Alligators don't make good pets.
Amazing, I know, but true. As a child growing up in Tokyo, I happened upon a pet store that was selling, along with fuzzy kittens and velvet-furred puppies, baby alligators. In a truly weak moment, my mother bought me one, packaged in a little plastic carrying case -- a gator-to-go. Big mistake.
Though the reptile was only six inches long, it was a half-foot of seriously bad mood, armored in olive green with nasty sharp baby teeth. Alligators don't cuddle. They don't frolic. They don't do anything, really, except eat, sulk, hiss, bite and, given their druthers, lie like a dead log for days at a time. Finally, we (discreetly) released the cranky critter in a public park pond in the center of the city.
Alligators don't necessarily make good meals, either. Although the proliferation of gator farms over the past decade has made the creature increasingly available as a consumable, it doesn't change the fact that the reptile meat tends to be stringy. The flaky white meat wobbles between tasting like chicken and like weird flounder. Alligators are swamp things, after all, given to dine on anything from other swamp things to discarded Firestones.
Yet, in the past few months alone, two restaurants with alligator featured prominently on their menus have started up in the Valley. One is Cajun Edge, which opened about a month ago in Chandler; the other is Voodoo Daddy's in Tempe. They're reflective of the new Cajun culinary trend looming on the horizon, spurred by the success and national expansion of Acadian places like House of Blues and Redfish (a Cajun chain operated by T.G.I. Friday's that's scheduled to open in Scottsdale in the spring). Every cuisine these days needs a draw to get customers buzzing, and for Cajun dining, gator's got game.
As it turns out, alligator is one of the least interesting items on Voodoo Daddy's menu. Opened last spring, the eatery offers more excitement with its less exotic Louisiana fare like gumbo, red beans and rice and po'boy sandwiches. Just don't come expecting tongue-tingling Cajun heat -- at Voodoo Daddy's, peppery passion is a do-it-yourself proposition. Gusto comes from bottled hot sauces served on the side.
Don't come expecting jaw-dropping Cajun eats, either. Some of the dishes at Voodoo are terrific, but too many fall flat to make the place a top pick.
With the menu's lack of heat, perfectionists might contend that Voodoo Daddy's more aptly could be considered Creole. It's a subtle distinction -- both Creole and Cajun cuisines feature gumbos, étouffées, jambalaya and such. But proud Southern historians will point out that many Creoles were rich planters and their kitchens aspired to grand cuisine. Their recipes came from France or Spain, as did their chefs, with an emphasis on complex spicing rather than scorch. Cajuns, though, were a tough crew, poor and used to living like animals on unwanted swampland. They ate what was available, including squirrels and, yes, alligator. Given their often less-than-desirable grocery options, they laid it on heavily with the cayenne. Today, though, ingredient quality is universal, and does anyone really care about the Creole-versus-Cajun debate anymore?
Perhaps Voodoo chef Armando "Mondo" Pisano simply doesn't want to scare off more timid taste buds. He previously was head chef at Baby Kay's, the restaurant that introduced Cajun cuisine to the Valley more than a year ago. The buzz then was that eating at Baby Kay's required a flak-jacketed tongue -- Pisano surely heard from customers (spineless wimps) who, unfamiliar with the spicy recipes, clamored to tone it down.
No matter -- it's easy enough to raise the heat with Voodoo's more than 45 types of Louisiana hot sauce. A wooden trough is brought to the table on request (Why isn't it already on the table, or at least offered?), loaded with about a dozen of the restaurant's favorite choices. The bravest will go for the exquisite Pain and Suffering brand; the more delicate can sample the Cafe Louisiana brand, spiked with cloves and cinnamon.
Whatever the precise cultural origins of the food, the place sure looks like a backwoods bayou. Colorful murals abound, setting the scene with a Dixieland jazz group, storks strutting through a murky swamp, and my favorite, a full-size alligator creeping along the painted concrete floor. It's Pirates of the Caribbean in Tempe, the walls draped with fishing nets and mossy tree boughs. Each table has its own guardian voodoo doll. There's the requisite zydeco music (me-oh-my-oh ad nauseam), but thankfully, management keeps it at a pleasant background-noise level.
I'm hoping that the current Cajun/Creole trend will bring to the Valley some of its more high-flying dishes -- like trout marguery (in béchamel with fish stock and shrimp), wild dove in Madeira, duck with caramelized peaches or rabbit and oyster mushroom piquante. For the time being, Voodoo's alligator sauce piquante will tide me over. It's a good example of the "why bother" with alligator, disguised as it is in sausage form and partnered with mild andouille sausage. Do we know we're eating alligator? No. Do we feel cool telling our friends what we had for dinner? Sure. The sauce is the star on this plate, anyway. Here's one of the few times diners will want to taste before spicing -- Tabasco plays a key role, simmered with tomatoes, luscious pimento-stuffed green olives, celery, green pepper and onion. It's vinegary sweet, tart, slow-burning and sumptuous, spooned with long grain white rice. Nobody's going to go hungry, either, with sides of maque choux (kernel corn, tomato, onion and green pepper) and dirty rice (simmered with chicken giblets and green pepper).
