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I wish I were born on the bayou.
Not that I can't do without a few of the area's less-savory features: man-eating alligators, sticky heat and David Duke. But Cajun food just might be this country's best regional cuisine. Four hundred years ago, the Cajuns' ancestors left France and moved to Nova Scotia. In the 1700s, the British forced them out. Most settled in Louisiana, welcomed by the large French community there. In the late 20th century, having perhaps heard tales of the Valley's waters, a few misinformed stragglers made their way here. Luckily, they decided to stay and open Cajun restaurants.
Do you like green, leafy vegetables, heart-smart cooking and dainty portions? Then don't even walk on the same block as a Cajun restaurant.
This food is rich. Taking away the butter, egg yolks and oil from a Cajun kitchen is like removing the red, yellow and blue from an impressionist's palette.
Open for about three years, Baby Kay's Cajun Kitchen--billing itself as the only Cajun cuisine in Scottsdale--operates in a small, homey, whitewashed-brick building. Zydeco music is piped outside throughout the evening. A row of squat, potted palms by the patio can't hide the massive, ugly hulk of the Galleria looming across the street. But the food here will take your eyes and mind off downtown Scottsdale. It's a Louisiana oasis, without the mosquitoes.
On a recent mild spring evening, in that wonderful week the Valley gets each year when it's too warm for heating and too cool for misters, we sat on Baby Kay's patio. For the rest of the year, they have those tall kerosene heaters and a misting system. Or you can retreat to the long, narrow interior, with a bar down one side and several TVs to catch whatever game is playing.
When my beer arrived in an icy-cold mug, my expectations for a good meal soared. If they worry about the glassware, I figured at least an equal amount of effort goes into the food.
It does. We started with shrimp r‚moulade: five boiled, cold shrimp submerged in a thick mayo-type sauce with lots of sharp, grated horseradish. This dish simultaneously clears out your sinus cavity and narrows your arteries. It came with lots of garlic toast to sop up the extra r‚moulade. And don't worry about how to pronounce it. The menu includes phonetic guides to the trickier terms. For another starter, we picked the wonderful chicken-and-Andouille-sausage gumbo. (Andouille is a smoked pork sausage that could even give my running shorts an appetizing aroma.) A Cajun staple, gumbo has nothing but the name in common with that childhood fixture, Campbell's chicken-gumbo soup. The key ingredients are cayenne pepper and roux, an oil-and-flour mix that gives Cajun food its distinctive taste and texture. The only quibble I have with Baby Kay's version is its size: at $5.95, a mug is pretty pricey.
If you wanted to test an Italian cook, you might try lasagna and linguini with clam sauce. At a Cajun restaurant, you'd have to go for crawfish ‚touff‚e (A-2-Fay, as Baby Kay puts it) and catfish.
Crawfish, a bayou specialty, are freshwater crustaceans, kind of like miniature lobsters. Since crawfish in the Salt River are harder to find than Martin Luther King Jr. Day supporters in Sun City, Baby Kay has them flown in once a week.
Baby Kay's ‚touff‚e manages to be smooth and heavy at the same time. Peeled crawfish are cooked in butter and green onions, and then added to a peppery, roux-thickened fish stock. It comes surrounding a mound of long-grain rice, with garlic toast to dunk in the sauce.
Even better, I thought, was catfish court-bouillon. A king-size catfish fillet comes in a thick, crisp, crunchy cornmeal batter fried in peanut oil. The catfish inside stays moist and flaky. Amazingly, it's almost grease-free. Even more surprisingly, the crust held up under a mild, sherry-based tomato sauce. The main dishes came with a choice of potato salad, crunchy with celery, or a quirky coleslaw, with thick pieces of cabbage enlivened by tangy green olives.
We also sampled a couple of traditional Cajun favorites as side dishes. Red beans and rice came in a soupy sauce, heavy on the beans and with a pungent cayenne kick. Dirty rice, seasoned with ground beef and sausage, was a real winner: I could eat this by the bucket.
At this point, a vision of renowned Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme popped into my head. He's a man of such enormous bulk that he appears to be able to move only with the aid of a fork lift. But through tremendous concentration on choosing dessert, I got the image to disappear.
Warm pecan pie, a sweet and crunchy confection, tasted so good that I didn't feel guilty about eating it for at least five minutes afterward. The bread pudding is outstanding. It comes rich and dense with shredded coconut, raisins and pecans, with a puddle of sweet whiskey sauce.
Too bad Baby Kay's was out of chicory, which Louisianians roast and blend with coffee. But we washed down dessert with several cups of strong house coffee without too much regret.