At Antlers Restaurant & Bar in downtown Lafayette, the decor skews more toward mounted fish than actual antlers, and lunch is pure Acadiana. I scanned down a list of familiar Louisiana dishes, debating what to order. Crawfish etouffée? Red beans and sausage? Soft-shell crab po-boy? A local friend had suggested the place, so I texted her for guidance. "Look at the chalk board by the door," she replied. "It's Thursday so the special must be smothered chicken, right? Get that."
"Smothered," overstated the sauce. Thin but rich gravy varnished a chicken drumstick and thigh and glossed the white rice underneath. A dish of corn sauteed with bell peppers and onions called maque choux and a cluster of unadorned peas flanked the rice heap. Frankly, the vegetables were bland and mostly lent color, but the chicken and rice embodied the lushness of the region's cooking. The meat fell easily from the bones, the spice mingled with the rice, and the whole affair came together like a lavish pilaf.
Antler's Thursday special was my introduction to the Cajun tradition known as the plate lunch — a restoring no-frills midday meal comprising meat or seafood with rice and gravy and two vegetable sides. It is the Louisiana equivalent of the meat-and-three restaurants that exist in other parts of the South, but the inclusion of rice and gravy here is critical. Meat-and-threes are dying institutions in many Southern cities. In Lafayette and environs the plate lunch thrives: I counted at least 50 area restaurants specializing in the genre.
Eating a plate lunch in Lafayette was the fastest way to ground myself in the hearty vernacular of culinary Acadiana — the 22-parish area of Louisiana that the state legislature recognized in 1971 for its unique legacy. The region's distinctive culture goes back hundreds of years, to the 1760s when a group of French Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British. They eventually migrated to Louisiana. The Acadians introduced deep, abiding Gallic influences to the area, but Cajun cooking is much more than revamped French gastronomy. Cajun culture has been influenced over the centuries by German, Spanish, African, and Caribbean residents, too.
Rice is one of the area's chief crops and the soul of its rustic diet. A pile of fluffy grains is the foundation of the plate lunch. Rice captures stews featuring oysters, shrimp, crawfish, or chicken and is an essential ingredient in dishes like jambalaya and etouffee. Rice is also the key building block of boudin, the wondrous pork and rice sausage found in rural markets and groceries throughout southern Louisiana. I had come to Cajun country to relish them all.
Few Americans knew about Cajun specialties like etouffée, jambalaya and boudin until the 1970s. Cajun cooking's prophet was Paul Prudhomme, a native of Acadiana's Opelousas, a town about 25 miles north of Lafayette. Prudhomme rose to fame as the first non-European chef at New Orleans landmark Commander's Palace, where he shook up the established order by introducing his brand of Acadian bluster to New Orleans' Creole restaurant cooking. While New Orleans and Acadiana lay roughly 70 miles apart, the cultural isolation between the two areas produced markedly different foodways, and at Commander's Prudehome upended established Creole tenets. Local pecans replaced fancy slivered almonds on the trout almandine. The once-blond gumbo darkened to the color of coffee after Prudhomme added a smoky roux to the stew. Outré creations like bread pudding soufflé with whiskey sauce became icons.
The spotlight Prudhomme attracted at Commander's followed him with even greater intensity when he and his wife Kay opened their own restaurant, K-Paul's in 1979. His exuberance, and outsize, charismatic presence (the wooly beard, the pristine chef's whites) made him a magnet for media, and soon a national figure for imitation. Blackened redfish, a Prudhomme invention made by coating filets in a pepper-heavy spice mix and searing the fish in butter in a white-hot cast iron pan, became one of the defining dishes of the 1980s.
Prudhomme helped spark a national fascination with the cuisines of the South and coax the American palate into spicier realms.
These days, blackened fish and chicken (and shrimp and scallops and tofu) have disappeared off menus and into the land of clichés. As with Tex-Mex, Cajun rarely dazzles in restaurants outside its home state. But that doesn't diminish the contributions of Prudhomme, who died last year at 75. Prudhomme's enthusiasm helped to herald the current, nationwide fascination with the cuisines of the South. He helped coax the American palate into spicier realms, prepping us for the global array of foods laced with lip-tingling chiles many of us now crave. His success paved the way for one of New Orlean's most masterful chef-restaurateurs: Donald Link, who infuses the memories of his Acadian childhood into the inky gumbos at Herbsaint and Pêche and his fried boudin at Cochon and Cochon Butcher.
