "We’re seeing more and more people coming here for events."
Venable co-founded Zydeco Louisiana Diner along with Gerald Gossen (who is the brother of Jim Gossen, well-known in Houston restaurant circles for his work at Louisiana Foods and for his Gulf Coast seafood expertise). Gossen stepped out of the partnership in 1991, and David Walker joined as co-owner in 1995. Venable hails from Church Point, Louisiana, while Walker is from Beaumont. Cajun food is something they’ve both grown up around.
We were invited to come check out dinner one evening. Even if you weren’t hungry, you might still want to come in and look around. The walls are lined with antique signs, including a Falstaff neon sign. Venable and Walker say real neon signs are getting harder and harder to come by these days. The distinctive Zyceco Louisiana Diner sign out front uses neon, too. “Everyone uses LEDs these days. I’ve had to have someone come out and work on our neon sign four times this year so far, but it just seems like the right thing to do,” said Walker.
An antique dentist’s chair holds 50-pound bags of Adolphus rice, and there’s an old Sinclair gas pump in the corner. Antique bottles and even a can of Tab cola reside on a shelf in a corner.
The photos on the wall include one of a tall man with a rakish smile, a lovely, dark-haired lady with him, standing next to an old automobile. These are Venable’s parents. The dashboard of the car is filled with cartons of Lucky Strikes. “My dad died at 55,” he said ruefully. Back then, smoking wasn’t regarded as unhealthy. Of course, we know better now.
I hadn’t stepped into Zydeco in many years, a fact I instantly regretted as soon as I tasted the gumbo. Being a big fan of seafood-based gumbos with dark roux, I eyed the lighter, poultry stock base a little suspiciously. Suspicion turned to delight after I tasted the savory, rich broth. The flavorful roux is made in-house. “You can buy roux pre-made now, but this is the way the staff is used to doing things,” explained Walker. “When I come to work and they’re cooking the roux, it smells like chocolate.”
It’s chock-full of roasted dark meat chicken, and the andouille is a Louisiana recipe sourced from Market Basket, a grocery store chain that operates in South Texas and Louisiana. There are several stores in Beaumont.
From the next table, I could smell the aromas of a young man’s catfish and shrimp seafood basket. “This is just delicious!” he exclaimed, and when my own basket landed on the table, I had to concur. “The catfish comes from Guidry’s,” said Walker. “The flavor is just real clean.” It’s another product sourced from Louisiana, as Guidry’s Catfish is located in Breaux Bridge. Shrimp, on the other hand, comes from the Texas Gulf Coast.
There are big, blocky rectangles of cornbread, and the choice is regular or one laced with a goodly amount of sliced jalapeño. The regular cornbread is at just the right level of sweetness, but still lets the cornmeal shine through.
What do you wash this all down with? Well, if you’re not feeling fancy, a bottle of Dixie seems appropriate. “During Hurricane Katrina, the Dixie factory flooded. Some Milwaukee brewer bought the rights, and they asked the brewmaster to come help them make it. I think he goes there once a week. It tastes just like Dixie to me,” said Walker.
Venable chimed in, “My great uncle worked for Dixie and they’d give him beer. He’d have cases of it. Either that, or he was stealing,” he laughed. For something a little more interesting than a good old American adjunct lager, try an Abita Amber.
We had one minor quibble with the otherwise pleasant bread pudding, with a top crust that had been baked until brown and a little crunchy. It was served with vanilla cream, but where was the bourbon? “Bourbon sauce?” asked Venable. “I like that idea. Maybe the dinnertime version should have bourbon sauce.”
Dinner service and maybe bourbon sauce? What's next? This venerable institution obviously still has a few more tricks up its sleeve.