The plates are paper and styrofoam, and the cutlery plastic, but the cooking is pure Cajun–dark, spicy, earthy, and sweet. The place is called Bayou Cookin’, a tiny storefront on State near Division that turns out dishes that dedicated foodies, who view New Orleans as something of a dining mecca, dream about. On my own recent trip to that culinarily overrated and overpriced city, I encountered nothing better, and, in fact, found few eating establishments that could even measure up. There’s also good news for those haunted by Black Monday: Bayou Cookin’s prices range from low to downright cheap.
Six tables in the rear, two more in the front window, and counters lining two of the walls provide all of the seating. On entering, you walk past an open kitchen on the left, where chefs sporting flat caps and red kerchiefs–like scaled-down versions of Paul Prudhomme–wield skillets, tongs, and fry baskets. You place your order at the counter adjoining the kitchen; when it’s ready, you (or someone else, usually proprietor Roy Melton) take it to your table. An informal, good-natured atmosphere prevails. Bright lights, beige walls and floor, and green-and-white checkered plastic tablecloths provide a homey ambience. Friday nights a foot-stomping four-piece band called the Chicago Cajun Aces–which consists of two fiddles, a guitar, and a triangle–fills the small space with an evocation of Louisiana’s bayou country.
For those who do not take their seasoning lightly, there’s a one-pound tin of black pepper, a 12-ounce bottle of Tabasco, and a one-pound box of table salt on each table. My companion and I found the balance of salt and heat just right, for the most part, but folks around us were sprinkling away happily. Though wine and beer are not on the menu, patrons are encouraged to bring their own. Beer makes an especially good companion for this intense, often fiery food. Dixie by choice, though any mild lager will do.
A dish that can be wholeheartedly recommended is crawfish etouffee ($6.95 for a whole order, $4.95 for a half), a thick, spicy stew brimming with crawfish tails, onions, and peppers. Served with rice and easy-to-ignore gummy “french” bread, it is simply the best I’ve tasted. Bayou gumbo ($3.95/2.95)–chicken and andouille sausage jostling chunks of deep green pepper–offers a smoky pungency that deserves better than its styrofoam bowl. Cajun catfish nuggets ($5.95/3.95)–chunks of farm-raised catfish breaded and fried to a golden crunch–are sweet and fresh, though the fish has been frozen. Deep-brown hush puppies, scallion-dotted french fries that are shaped like corkscrews, and an excellent tartar sauce accompany the fish.
The jambalaya ($3.95/2.95) fell short in the seasoning department on our first visit, but recently it has been savory with cayenne. Stuffed gulf crabs ($6.95/4.95), with shells by Alcoa rather than Mother Nature, are more breading than crustacean but are nevertheless full of flavor. People in New Orleans call red beans and rice a “wash day” dish, presumably because housewives can start it in the morning and get on with the weekly laundry without having to do more than occasionally shake or stir the pot. Bayou Cookin’s version ($3.95/2.95), studded with hefty chunks of andouille sausage, is earthy and richly piquant.
Only the southern fried steak and chicken dish ($5.95/3.95) was a letdown. The battered, breaded, and fried strips of beef and chicken were not very distinctively seasoned, and they were served with a dull, white-flour pan gravy that merely added more starch to the already overly starchy meat. Those who suffer withdrawal symptoms if they eat a meal without veggies may feel they’ve wandered into the wrong place: the vegetable kingdom is represented here by a shrimp remoulade salad ($4.95), a side order of basic lettuce and tomatoes with remoulade dressing ($1.50), and fried breaded onion rings ($.95).
Also on the menu are five po’ boy sandwiches, the New Orleans version of the submarine. Shrimp ($5.95/3.95) is the most expensive; catfish, southern fried steak, chicken, and andouille sausage go for $4.95, or $3.50 a half order.
Only three desserts are offered. Fudge pecan pie ($1.50) may be topped with vanilla ice cream for an additional 45 cents. Its flaky crust enclosed exceptionally sweet and gooey chocolate dotted with pecans, a concoction that might enable your dentist to make a down payment on the Mercedes he (or she) has been coveting. The vanilla ice cream ($1.25) is pleasant, but the beignets ($1.25), fried doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar, though good, don’t quite match up to their New Orleans French Market progenitors. A chicory-blend coffee goes for all of 55 cents and is as good as it comes.
Chicago has more expensive and more elaborate Cajun restaurants, clones of the fancified joints that cater indifferently to the homebred and out-of-state tourists who collect in and around New Orleans’s Bourbon Street. Bayou Cookin’ is a different breed. Scion of the shacks and shanties that dish up mounds of down-home grub in the hamlets scattered about Louisiana’s waterways, it concentrates on the food.
The result–a concatenation of flavors from French-Canadian to American Indian cooking–though clangorous, works surprisingly well for all but the faint of heart.
Bayou Cookin’, 1159 N. State St., is open Monday through Thursday from 11 AM to 11 PM, Friday and Saturday 11 AM to 2 AM, and Sunday from 11 AM to 9 PM. No credit cards are accepted. Call 337-6175 for further information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.