Cafe Reviews

Gator Raid

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).

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet