Down On The Bayou
A Food Tour Through Lake Charles
written by Carl Danbury, Jr.
photos courtesy of monsourphotography.net
With no preconceived notions, I recently ventured to Lake Charles, La., for a culinary tour of the state’s Southwest region. Like the Provencal word “jambalaya,” meaning a mishmash, a mixture, a hodgepodge or a ragout, Lake Charles’ food scene, I soon discovered, is all of that for sure.
There are resplendent places to stay such as the L’Auberge Casino Resort, the newly opened Golden Nugget Lake Charles and the Isle of Capri for the indulgent. There are great sites to see, namely the Historic Charpentier District and the 1912 Central School Arts & Humanities Center, which houses the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, artist studios and a theatre for the curious; and plenty of fun things to do including the Creole Nature Trail and Airboats & Alligators for the adventurous. But, if you want a truly authentic Cajun Country experience, you’ll arrive with a raging appetite and an open mind, ready for the locals to prepare a delicious welcome.
“Some people eat to live,” said Chef Marc Wegman of Adele’s on Canton in Roswell. “Cajuns live to eat! The mixture of those who eventually settled in Louisiana, the Acadian French (from Canada), the Spanish, the French, Germans, Italians and African Americans created an unlikely culture and an unlikely cuisine. Every parish had its own influences, its own dialect and its own very authentic version of cuisine. Right now, we are in the midst of our second wave, and perhaps younger generation, of notable Cajun chefs from Louisiana, but it all begins with the heritage of those peasant dishes created from what artisans sourced locally where nothing was wasted.”
Born and raised in New Orleans, Wegman is passionate about bringing a taste of the Crescent City to North Atlanta – and he is not alone in the venture. Chefs like Justin Wilson, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme captured the public’s attention with elements of Cajun cuisine, but much of the credit is due to John Folse, who was born in St. James Parish in 1946, and opened Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant in 1978 in Donaldsonville, La. His stated mission was to create an international presence for Louisiana cuisine, and over time brought Cajun cooking to Russia, China and the Vatican, demonstrating that the cuisine is actually a mirror image of the unique history of its inhabitants. The Cajun cooking style reflects ingenuity, creativity, adaptability and survival. I made the journey to the bayou to experience Folse’s philosophy firsthand.
In the Lake Charles area, that philosophy is ever present through the artisans that create the region’s signature dishes. Boudin is king in Lake Charles (there are 27 stops along the Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail) and its surrounding communities but cracklins are the princes. Explaining the essence of each is quite simple. Boudin is a combination of pork, pork liver, onions, green peppers, seasonings and cooked rice, which is plentiful in these parts.
The mixture is ground and stuffed into a sausage casing. It is then steamed, boiled, baked — or otherwise heated. Boudin recipes may be tweaked and often are, and preparations for the mixture vary. Alligator, crawfish and shrimp also are used as the primary protein instead of pork. Boudin balls, smoked boudin, and other types of boudin creations are among the variations you’ll find.
Cracklins are an aptly named creation, for when pork skin, fat and pork meat, cut into cube-sized pieces, hit a pot full of hot hog lard, they do indeed crackle. Seasoned with salt, they are finger-licking good, and of course, a bit contemptuous for your constitution.
OFF THE EATEN PATH
In Sulphur, La., a bit west of Lake Charles, third-generation purveyor Jeff Benoit of B&O Kitchen and Grocery has created quite a stir, not only from his pot, his grinder and his smokehouse, but from his creative spins on the cuisine. Boudin balls stuffed with pepper jack cheese and the Gaudidaun (regional French for “look at that!”), which is pulled pork Tasso or brisket and a smashed boudin ball that is dressed out like a hamburger, are revelations. Please don’t get me started on Benoit’s Cajun eggrolls and “Slim Jims” either.
Down the road apiece, The Sausage Link and LeBleu’s Landing, owned by Kevin and Shelley Downs, feature sausage, boudin, burgers, plate lunches, choice meats and tons of Cajun-oriented spices, sauces, gifts, and live crawfish when in season. Here, Boudin master Matthew Fruge’s bacon-wrapped smoked boudin is lip-smacking good.
Just a bit east of downtown on Highway 14, you’ll discover Darby Guillory’s Famous Foods, where three generations of the Guillory family prepare boudin and three kinds of cracklins (regular, smoked and spicy). Early morning visitors should sit a spell with a cup of hot coffee and fresh biscuits drizzled with Steen’s 100-percent pure cane syrup, founded in 1910 by C.S. Steen in Abbeville, about 80 miles east of Lake Charles.
Lake Charles has other famous culinary haunts, like Seafood Palace, where crabs, crawfish and fried, grilled or boiled seafood have been a part of the landscape for 15 years. The cold exterior of this restaurant belies the warm, hospitable nature you’ll find inside and if you had to pick one place for gumbo, this is it. Both the chicken and sausage gumbo and the shrimp and crab gumbo are both consistent and worthy of praise, as is the massive order of perfectly seasoned boiled shrimp. Steamboat Bill’s is of a similar genre to Seafood Palace and also is recommended.
La Truffe Sauvage is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Lake Charles, featuring the talents of Algerian-born Chef Mohamed Chettouh, Arthur Durham and Andrew Hartman. You’ll find no Cajun classics on the menu, but don’t let that fact deter you. The restaurant’s classical preparation of French, continental and other dishes is excellent, as are many of their wine list selections.
Back at the resort, L’Auberge has several options for dining, but two stand above the crowd. Consider sinking your teeth into a crawfish and Havarti grilled cheese sandwich on Texas toast at Favorites Southern Kitchen, or enjoy their pan-seared Louisiana redfish served with corn-bacon grits, shaved fennel salad and brown butter vinaigrette.
Ember Grille & Wine Bar debuted in early 2011, about six years after L’Auberge opened. The modern American steakhouse features beef cooked on a wood-fired grill, and fabulous seafood and fine service. The private dining room seats 14 guests and is perfect for small gatherings, while the piano lounge and bar is a great meeting spot. Ember’s extensive wine list was a 2014 recipient of the “Wine Spectator Award of Excellence” and features more than 200 varietals. Highlights from the menu include the 40-ounce Tomahawk rib eye served with your choice of two sauces, herb or foie gras butter, peppercorn, Cabernet, chimichurri, béarnaise or creamy horseradish. The Japanese Kobe strip loin “Manhattan Cut” is exceptional and is a perfect celebration for the big casino winners at $30 per ounce. Recommended starters include the crispy pork belly with butternut squash purée and sweet and sour onion, and the lamb “lollichops” with tzatziki and gremolata vinaigrette.
In downtown Lake Charles, enjoy a pizza or pasta at 121 Artisan Bistro, but don’t overlook the flash-fried oysters over brown Meunière sauce and topped with lump crabmeat. Two miles from 121 and just three blocks south of I-10 is the iconic Ball’s Fried Chick-N. Fried chicken, fried catfish, boudin balls, pork chops — and everything else fried — all are excellent.