Anthony Bourdain, the late, great food and travel writer and celebrity chef host of the CNN series Parts Unknown, cherished southern Louisiana.
"Cajuns do things their way, always have, always will," Bourdain says on Parts Unknown. "Whether it's hanging on to the French language of their ancestors, their music traditions, or food, Cajuns fiercely keep it all alive."
And now, one Louisiana parish is doing its part to keep alive for visitors the special appeal of Cajun cuisine and the unique culture that surrounds it.
Located about an hour's drive south of New Orleans, Lafourche Parish is a 1,500-square mile swath of saltwater marshes, bayous and crossroads communities strung out between parish seat Thibodaux (pop. 14,567) and Port Fourchon on the Gulf of Mexico. It is a region authentically and unapologetically Cajun to its roots, going all the way back to its 17th-century settlement as a district of New France.Gallery: Cajun Country Cooking
Seeking a plan designed to promote its wealth of Cajun eateries, the parish tourist office — Louisiana's Cajun Bayou Tourism — launched the Cajun Bayou Food Trail. The Trail is comprised of 18 restaurants and six festivals and events, all of which focus on helping visitors understand how the region's food and culture are so deliciously and forever intertwined.
Navigating the Trail is simple. If you wish to participate, first go to the Trail's website, lacajunbayou.com/foodtrail, to download a Trail map and a passport. Visit at least seven of the 18 participating eateries, ask your servers to stamp your passport, and then drop by Louisiana's Cajun Bayou Tourism Visitor Center on Louisiana 1 in Raceland to receive a free T-shirt that reads "I Wandered Up & Down the Bayou."
This wouldn't be my first visit to Cajun Country. My appetite was primed for this return visit, with taste buds tingling in anticipation of such down home "Loosiana" delights as gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya, boiled crab and crawfish, red beans and rice, poboys and pecan pralines.
ON THE TRAIL
Following Louisiana 1 south, my first stop on day one of a four-day itinerary found me at Harry's Poboys, a no-frills roadside food stand in the rural community of Larose. It was a timely arrival, just ahead of the lunchtime crowd that assembles every weekday to feast on oversized shrimp, chicken or beef sandwiches turned out by Chas and Nicole Cheramie.
A second-generation member of Lafourche Parish's most prominent food family, Chas purchased the shop two years ago from its original owner of 26 years, Harry Herbert. Beef is a rarity on most Cajun menus but it was Harry's roast beef po-boy, seasoned with a highly secret concoction of spices, that became the region's long-standing sandwich sensation. It was drip-down-your arms delicious and by far the best roast beef sandwich I've ever tasted.
Next stop on my agenda, about a dozen miles down Louisiana 1, was Galliano, a town of about 7,500 people nestled alongside Bayou Lafourche, where I would meet up with Anthony Goldsmith, owner and chef at Kajun Twist.
Another long-established enterprise, this restaurant, smartly decorated in '50s style, was founded 32 years ago by Goldsmith's grandfather, Anthony Toups. Although he's best known for his fried chicken, Goldsmith, an articulate 28-year-old with a business degree from LSU, likes to dabble in more traditional Cajun fare and wanted me to try his shrimp boulette.
A sandwich of sorts, it features a deep-fried patty made up of shrimp, potato, pepper and onion that reflects an original Cajun specialty known as a boulette de crevette frite. Piquant and comfortably crunchy, I'd take one of these over fried chicken any day.
Although I'd eaten twice in the last couple of hours, the prospect of trying some seafood at Leeville Seafood Restaurant, a highly rated restaurant right on the edge of the Gulf near Port Fourchon, seemed promising. Greeting me was owner and manager Sue Cheramie, mother of Chas (of po-boy fame), and grande dame of the Cheramie family of restaurateurs. Chas' brother Norah and his wife, Donna, operate a seafood eatery of their own, Cher Amie's, another of the Food Trail restaurants, located in the nearby town of Cut Off.
None of the Cheramies had any culinary training. "It just came to us from cooking for the family," said Sue as she served me a sampling of her specialties: a bowl of shrimp, crab and corn chowder, soft shell crab and a platter of fried oysters. All of Sue's seafood is delivered fresh daily by local fishermen — a big reason why it is way beyond delicious.
Back on the eatin' path next morning, I made my way north on Louisiana 1, stopping again in Galliano at Rose's Cafe. Judging from the jam-packed parking lot, it was apparent this is the go-to place for breakfast in these parts. Operated with resounding success for more than 30 years by Rose Duet, the restaurant was purchased by Gina Griffin and her family in 2014 and they've clearly managed to keep the buzz going.
It was time now to head to the "big city" of Thibodaux for a scheduled visit at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. The center traces the history and culture of the Acadians (Cajuns) from the 1600s to the present through exhibits, artifacts, videos, films, music events and ranger- narrated tours of local historic and natural sites. A visit to the center is a perfect adjunct for anyone following the Food Trail.
