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 rmoulade: 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 rmoulade. 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 touffe (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 touffe 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.
In contrast to Baby Kay's smooth operation is the down-home funkiness of Cafe Creole. About four years old, this place is furnished in the style known as early Cajun poverty. The booths and seats are held together with gray duct tape. Cases of beer are stacked in the open. The walls are plastered with Cajun posters, sports memorabilia, pages of coloring books, beads and gimcracks.
Here, the patrons talk noisily and raucously, occasionally getting up to twirl to loud zydeco melodies. This is not the place for lingering romantic gazes or to whisper sweet nothings in your baby's ear. The night we dropped by, three gals at the bar were scouring the room and jokingly asked the female barkeep where she hid the cute guys.
Service at Baby Kay's was efficient and respectful: lots of "Yes, sirs" from the waiter and new cutlery for every course. At Cafe Creole, it's strictly casual. Here, a fast-moving waitress called us "Honey," stopped to chat and ordered us to hang on to our silverware after each course. She also brought a frayed guest book for us to sign and dropped off a house salad, gratis.
The open cooking area here is not the work of some Ph.D. in restaurant design, but a messy, busy work station. I enjoyed watching the chef scurry around, glad that it wasn't me.
We edged into the bayou cuisine with shrimp gabrielle. You literally have to troll for the seven big, boiled shrimp-in-the-shell in an ocean of wine-and-butter sauce. They're incredibly tasty, but the accompanying bread was too light to hold the liquid, turning immediately into a soggy glop. The main dishes could take care of a longshoreman's appetite. Cafe Creole's crawfish-touffe platter is huge and luscious. There are so many crawfish and so much sauce that the mound of rice is almost completely submerged, like a North Atlantic iceberg. For my taste, the trip these crawfish took from the bayou was the most valuable departure from a body of water since Richard Nixon left the Potomac.
The fried-catfish platter will not remind you of spa cuisine. It's just basic good eating. Five big strips of cornmeal-battered catfish came thick and crunchy outside, tender and flavorful inside. No adornment except tartar sauce and a few lemon slices on the side. The menu promised hushpuppies, but Cafe Creole no longer makes them. Our waitress explained that too many patrons had been leaving the deep-fried morsels of cornmeal, eggs, pork lard and Cajun spices untouched on their plates. These people should be sentenced to a year of nuts, berries and Barry Manilow tapes. The restaurant dishes out French fries instead. Cafe Creole also fixes some nifty side dishes. The homemade coleslaw, fashioned out of thick-cut red cabbage, was a nice surprise. The red beans and rice had a peppery clout. Jambalaya, one of my favorite dishes, demonstrates why most of the earth's population prefers rice as its starch. The gumbo here, unlike Baby Kay's, came seasoned with okra as well as some strong, smoky sausage. At $2.25 for a somewhat smaller portion than Baby Kay's, it's not a bad deal. (Otherwise, though, the two restaurants price their dishes almost identically.) For dessert, we went straight for the pecan pie and bread pudding. The pecan pie, which came out of the refrigerator ice-cold, fork-resistant and flavor-numbed, was okay once we let it reach room temperature. The bread pudding, flecked with raisins, was very dense, and came with a healthy dose of whiskey sauce that seemed about 80 proof, as heavy on the whiskey as on the sugar.
It was getting on toward closing time as we finished up and sipped our chicory coffee. A few of the chef's buddies wandered in and sat down for a few beers. A few minutes later the chef joined them, bringing over a huge platter of boiled, unpeeled crawfish and corn, with a big plastic tub for the refuse. As we left, the owner thanked us for coming and said goodbye, as she did for every departing patron that evening. The grunts of happy diners and the thud of crawfish shells and corn cobs echoed behind us. It was a pleasing sound.
ONE BRUTAL NIGHT IN WEST PHOENIX WHEN IT... v5-13-92
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.