Saturday, March 23, 2013

U.S. Tour '13, Part 3: Eating Louisiana

Hope you don't mind a bit of discontinuity here. I'm busy trying to sort out what bits of SXSW '13 belong here and which belong in my other blog, for which I get paid. Much of it will probably be posted in a follow-up miettes post. But the fact remains that, after the circus left town, things got a whole lot better. My friend the great composer Carl Stone came to Austin, and plans were laid to head over to Acadiana to investigate the year's crawfish crop, as well as to ascertain whether or not Ville Platte really is the "Smoked Meat Capital of the World," as it advertises. It would be an arduous trip, but meanwhile we had to eat.

Chef George came through like gangbusters on the first evening: he'd found a real good Mexican restaurant and wanted us to try it. He lives in a part of town that I don't think was a part of town when I moved to Austin in 1979, and I sure had never seen before. We had to pick him up, but the actual directions to the restaurant, which is called Mi Ranchito, are easy: find Manchaca Road and follow it until it ends. (If you wind up on Lamar you've gone the wrong direction and must be from out of town). Many Austinites are unaware that Manchaca has an end, but it does, at some FM (farm-to-market road for the rest of you), and as you sit at the light, it's just to the right and across the street. It's easy enough to order, too: everything's eight bucks. Well, except for a basket of chips, which cost a rather amazing $3.00, the most I think I've ever seen. But without them, you can't sample the incredible salsa bar, which has a poblano salsa and a "spicy avocado" salsa, both of which look like they're mayonnaise-based and aren't, a roasted tomato salsa, some pico de gallo, and some basic salsa ranchera, as well as other things you might want for your meal. Oh, and the meal: George's was carne asada, perfectly grilled strips of marinated beef mixed with nopalitos (cactus pads), Carl got a couple of mole enchiladas with the best mole sauce I've ever tasted, and I got three fat tamales (pork, chicken, and jalapeno-cheese). Our friend Jon was along, too, and I'm damned if I can remember what he got. There's no alcohol sold there, but the food'll get you high enough.

(Mi Ranchito Taqueria, 1105 FM 1626, Manchaca, TX. Open daily 6am-10pm, except Sunday, 10am-3pm)

Our second dinner in Austin, however, was a massive disappointment: Maharaja, the amazing Indian joint we'd found last year, also with George's help, with the Goan fish dishes and wide South Indian menu, including several goat dishes, had turned into a tame North Indian joint with all the stuff you can get anywhere, a couple of Goan fish dishes, and one goat dish. I'm sorry to have to retract my endorsement of this place, because they've obviously had to knuckle under to customer pressure from customers who are ignorant of Indian regional cuisine in order to stay alive. What Austin needs is a whole passel of Tamils to come work in the tech industry!

On Wednesday, we headed out, and found ourselves ready for lunch as we hit Winnie, Texas, home of the great (but disgraced) record producer Huey P. Meaux, where Al T's advertises heavily on the highway and enjoys a good reputation. Undeservedly, I'd say: my boudin link was dull and contained MSG (although not a lot), but the fried okra was good. Don't remember what Carl had, but he was not impressed. We pressed on and got to Breaux Bridge, where we started trying to connect with my old pal Dickie Landry, who currently plays with the Little Band of Gold, CC Adcock's smokin' outfit, and once played with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Oh, and Otis Redding, but that was a while back. He didn't call back, so we went in to downtown Breaux Bridge to the Cafe des Amis, where I'd tried to go last time. Last time I couldn't get in because it was closed. This time, the place was jammed and the hostess (honest to god) had no idea when we could be seated. I'm going to get there some day, but not this trip. Instead we settled for an old local favorite, Pat's Fisherman's Wharf in Henderson, up against the levee. Great gumbo, and half-and-half crawfish (half fried, half etoufée). The fried weren't as good as the etoufée, which I should have figured out. Just as we got there, Dickie called back, apologizing because he'd been entertaining visitors as usual. This time it was Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from the Tom Tom Club (and of course Talking Heads before them) and they were at Don's Seafood in Lafayette. So we joined them for drinks, except that the bar was already closed (at 9:30!). Still, it was nice seeing them again, and the three-inch oyster shell on the table signalled that Don's might be worth a revisit. The evening ended with Dickie showing us the photos he'd selected for an upcoming book of his photographs (he also paints, being a multi-talented guy), which includes the only known photo of William Burroughs smiling.

Thursday was the investigation of the Ville Platte claim. It's a lovely drive up there, and once you're there, the Chamber of Commerce/Visitors Center is one of the friendliest places on earth. They explained that the smoked meat title was due to the many small meat markets that were just about everywhere in town, and set about pinpointing a few of them on the map. We were on the trail of a young chef who'd served a tremendous meal to an Austin musician friend, but he turned out to be the son of the best friend of one of the women in the office, and she said he now worked in Baton Rouge, which was a little far to go for lunch, especially since we hadn't yet chased down the smoked meat. We had some seafood boudin waiting for us at Paul's, the first one on our list. It was part of a gas station -- as were many of these little places.

