Travel excites the senses. Tiny bells tinkle on the eaves of a Thai temple; the vast panorama of the Grand Canyon thrills the eyes; a scent on the breeze signals the nearness of the seashore. But for me, few things leave an impression like the taste of a place. Southwest Louisiana is a food aficionado’s Fantasyland with its combination of cultures and resources. A recent foray through the state offered a number of highlights – and an extra five pounds in one week.
Crazy About Crustaceans
Louisiana specialties often include Gulf shrimp, crawfish and crabs with presentations from humble to haute cuisine. If you don’t mind a bit of a mess, an old-fashioned crawfish boil is a palate pleaser. Basic ingredients are live crawfish, potatoes, onions and corn on the cob. Cooking and eating are often done out-of-doors and served on tables covered with paper. Ingredients are sometimes simply spread out on the table – no platter involved – and everyone digs in. Check out the Seafood Palace and Steamboat Bill’s in Lake Charles.
For a more sophisticated treatment of the lowly mudbug, I found my idea of breakfast heaven at Lake Charles’s L’Auberge Casino Resort. Here I had the most decadent breakfast of the trip: Cajun Benedict, a fried green tomato and sliced avocado stacked on a round of cornbread, topped with poached eggs and drowned in Cajun-seasoned Hollandaise sauce and crawfish tails, and garnished with slices of andouille sausage.
My favorite lunch was in Arnaudville at Little Big Cup, where the signature dish is a Cajun Kevin Po Boy, toasted French bread towers stuffed with Gulf shrimp, lump blue crab meat, crawfish tails and andouille in a mixed pepper, Parmesan, butter and cream reduction. Are you starting to see where those pounds came from?
The most elegant dinner was an al fresco group feast at Houmas House, a stunning 19th-century plantation about 30 miles southeast of Baton Rouge. It was a special occasion – casual visitors won’t encounter the same seafood spread we enjoyed, but Houmas House restaurants provide ample opportunity to sample Louisiana seafood and other regional specialties. Plan to spend several hours exploring the main house and extensive gardens.
Sweet, Sweet Spirit
Much of Louisiana’s early economy was based on sugarcane. For a spirited taste of the local product, a stop at Louisiana Spirits Distillery in Lacassine is a must. Tours include not just the making of the product, but the history of the sugar industry in the state. The distillery’s Bayou Rum products are made with estate molasses from the oldest family-owned and -operated sugar mill in the United States – produced from locally grown Louisiana sugarcane. Sample the different flavors of Bayou Rum at the distillery tasting bar.
For a special treat, order a Loup Garou in the Embers Grill and Wine Bar at L’Auberge. Created by head bartender Kelly Bistok, it’s a cucumber basil daiquiri with edible glitter and Bayou Silver Rum.
Yellowfin Vodka Distillery in Sulphur uses Louisiana cane sugar in their two estate products. The original version, Otoro, is complemented by Geaux Pokes (co-branded with McNeese State University), perfect for drier cocktails like dirty martinis and vodka sodas.
To B or Not to B
For aficionados of alliteration, some Louisiana favorites fit to a B – boudin, beignets and bread pudding. Boudin, a sausage-like concoction, most commonly contains pork, liver, rice, onions, parsley and seasonings and is stuffed into casings. Its heritage reflects Cajun, German and Creole cuisines. Watch boudin being made and taste it at Insane Sausages in Vinton west of Lake Charles.
For a true artery-hardening twist, boudin is taken out of the casing, formed into balls, breaded and deep-fried. Boudin balls are served hot, either plain or sprinkled with powdered sugar and cane syrup.
Beignets, typically associated with French culture in New Orleans, can be found in many parts of the state. In Cajun country, the sweet treat sometimes is stuffed with boudin. Try both versions when you follow the Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail.
Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun Louisiana, is a food lover’s mecca. One of my favorite restaurants, perhaps as much for the art as the food, is the Blue Dog Café. Now run by his sons, the restaurant was founded by the late artist George Rodrigue, who incorporated Cajun folklore into his iconic Blue Dog paintings. The restaurant is liberally decorated with prints of his works. The menu includes lots of variations on Creole and Cajun favorites, with ingredients including shrimp, crawfish, crab and catfish. At this writing, the restaurant is closed, but fans hope for a reopening when the pandemic subsides. Look on its menu for all three of the Bs praised above.
A great way to get the flavor of Lafayette is to book an experience with Marie Ducote’s Cajun Food Tours. We hit five great spots (these can vary) and heard lots of information and history on the way. As soon as we stepped off the van, the aroma of smoking meats hit our noses. We felt like cartoon characters – nose forward, feet barely touching the ground, following a cloud of scent. This was family-owned Johnson’s Boucaniere.
In times past, it was a Cajun fall custom to gather together to slaughter a hog and process it – a boucherie. In the 1930s, the founder of Johnson’s was the first to buy boudin from local boucheries to sell to the public. Today they make their own sausage and boudin.
Going into the smoke house, we saw long loops of sausage undergoing a five- to seven-hour smoking, and trays of beautifully browned chickens. In the small restaurant we had our first food of the day – pulled pork stuffed grilled cheese sandwiches on buns, pressed, with sides of Johnson’s homemade barbecue sauce.
At subsequent stops we tried fried shrimp po’ boys, beignets stuffed with boudin, gumbo and bread pudding. All this before lunch.
We had the bread pudding at La Cuisine de Maman at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park – a must-see for any visitor in the area. The bread pudding here was very traditional and basic: eggs, milk, butter and bread. This treat is on nearly every dessert menu in south Louisiana, and ranges from plain to versions with raisins, nuts, and chocolate with toppings from whipped cream to whiskey sauce.
Wash It Down With…
In addition to our visit to the two distilleries, we sampled craft beers at Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville and Crying Eagle Brewing Company in Lake Charles, both of which offer unique beers labeled with distinctly quirky Louisiana twists. For non-alcoholic sipping, we tried Lafayette-made Swamp Pop featuring Louisiana cane sugar with flavors like Filé Root Beer and Praline Cream Soda.
But the ultimate beverage – practically a drink and a meal – was the Bloody Maria at Lafayette’s Bread and Circus Provisions. Made with tequila rather than vodka, the drink was garnished with olives, lime, okra, a banana pepper and a chicken skin crackling.
That drink is the ultimate expression of Louisiana lagniappe – something extra. To take a culinary cruise through the state is to experience gustatory greatness … and to gain those extra pounds.