Back to the business of eating, I made my way to Bubba's II Poboys, the city's most popular lunch spot for going on 30 years. Counter service keeps things moving quickly here and I had to think fast as I surveyed owner Neil Swanner's lengthy menu that lists far more seafood dishes than po-boys. I went for a bowl of gumbo and a Super Seafood Salad — a sizable creation overstuffed with boiled shrimp, crawfish and crabmeat and topped with a savory remoulade dressing.
Taking a break from my hyperactive schedule, I checked in at the Carmel Inn, a modest, family-owned motor inn situated a few blocks from the city center on the site of the 1855 Mount Carmel Convent. It would prove a comfortable and convenient spot to roost during the final two days of my Food Trail odyssey.
That evening I walked downtown to join Melissa Durocher from Cajun Bayou Tourism at The Venetian. Housed in one of Thibodaux's oldest buildings, it's something of a Cajun nightclub, featuring Acadian food and music. On this evening, Quenton Fontenot, who heads up the Cajun Music Preservation Society, had assembled a group of eight local musicians to pick and play as Melissa and I devoured an enormous pile of boiled crawfish and a platter of duck tenders.
For centuries, boats have served as the primary means of travel on the bayous, bays and marshes of south Louisiana. Wanting to learn something about the various watercraft so essential to the Acadian way of life, I drove the next morning to Lockport, located on Louisiana 1 about 20 miles south of Thibodaux, to visit The Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building.
Housed in a century-old brick building on Bayou Lafourche, this unique organization comprised of local craftsmen and historians preserves, exhibits and builds replicas of wooden vessels — ranging from canoe-like pirogues to flat-bottomed bateaux and skiffs — traditional to the region.
With lunchtime looming, I made my way north again, destined for Spahr's Seafood Restaurant in Des Allemands. Surviving hurricanes, recessions and a destructive 2002 fire, this bayou-side restaurant and lounge has reigned as a regional icon and seat of aquatic culinary eminence for 50 years under the direction of founder Bill Spahr and his family.
"Spahr's has always been proclaimed as the place where 'Catfish is King,'" says chef Ryan Gaudet, "but we're quite well-known for our gumbo as well." Taking the hint, I obligingly ordered fried catfish fillets and a bowl of gumbo. Normally I don't order catfish since so much of it these days is farmed, but this fish, wild caught right here in Des Allemands, was definitely superior to any I've ever eaten. As for the gumbo, I'm so crazy about this dish that every one of them I try seems better than the last.
Bayou Des Allemands also is home to a number of companies offering swamp tours and airboat rides — far and away the most popular visitor activity in the region — so it was only fitting that I get out on the water, joining a 2 Da Swamp tour with Clyde McCulley.
During our two-hour tour, McCulley demonstrated the use of crab traps, spotted various birds — eagles, osprey, herons and egrets — and paused to feed an alligator.
The evening in Thibodaux got underway with appetizers at Flanagan's, a layout of classy contemporary design, consistently rated as one of the region's premier dining rooms and located in an upscale residential neighborhood near Nicholls State University.
Asking if I like crab (yes indeed!), chef Randy Barrios, a veteran of 42 years in the food service industry, suggested I try a couple of his favorite starters: Bayou Crab Medallions followed by Crab St. Francis en Croute. Two different takes on the leggy arthropod — both delectable.
Primed now for dinner, I headed back downtown to Fremin's, a sister restaurant of Flanagan's. Approaching the place, housed in a beautifully restored 1878 drugstore, my first impression was French Quarter, New Orleans, and it was a semblance that held sway as I entered the dining room with its high pressed-tin ceiling, dark woods and porcelain tile floors.
Realizing this would be my last shot at you know what for a long while, I opened with a bowl of gumbo, and however gauche it may have appeared, I unabashedly dipped chunks of Fremin's fabulous homemade French bread into the dark, steamy synthesis of smoked duck and andouille sausage.
Going all out, I ordered chef Kevin Templet's signature entree, Seafood Napoleon. This is one extravagant dish, composed of layers of fried eggplant medallions and seafood mornay, topped with sauteed shrimp, crab meat and oysters — then draped with herbal infused cream and homemade tomato sauce. I couldn't come close to finishing it, but as the saying goes — saving the best till last — this clearly was the most creative dish I'd yet encountered.
In conclusion, I hope I've managed to whet your appetite for some of the most tantalizingly tasty food this side of France. If so, don't just sit there drooling and dreaming — head on down to Bayou Lafourche and try it for yourself.
For more information, including dates and descriptions of Food Trail-related festivals and events, contact Louisiana's Cajun Bayou Tourism, lacajunbayou.com, (877) 537-5800.
Travel on 06/23/2019
Print Headline: Binging on the bayou