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Jambalaya Supreme Picture

A Jambalaya Journey

by Ian McNulty

The first meal I had as a New Orleans resident was a much-anticipated plate of jambalaya from a place prominently advertised as a Cajun restaurant. It was terrible and it came as a big let down.
Later I asked around to friends and co-workers, trying to get a line on a good jambalaya. What I heard time and again was that the best jambalaya always comes from your own kitchen. To a large extent that is true. But now that it's fall and tourist season is gearing up once again, many of us will be hosting out-of-town friends who have certain expectations about New Orleans food. A home-cooked pot of jambalaya is a great and hospitable way to greet visitors, but not much help when, in the middle of a French Quarter bacchanal, your friends start howling the chorus of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" and demanding a good local rendition of this musically-named dish.
You can find it listed on many menus, but finding one that is at all palatable is a serious challenge. What you generally get is a scoop or two of tomato-red rice with a few dry circles of ordinary sausage and maybe some chicken cubes. Slimy remnants of Cajun cooking's Holy Trinity — onions, celery, and bell peppers may appear also. This is the accepted form of jambalaya when served from fundraiser chafing dishes and Mardi Gras parade party group feeds. But it comes up a bit short for $8 or more in a restaurant.
Happily, there are exceptions to this rule. The best restaurant jambalaya I've found, by far, comes from Coop's Place, a veritable late-night emporium of good Cajun-style eating in the Quarter. The menu here never ceases to amaze me and whenever I bring visitors there for a meal they are invariably floored. The food is wonderful, the prices are eminently affordable and the atmosphere is straight-up Decatur Street barroom. It's dark, not at all spacious, noisy from video poker machines, a jukebox, and pool table and as likely as not to be entertaining whooping drunks at the bar. The kitchen is open until 2 AM daily.
The basic jambalaya comes with boneless rabbit and smoked sausage, with a small garden's worth of celery, peppers, onions, and chopped green onion. To make it "supreme," they add big shrimp the size of a woman's ring finger, crawfish tails, and their own tasso. The fact that Coop's Place has a smoker in the courtyard to make their own tasso — which are vividly flavorful, fatty chunks of seasoned ham — pretty well sums up what is so good and amazing about this unlikely find.
Apart from the jambalaya, many of the Cajun dishes visitors expect are represented here, including fried alligator bits that finally taste alike something besides battered rubber bands. Bowls of fettucine in a spicy cream sauce with fresh seafood, meat and vegetables are satisfying and offbeat — one has smoked turkey and sliced apples, and others have that great tasso. Entrees are ambitious enough to have come from a much tonier kitchen, like a mammoth redfish filet with a blackened crust of seasoning seared over light moist flesh.
Even the basics get good upgrades here, like the crisp green beans served with a busy bacon sauce. The appetizer I can never turn down, though, is the duck quesadilla, an unexpected and utterly delicious combination of tender duck and soft cheese grilled in a tortilla with salsa and that thick bacon sauce. Incredible.
The wine list is also a happy surprise, with ten reds, whites, and champagnes. The local color is nice and thick here, too. Plenty of tourists stumble in, but it's mostly local. I've even seen hapless tourists excoriated by the bartender — to the point where they were compelled to get up and leave — for the offense of wearing Mardi Gras beads outside of Carnival season.
excerpted with permission from "Feed Me Something Mister" Restaurant Review by Ian McNulty (pg. 37 Offbeat Magazine, September 2003)
OffBeat Magazine September 2003 Cover

 

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