Monday, February 22, 2016

Cajun Taco, Or, A Quick Weekend

A friend who's had a hard year deserved a birthday present, and I had a need to go back to Louisiana and finish the food-buying trip I started in October on my way back from the Ponderosa Stomp. So on Friday morning I picked up a car from Hertz and we blasted off for Lafayette. I expected some great Cajun food -- and I wasn't disappointed -- and what I emphatically did not expect was great Mexican food. But I got some.

I always have trouble with lunch when driving to or from Louisiana, and have never had a decent solution to it. Once, I stopped at Al T's in Winnie, which advertises itself as a Cajun restaurant but is instead a mediocre something kind of restaurant, an insult to Cajuns. Other times I've stopped in Houston at non-memorable joints, or just taken along a bag of nuts and stopped for a soft drink to wash them down.

And every time I've done this, just as Houston is fading in the rear-view mirror, I've seen this little clutch of Mexican seafood restaurants and thought "One day..." Well, one day came on Friday. We both decided this was the time I try one of them, and drove down I-10 until the next exit. Then we backtracked a couple of miles and pulled into the incredibly crowded parking lot of Ostioneria Arandas Seafood. The name was familiar, but the food sure was different from what the taquerias of the same name offer in Austin. There was only one choice for me as soon as I saw the menu: Cocktél Vuelva a la Vida. Many years ago, I briefly lived in Santa Monica, California, and frequently ate at a place called Lucy's Mariscos, on the second story of a building at a crossroads featuring a used tire place, a barbequed goat place (which for some reason I never tried) and a vacant lot. I always got the calamares rellenos, squid stuffed with rice and green peas, toothpicked back together, and smothered in a wonderful ranchero sauce. I've been searching for them ever since, as I've been searching for Vuelva a la Vida, which is a shrimp, oyster, squid, and octopus cocktail, the seafood swimming in a spicy tomato-based sauce, well-cilantroed, with bits of avocado mixed in, which I invariably ordered as an appetizer. Arandas' version of this was sweeter than Lucy's, with less avocado and cilantro, but all of the seafood was perfection, including the squid and octopus, which were perfectly prepared. My friend got one of the daily lunch specials, fried shrimp and stuffed crab, which came with one of the weird things this place offers: fried rice. Yup, like in a Chinese restaurant, with shrimp and mung bean sprouts. (There is also eggroll on the menu). I snagged a takeout menu on the way out, and noticed that this Arandas was indeed the same as the Taqueria Arandas joints in Austin, and there was a phone number on the back to get information on franchising. I think if Arandas opened an Ostioneria in Austin they'd be mobbed, and we'd finally have a first-rate Mexican seafood joint. We already have El Catedral de Mariscos next to a La Quinta on I-35 around Oltorf, but it's mainly fried stuff, and not very good at all. Okay, that's my free get-rich tip for today.

* * *

Louisiana was as wonderful as ever. First night's meal was gumbo and crawfish etouffée for me at Prejean's, and some kind of catfish with hollandaise and crab for her. Prejean's is an institution on I-45 just outside of Lafayette, although I'm sorry I never tried their main competition, Prudhomme's, run by Paul Prudhomme's sister, who died a couple of years ago and was acclaimed as a far better cook than her brother. 

The next day, we headed straight for LeJeune's Sausage Kitchen in Eunice, because last time I was there I hadn't bought enough tasso, and the small piece I had bought went bad in the refrigerator. They're closed on Saturday and Sunday, but I begged Mrs. LeJeune -- no, I'm lying: she told me that if I could get there by 10, she'd open up for me. And she did, saying "You should have bought a box," which I did. I promise, therefore, to show up on a weekday when I run out, which I will, because there is no better sausage anywhere in Acadiana, as far as I've been able to discern. 

We drifted into Eunice and looked around, checked out the Prairie Cajun museum (one of the six Jean Lafitte historical sites run by the National Parks Service) just behind the Liberty Theater, got a very good coffee at a small coffee shop, and then drove up to Mamou, where I took a sort of wrong turn -- the idea had been to go back to 190 and head east -- and saw that we'd stumbled on TBoy's, allegedly the home of the world's best boudin. Well, no longer allegedly: although my diabetes is the sort that goes nuts if I'm in the same room with a cooked grain of rice, I said to hell with it and bought a boudin ball, which is, to one way of thinking, a stupid idea when you could have a link, and, to my way of thinking, the only way I could check out TBoy's brag without causing a problem. Now that Johnson's Grocery in Eunice is extinct, this has to be the state of the art, and no MSG that I could detect -- and I detect it real good, I'm afraid, as I discovered when falling for the hype of the various places around Scott that people had recommended. 

