Walk into the new VooDoo Daddy’s Steam Kitchen, which opens this week in Tempe, and you’ll immediately understand part of the restaurant’s unique name. Order at the counter and take a seat while chefs prepare Cajun, Creole, and Caribbean-style dishes at individual steam kettles. Enjoy the jazz music, and take in the decor, like musical instruments on the wall. Glance above the open kitchen, which reveals the second half of the moniker.
“People think I’m VooDoo Daddy,” owner and founder Ron Lynch says, “but I’m not.”
VooDoo Daddy is actually the beloved gator depicted in the colorful mural Lynch had commissioned for the new restaurant. You can spot VooDoo and his friend VooDoo Bear, the protectors of jazz musicians and children in the mythical land of the VooDoo Bayou.
The tale is just part of the charm of the fast-casual eatery priding itself on flavorful “tastes like your mama made it, sit back and relax on your neighbor’s porch, won’t break the bank” food.
If you've never had Cajun food before or don't like a ton of spice, don't despair. Part of the steam kettle appeal is each dish's ability to be customized. Orders are flavored according to individual taste, and customers specify their preferred heat level from one to 10. Dishes are cooked to order in VooDoo's seafood stock — garlic, shallots, Creole seasoning, and "the Cajun Holy Trinity of onion, celery, and red and green peppers," Lynch says. The steam kettles have boilers underneath that keep the water hot and circulating through the kettles.
"If you don't like very much spice, then you just stay below three, and [the chefs] don't have to take it out of a precooked pot that's already seasoned," Lynch says. "Not everyone's the same, and you get to choose it the way you want it."
That "won't break the bank" part tracks. Prices range from $3 sides of Southern favorites like red beans and rice, fried okra, and hush puppies, to a blue catfish and shrimp platter at $12 — the most expensive dish on the menu. Of course, there are also Southern classics like jambalaya, gumbo, beignets, and six types of po'boy sandwiches (including a vegetarian one) on the menu.
"I grew up eating red beans and rice — it was one of the few things that my dad made well. He was going to college on the G.I. bill, he was going to school full time, and my mom was working, so he cooked,” Lynch says. “I love this kind of food. Red beans and rice are still one of my favorites."
Along with eats are freshly brewed iced teas, cold brew coffee, beer. There are also adult beverages: white, red, and sweet porch wine, plus sangria.
"Porch wine in the deep South is a term they use meaning, 'Anything I got in the refrigerator that's really cold, we'll go out on the porch and drink it, because it's real hot and steamy,'" Lynch says.
And don't forget about the shrimp and grits.
"I'll put our grits up against anybody," Lynch says, "A lot of people have a prejudice against grits, because a lot of times, their first experience with grits is that they're bland." Good thing Lynch has the solution. "You've got to season them with salt and pepper, hot sauce, and a little butter. Lots of flavor."
The former Oklahoma resident is no stranger to the restaurant scene. He's spent more than 25 years in the business. Starting in 2005, Lynch grew the Tilted Kilt restaurant concept from just one location to over 100 in the U.S. and Canada. He also opened north of 100 Schlotzsky's Delis in multiple states, including Arizona.
"The Tilted Kilt restaurants were an experiential restaurant ... you go there to watch the games, the atmosphere, the big bar," Lynch says. "This restaurant, our appeal is to the flavor-cravers. In other words, it's to the people who are wanting a different dining experience ... There's not hardly any place serving this kind of food and especially on a fast-casual basis."
VooDoo Daddy’s is now the only project Lynch is currently working on; he has plans for the restaurant to cater and partner with delivery services like GrubHub and DoorDash in coming months. He's also open to expanding the VooDoo Daddy's concept around the Valley.
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VooDoo Daddy's has been open for the past few weeks, but the restaurant's official grand opening is Thursday, May 16, at 11 a.m. That day, a portion of the proceeds will go to the Tempe Diablos, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit that donated $900,000 to Tempe-area charities in 2018.
Lynch knows his family would be happy to know their family food traditions are living on and being enjoyed by a new generation of diners.
"While my dad was still alive, we had a favorite place that served Cajun food, full service though, and he'd say, 'Hey, you want to go get red beans and rice?'" Lynch says, "That was one of his favorite things to do, so I'm doing it now."
VooDoo Daddy's Steam Kitchen. 1325 West Elliot Road, #106, Tempe; 480-659-6145. Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.