And despite all the fetishizing, the coastal foods of southwest Louisiana continue to evolve at their own languid pace. Even if there's no more blackened fish on every American menu, the cuisine is worth experiencing in the swaths of swamplands and stretches of prairie of its birthplace. To understand Cajun's modern identity, you have to go eat generously at the source.
The gravy at Laura's II coated my pork chop like ganache enrobing a cake. It surrounded and bound each grain of rice, its taste strong and beefy enough to match the pork chop's heft. It couldn't have been more different than the slick jus served over the chicken at Antlers, even though both restaurants are in Lafayette.
Owner Madonna Broussard named her place for her grandmother, Laura Broussard, who began the first Laura's out of her own house in 1968. Laura's II was busy when I dropped by, though I was one of just two customers who actually sat in the quiet dining room. Most people — regulars, judging from the "hey, baby" greetings offered by the women behind the counter — got their orders to go. The meals come in Styrofoam boxes whether you eat in or out.
For me, grazing through plate-lunch restaurants was the most gratifying part of eating in Lafayette: The settings were laid-back, the staffs eager to recommend favorites, and the food revealed the personalities and predilections of their cooks. At his restaurant T-Coons, David Billeaud isn't squeamish about putting jokey Bugs Bunny-like caricatures in the window to advertise his Monday special of smothered rabbit.
A small city with a population of 125,000, Lafayette in many ways reflects typical American tastes circa 2016. National fast-food chains do steady business. You can find sushi and chile rellenos a block from one another downtown. A modern American standout like Bread & Circus Provisions serves trendy standards like hummus with harissa, bowls of ramen, or shrimp glazed with locally produced cane syrup. But the Cajun nuances are rarely out of range.
Dark Roux, which opened in 2014, is Lafayette's most au courant restaurant. Both chef-owner Ryan Trahan and executive chef Corey Bourgeois are Louisiana natives in their twenties, and their restaurant juggles local ingredients and national trends: crawfish corndogs and smoked pork trotter croquettes share the menu with grilled octopus over pureed cauliflower and braised short ribs with Brussels sprout hash.
Dinner at Dark Roux thoroughly impressed. The next morning, though, I was ready for much simpler pleasures: namely, to wander the nearby towns of Acadiana and eat as much boudin as I possibly could.
I met up with local food photographer Denny Culbert at Johnson's Boucaniere, Lafayette's gateway pit stop for a boudin adventure. The Johnson family previously ran a grocery in Eunice, Louisiana, about 50 miles northwest of Lafayette. The reincarnated store inside the city limits offers build-your-own biscuits for breakfasts and plate lunches piled with smoked pulled pork, brisket, or boudin. Before we took off for the day, I had a warmup link of boudin, which I ate in the traditional manner: teasing the ground pork-rice out of its casing and directly down the hatch
In France, the word "boudin" can denote many types of pork sausage; the Acadian masterpiece likely derives from rural hog killings, when the rice readily on hand was blended with pork scraps. These days, steamed Cajun boudin is often kept hot in crock pots by the counters of butchers, meat markets, slaughterhouses, and groceries. Each boudin maker brings shades of variation to their personal interpretations: in texture, ratios of pork to rice, a possible inclusion of liver, variations in onions and cayenne and other spices. Boudin stuffed in casing is the prototype, and tinkering is the norm.
We mapped a looping trajectory generally heading west and north from Lafayette, seeking out boudin variations along the way. Denny knows the territory but we consulted two sources before heading out: the book Boudin: A Guide to Louisiana's Extraordinary Link by Robert Carriker, and the Boudin Trail oral histories produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance. (Full disclosure: I am on the SFA's board of directors.)
The beauty of driving through Acadiana stunned me into frequent silences. As soon as we left the city limits, the skies sprawled like the infinite Texas horizon, only greener on the fringes. In the coastal prairies, we passed occasional sugar cane fields, the new plants recalling young bamboo with their ferny tops. Crooked, bare trees with spindly branches rose out of sudden swamps. In flooded rice fields, I could make out the military-straight rows that the farmers had outlined in the earth.