We drove around trying to get back to 190, but with a whole afternoon to do it in and a glorious afternoon at that, getting lost in the back roads of the prairies, cruising past the flooded rice fields with the crawfish traps out, seeing beautiful old houses and the clouds floating above the fields, was hardly a hardship. And yes, we found 190, since we'd come almost to Opelousas, so I turned west and soon came upon a photo op I hadn't responded to last time. This place was apparently last known as the Southern Club, and that may have always been its name, but it's in poor shape and the last remaining big dance-hall around these parts that I know of. 

A real fixer-upper

But apparently they get their mail elsewhere

Further down the road Marc Savoy is still doing business (although a guy who wandered into the Jean Lafitte place was complaining that his hand-made accordions are now selling for $2300 -- and there's a waiting list -- which didn't seem too onerous to me), but he'd had his Saturday morning jam session and the place was locked up. There was a sign in typical grumpy Marc fashion saying that the jam session was for older musicians and youngsters were not welcome to jam, his way of saying that it was for traditional Cajun music only, and which, like a lot of what Marc says, could have been phrased in a, shall we say, kinder fashion. I'm not chastizing him, though, not for a second. He's been a bulwark while a culture rebuilt itself after the anti-French movement in the 1950s, and he's entitled. 

When we got to the outskirts of Eunice, I U-turned and we headed back towards Opelousas, as I searched for the location of the now-vanished Richard's Club near Lawtell, and in the process didn't stop to figure out a building which had a sign saying it was the Zydeco Hall of Fame, although I think it's probably a performance venue rather than a museum. Another one for next time. We did not stop in Opelousas for a fried chicken salad at the Palace, but headed straight for a hidden gem back towards Lafayette, Grand Couteau. I love this lost-in-time village, whose main street now has a bunch of tourist-oriented businesses, but running parallel to it is a short street lined with houses that mostly date to the 1840s, traditional architecture and Spanish moss-chinked walls intact (except for the one at the end of the street, which has an 1840 plaque on it and needs rescue tout de suite). We tried to top the afternoon off with a visit to Vermilionville, a collection of traditional Cajun structures from all over Acadiana, but it closes at 4, and as usual Google Maps was no help whatever, getting us there late, so we sat by the side of Vermilion Bayou and watched the costumed tour guides leave. 

Dinner that night was, of course, boiled crawfish at Hawk's, especially since my friend said she didn't see what was so great about boiled crawfish. Really? Oh, come with me, cher... My radar has really been good lately, and although I'd copied down instructions from their website, none of the route numbers matched. I did have their phone number, though, so I knew we could call if we got lost. But no, there were the hard-to-see signs directing us to the middle of nowhere (a more apt description for where the place is than "sorta near Rayne, but not really") and just as we pulled up, a departing gentleman offered us his parking spot. A short wait later, another Texan knew what was so great about boiled crawfish. That wasn't hard. 

* * *

We had to get back to Texas, though, so I pulled the car out of the parking lot and pointed us down I-10. And wouldn't you know it, just as we were both thinking it was time to get lunch, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Houston and saw the Bank of America building that was the signal to turn off for Arandas. However, we both agreed that finding one of the other seafood restaurants might be fun, so we drove past Arandas and pulled up at Tepatitlán, which also said they offered seafood. It was a much smaller offering, though, and the campechana, their version of Vuelva a la Vida, only featured shrimp and oysters, so we settled on the dish after which the restaurant is named, a plate of beef and chicken fajitas and three shrimp, also grilled. This was the right decision: I've rarely had beef fajitas that well prepared, the chicken was also fine, and only the shrimp -- which, let's face it, don't hold up well to this treatment -- was so-so. We'd accidentally asked for corn tortillas (flour are more traditional), and that was another discovery: thick, meaty, flavorful tortillas made in-house, some of the best I'd ever had. And two people splitting the order for one was perfect for lunch.  This strip in Houston is a very happy discovery. I'll gladly stop there next time. 

Ostioneria Arandas Seafoods, 10601 I-10 East Freeway, Houston, tel (713) 673-5522. 

Tepatitlán, 10337 I-10 East Freeway, Houston, tel (713) 676-0758. 

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