It turned out that Carl avoids offal -- weird, since he lives in Japan, where they eat even odder fare -- and so wouldn't touch regular boudin. A real shame. But the seafood boudin was flavorful and chunky with pieces of shrimp and crawfish.

Teet's is diagonally across town -- not that that's a great distance. They also do mail-order, apparently, and I'm all in favor: we wound up scoring a hunk of tasso and a pound of severely delicious smoked garlic sausage there, and the counter personnel couldn't have been friendlier, especially as we introduced ourselves as being from Tokyo and France.

The guys at Teet's know their meats. 

The younger guy was concerned that perhaps I had never had boudin (when I lived in Texas, I consumed twice my weight of the stuff, but I didn't mention that) and he came up with a link. Not their greatest product, not even close to the best I've had, unfortunately. And we struck out at lunch at a café I won't name, because the people there were super-friendly, but the food was totally undistinguished. It would appear that there's something in the water in Ville Platte that makes the people friendly: after lunch we stopped in at the headquarters of Slap Ya Mama hot sauce, which Dickie had recommended, and one of the fellow customers, who was from St. Martinville, struck up a conversation with us, too, and we had a great discussion of eats with the gal behind the register, who was horrified at the idea of eating eels. Problem: Ville Platte doesn't have a decent restaurant, from what we could make out. Someone needs to fix this.

We'd heard that the very best boudin in Acadiana was at T-Boy's, but it turned out to be in Mamou, which was going to be our next stop anyway. It's not on the touristed main street (which is a nice change from the long line of abandoned storefronts I remember from years past), but out in a remote corner of town, because it's not only a meat market, but a slaughterhouse, too. I was too full to get a link of boudin, though -- a problem with travelling with Carl that's similar to matching drinks with a British or Finnish person. How do they do it? Nobody knows. But I've stored this info away, and the way T-Boy's winning awards, I have no fear that he'll vanish.

Dickie had been raving for years about a crawfish place called Cajun Claws in Abbeville, and I was eager to try it (although not as eager as Carl). My concern, though, was that my teeth would have problems with the crawfish. I'm down to two properly-working teeth, and can't bite at all. Proper dental attention will come soon, but at the moment, I'm dentally challenged. Dickie assured us there was stuff on the menu I could eat -- etouffée, bisque -- and there was a branch of Cajun Claws right in front of our motel, but I knew all they had was boiled crawfish. So we trucked all the way to Abbeville to find...that all they had was boiled crawfish! The waiter helped us mix a concoction of mayonnaise, worcestershire sauce, Cajun Power garlic sauce, horseradish, Tabasco, and granulated seasoning like the kind that was on the crawfish into a dip which I used for my potatoes, but which turned out to be for the saltines on the table. No matter, the stars were the mudbugs:

Obligatory mouthwatering crawfish photo
On the one hand, we could have walked to the Cajun Claws in Breaux Bridge, but on the other, these giants -- really the largest crawfish I've ever had in quantity, although any beer-tray full often has some big ones -- were perfectly prepared (my dental fears were quashed because the tails were easily extracted) and the whole crowd in the place was fun to watch.

Big Al is Prejeans' famous mascot. 

Breakfast has always been a problem in Cajun country, but we made an amazing discovery. Prejeans in Carencro is hardly unknown, being that rare thing, a tourist trap with great food and great live music. It's also one of the very few places around that serves a real breakfast, and it opens at 7am for it. We had something called a Napoleon, which was a potato patty, topped with a crab cake, topped with a poached egg, smothered in a hollandaise sauce with shrimp and crawfish tails in it. Not something I'd want every day, but sufficient fuel to get us out of town.

Soon enough, we were across the border.

Odd sign; SXSW was already over!
Once back home, there was nothing to do but to grab the groceries I'd bought and get cooking: my famous jambalaya recipe, which I hadn't had in years, smoked garlic sausage and tasso being very hard to find in Europe.

Once the rice absorbs the liquid, it's dinnertime!
And now, I believe I won't eat much more for a while. How long do you think I'll stick with that resolution? I'm still in Austin, after all.


  1. It all sounds delicious. The only question I have is how do Americans pronounce boudin?

  2. Dunno how Americans pronounce it (although there was a bakery in San Francisco for a while with that name and I think people pronounced it BOOdin), but Cajuns say it remarkably like the French.

  3. Mi Ranchito is a fave after Mick Vann's blog steered us there. He's good on low down joints, especially Mexican and Thai. On that note, go to Tortilleria Rio Grande right off South First and Wm Cannon, just east of the HEB strip mall. Righteous chips and full menu. A John Morthland referral I heartily pass along.
    So, you coming out to the Hill Country?

    As for pronunciation, I always hear Boo-Dan but that's probably due to the twang effect. Joe Nick

  4. Yeah, that's the way the French say it, too: BOO-dan.

  5. I don't know how American pronunciation (although there is a bakery in San Francisco for a little while of that name, I think people proclaim it BOOdin), but the cajuns said it is very like France.


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