I've done a lot of single dish roundups in my career — burritos, burgers, barbecue, fried chicken — and people always ask me if everything starts to taste the same. It's exactly the opposite: Eat enough of the same basic recipe and each maker's subtle variations only stand out more. Denny and I made it to nine stops for boudin, mostly at standalone operations in small townships or sometimes by standing by their lonesome with no other businesses in sight. Chop's Specialty Meats in Broussard just outside Lafayette crafts a smoother filling of near-pureed meat and rice; The Mowata Store in Eunice goes all in with the pepper. Boudin balls (the pork-rice filling rolled into spheres, battered, and deep-fried) have become standard at many places, which keep them warm under heat lamps. Some places offered boudin made with both pork and crawfish. At Hebert's, a slaughterhouse and meat market, we encountered rare boudin rouge, or blood boudin — purplish black and earthy-sweet.
Our overall favorite of the day went to the boudin crafted by Legnon's Boucherie, a meat market in a handsome brick building in New Iberia. Legnon's links modeled balance in every way: not too smooth and not too greasy, with a low rumble of pepper heat and a fresh nip from occasional bits of green onion.
For lunch we took a boudin break at Ruby's, a surprisingly large restaurant on the shop-lined main street of in quaint Eunice. We were here for a dish called ponce or chaudin, a sausage sewed into a pig's stomach and steamed. Pink and seriously smoky, the ponce came plate-lunch style with gravy, rice, and sides. Our server insisted I eat the curved wedge of stomach, which she said was the best part. I found it... spongy.
At one of our many meat market stops, we picked up some cured bowfin roe, Louisiana's take on caviar. A four-ounce jar cost just $25. At the end our boudin quest, Denny's wife Katie met us with a bottle of sparkling wine. We opened the back of Denny's truck and tailgated in the parking lot, breaking into the pleasantly briny bowfin caviar and spooning it onto Zapp's potato chips between sips of bubbly.
I couldn't have imagined a more perfect Cajun Country palate cleanser. And we needed one, because Denny had one more sojourn planned for us. We backtracked 20 miles to middle-of-nowhere Rayne for dinner at Hawk's Restaurant, one of the state's finest destinations for crawfish.
The season came early this year, and bodies filled every seat at Hawk's. Most tables ordered five pounds of crawfish to devour. After our boudin bender Denny and I went light with three pounds. Denny showed me how to open the crawfish: pinch the head, pull it apart from the tail and suck the head meat, and then split the tail with my thumbs and pluck out the tail meat.
My god. I didn't know crawfish could taste so sweet. The tails resembled lobster in their delicateness. Those three pounds of boiled crawfish encapsulated the pleasure of eating in Cajun country, and the value of experiencing a regional masterpiece in its physical and spiritual home. I'll try boudin most anywhere I can find it, but I can't imagine myself ever eating crawfish anywhere else in the world but Hawk's again.
Antlers: 555 Jefferson Street, Lafayette, Louisiana, (337) 234-8877
T-Coons: 1900 West Pinhook Road, Lafayette, Louisiana, (337) 233-0422, tcoons.com
Bread & Circus Provisions: 258 Bendel Road, Lafayette, Louisiana, (337) 408-3930, bandcprovisions.com
Dark Roux: 3524 Kaliste Saloom Road, Lafayette, Louisiana, (337) 504-2346, darkrouxla.com
Johnson's Boucaniere: 1111 Saint John Street, Lafayette, Louisiana, (337) 269-8878, johnsonsboucaniere.com
Chop's Specialty Meats: 1019 Albertson Parkway, Broussard, Louisiana, (337) 837-6446, chopspecialtymeats.com
The Mowata Store: 30283 Crowley Eunice Highway, Eunice, Louisiana, (337) 457-1140
Legnon's Boucherie: 410 Jefferson Terrace Boulevard, New Iberia, Louisiana, (337) 367-3831
Ruby's Restaurant & Courtyard: 123 South Second Street, Eunice, Louisiana, (337) 550-7665
Hawk's Restaurant: 416 Hawks Road, Rayne, Louisiana, (337) 788-3266, hawkscrawfish.com