A decade ago, just before I moved to Phoenix, I considered heading to New Orleans instead. My then-boyfriend and I called around checking on graduate schools and apartments but practically needed a Creole-to-English translator to figure out what the heck everyone was saying. Needless to say, it was Phoenix or bust. Ya tink?
Since then, I've been looking for good Cajun grub here in the desert. Or as they would say on the bayou, I got an ahnvee for some gumbo.
In One Corner: Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen
11051 N. Black Canyon Hwy. in Phoenix
Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen may be plunked down on the gritty frontage road of the I-17, but once you walk into the gorgeous vine-covered brick courtyard it's almost like you're not in Phoenix anymore. There's a gorgeous fountain, plus delicate black wrought iron patio sets tucked in ivy-coated niches.
At 5 p.m. on a weeknight, the place was packed. One glance at the menu and you'll know why. Happy hour is from 4-6:30 p.m. daily, and the specials are ass-cheap. We're talking margaritas for around a five-spot and appetizers for as little as $1.95. While there, I sampled their signature crispy orange shrimp, which set off a mouthgasm that lasted through the meal. *shudder* Delish!
On to the gumbo. My cuppa andouille sausage and seafood gumbo arrived in a small white china bowl atop an equally white saucer, both splattered with castoff gumbo juice. Ugh. Clearly the staff hasn't been influenced by the perfect plating on Iron Chef. Of course, that's what I get for going to Pappadeaux at happy hour, before they dim the lights to the "Cavelike" setting.
I dug into the dish, which was more like a brothy soup with rice and meat chunks than the thick paste I expected. The dark, rich tomato-based broth was delicious. It reminded me of Campbell's vegetable soup, done upscale and peppered with ocean critters. The andouille was salty and moist, with a spicy finish that crept up in my throat and did a little happy dance while I dug into a nearby shrimp. Then I came across a big grey blob that looked remarkably like...an embryo.
Yes, I knew the unfortunate looking kidney shaped critter with a bulbous "head" and trailing "limbs" was just a distorted oyster, but eeeeeeew. (I would've taken a picture and included it here, but I'm hell-bent on avoiding death threats from pro-lifers too lazy to actually read this part.) I pushed the critter aside and contented myself with bits of shrimp and crawfish and rice, gobbling down the comforting mixture and leaving just enough broth to cover the offending mollusk meat.
In the Other Corner: Baby Kay's Cajun Kitchen
2119 E. Camelback Rd. in East Phoenix
Baby Kay's also tries for the New Orleans vibe -- think brick walls, candlelit tables, and live jazz and folk music. The black-and-white parquet floor's a little retro, but hey, I'll suspend disbelief and imagine the place used to be a diner or something. They've got a great location in the Town & Country shopping center, shaded by lovely trees with a lovely brick patio wrapping around the side of the restaurant. The only downside is the view of the parking lot you'll get from most indoor tables.
The grub at Baby Kay's is typical Cajun: crawfish etouffee, po' boy sammies and several types of gumbo served by the cup or bowl. My dining companion and I elected the chicken and sausage gumbo, which came highly recommended by a Louisiana transplant friend. Plus, I figured this one wouldn't come with any creepy-looking sea critters.
In less than ten minutes, we received our order of shrimp etoufee, crispy hush puppies and gumbo. Baby Kay's version is closer to a bayou-style gumbo, with a thicker soup base and the traditional holy "trinity" of bell pepper, onion and celery. The dish had a muddier taste -- not quite tomato, but more like watered-down beef gravy. The andouille sausage bites were thick and meaty, with a smoky flavor and a slight heat that crept up a few minutes after eating them.
"This is closer to what I think of as real gumbo," said my friend, who hails from the South. "It's pretty tasty, but not as spicy as what you'd get back home. I don't even need the hush puppies to cut the burn!"
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Personally, I didn't mind. We get enough heat from the Southwest/Mexican/Tex-Mex cuisine that's so popular here that it was nice to let my mouth -- and stomach -- take a rest. The rice was tender and added texture to the dish, and the white and dark meat chicken chunks soaked up the moisture of the gravy-like sauce. My only complaint was that the vegetables were mushy and too plentiful.
The Winner: This one's a tough call. Faux fetus aside, the gumbo at Pappadeaux had a lovely, pungent tomato broth. But Baby Kay's take on this Cajun classic was closer to the real thing. Drum roll please....
Baby Kay's wins by a smidgen, though I'll be back to try the shrimp gumbo at Pappadeaux.