Catfish courtbouillon also makes waiting easier. Currently, it's only available on Fridays, but hopefully Mondo will find it in his heart to cook it up every day. This version of the famous French dish substitutes dark brown roux (cooked flour and fat) for olive oil, then tosses in big chunks of meaty catfish, celery, tomato, onion, green pepper and lusty spices. After long, slow simmering, a bright orange, heady sauce emerges, good for dipping with Voodoo's unfortunately sodden garlic French bread.
Weak bread is a downfall of gumbo, too. We need a better vehicle for sopping the soupy seafood stew, stocked with large shrimp, crab, oysters, sausage bits and chopped veggies. The broth is satisfyingly robust on its own, but a few splashes of Pain and Suffering put it over the top.
Hot sauce is an absolute must for Voodoo's red beans and rice, however. The tooth-tender kidney beans cooked with onion and ham hock are fine. Andouille sausage and al dente white rice are fine. But fine loses its flair pretty quickly without the peppery bite. Jambalaya, too, benefits greatly from a dance with the sauce bottle. Usually, this is a more complex creation of ham, chopped vegetables, chicken, sausage, shrimp and tomato, but not here. The paella-like dish tastes mostly of cooked-down rice and tomato, with a few chunks of andouille and chicken thrown in.
There's nothing lacking in Voodoo's Thanksgiving bird, though. Acadians have an interesting way of treating turkey -- they like to deep fry it. It sounds as if it would be a greasy monstrosity, but when shucked of skin, the peanut oil process leaves the bird remarkably tender and juicy. Here, thick slices come with acceptable corn bread dressing and sadly unremarkable golden gravy. It's better as a hot po'boy, the Cajun version of a hero sandwich. The meal requires two hands and then some to handle the sturdy French bread canoe stuffed with white and dark meat turkey chunks, chopped onion and gravy. It's not your low-cal turkey sandwich, just a wickedly wonderful mushy mess.
Diners can order Cornish game hen deep fried, too, but why fiddle with an already wonderful poultry specimen? The Cajun-spiced half-hen is succulent when simply grilled after being marinated and butterflied.
Deep-fried flair shows up again with the seafood platter, thanks to a light hand with cornmeal. The catfish is delicious, light and moist. The four big shrimp are good, too, until a bite leaves a long string of vein. I'd pass on the oysters and frog legs, too. Too-strong, briny bivalves are slimy; frog legs are anorexic and mealy.
The same trouble occurs with oysters Bienville, named for the founder of New Orleans. The half-dozen critters look pretty on their bed of rock salt, but are frighteningly harsh under their dry topping of Parmesan and Italian breadcrumbs. And where is the Chardonnay, the whipping cream, the butter, the garlic, the diced vegetables that complete this classic dish?
All's okay with another popular New Orleans snack, the muffaletta sandwich (trivia -- it originated in the 1800s when Italian merchants working in New Orleans put broken olives from the bottom of barrels on round Italian bread known as "muffs"). The half size is more than enough for a meal, with soft focaccia stuffed with ham, salami and provolone. The magic comes from the olives, sliced black and pimento-stuffed green, slathered with olive oil. Grab a bunch of paper towels from the roll on your table -- you'll soon be glistening in oil, too.
A Cajun prime rib po'boy, unfortunately, doesn't make it. The kitchen only has medium-well meat on the day I order it, the spicing is nondescript and the unhappy beef is fatty. Accompanying remoulade sauce is disappointing, too, lacking most of the silky horseradish punch we grew to love at Baby Kay's. This is more like mildly spiced mayonnaise. The best part of the dish, actually, is the vinegary, peppery homemade potato chips served alongside.
For dessert, bread pudding's an authentic Louisiana sweet. Voodoo's tastes better than it looks, camouflaging moist raisin-studded confection, pecans and a high-octane whiskey sauce in a drab, beige package.
Even given Voodoo's better dishes, and despite the crocodilian caveats, it's inevitable diners are going to want to try alligator, I suppose. The best introduction, although pricey at $6.95 for four mid-size chunks, is Voodoo's alligator bites appetizer. Here's the chewy, fishy flesh in its pure form, masked only with a delightful cornmeal coat and tangy tartar sauce.
I expect the Valley will be welcoming even more New Orleans-style restaurants fairly soon. And when the kitchen is cranking, Voodoo Daddy's is a passable introduction to Cajun cooking. Just be ready to hit the hot sauce -- this gator's got no bite.
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