First appeared in Coastal Lifestyle Magazine
A different world exists in the Cajun country of South Louisiana. Lafayette, a city of 120.000, and about a two-and-half-hour drive from New Orleans has caught up with the Big Easy on culinary allure, showcasing exotic foods with distinctive French flavors.
Chefs and business entrepreneurs have returned home to their Acadian culture, embracing it and finding others are doing the same.
If planning a vacation or just a weekend getaway, Lafayette, Louisiana is the place to go, as it offers the amenities and luxuries found in major cities, but the atmosphere is more relaxed, and the folks could not be friendlier.
Numerous music clubs feature homegrown talent, including both traditional and contemporary Cajun and Zydeco performers. Two popular festivals, Festival International de Louisiane in April and Festivals Acadiens in October, draw many thousands of visitors to town and anchor a calendar year full of celebrations of the area’s vibrant culture.
I was invited by VisitLafayette on a gastronomic journey that began at Tsunami Sushi. Owner Leigh Simon, who spent more than 20 years in New York and Los Angeles, returned home in 2000 to open the sushi eatery with sister Michelle Ezell to rave reviews. Winning awards consistently each year since, try the Father Calais Roll made with tuna, salmon, crab, masago, avocado, and cucumber. You will be praying for more.
Next I toured Randol’s Restaurant & Cajun Dance Hall that passed with flying colors. Locally owned and operated for more than 40 years, and deeply rooted in the values and traditions of Cajun culture, there are no strangers on the dance floor. Kick up your heels and indulge in the steamed crabs or crawfish with fresh potatoes, onions, and corn.
Start your morning off like our crew did at The French Press, where the locals gather in a renovated print shop. Embracing the new food movement, owners Justin and Margaret Girouard returned to Lafayette after Justin’s stints at Stella! in the French Quarter and Provence, France. Justin’s in the kitchen and Margaret is running the front of the house with menu favorites like the Sweet Baby Breesus— buttermilk biscuit sliders with bacon, fried boudin balls, and Steen’s cane syrup from Abbeville. Absolutely sinful!
Take time to digest all that Lafayette has to offer by visiting the Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center and Vermillionville, where I discovered the story of the Acadian (Cajun) people who settled the prairies, bayous, and marshes of southeast Louisiana. You will not want to miss the moving film detailing the deportation of the Acadians from Nova Scotia and their arrival (and survival) in South Louisiana.
Situated on 22 acres near the Vermilion River, Vermillionville provides a living history lesson, with an Acadian town, complete with a Creole plantation home, cotton gin, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, chapel, and more. Workers dress in authentic period costumes giving demonstrations of Acadian life and crafts, along with daily lectures and storytelling sessions.
Boudin, a spicy poached pork sausage, can be found most everywhere, and on The Cajun Boudin Trail. Focus on nearby Scott, Louisiana, where on April 12, 2012, Scott was designated by the State Legislature of Louisiana as the “Boudin Capital of the World”, producing more Boudin per-capita than any other place in the state. Our group tried The Best Stop and Don’s Specialty Meats, and they did not disappoint.
We washed down all that smoky goodness with a pint of Bayou Teche Brewing’s LA-31 Bière Pâle ale made by brewers so devoted to their Acadian background that local organizations promote Creole culture which is listed on every bottle. The Knott brothers founded the brewery to compliment the cuisine and lifestyle of Cajuns and Creoles.
“Be real and Eat good” is the motto at the elevated gastropub Social Southern Table & Bar. Chef Marc Krampe and his staff have put their own twist on Southern favorites offering an eclectic menu. Krampe studied at Le Cordon Bleu prior to working his way up in the Austin restaurant scene before returning to Lafayette and adding to the evolving culinary community. I devoured the smoke fried chicken with foie gras biscuits and drizzle of ghost pepper infused honey.
Next up was tapas and cocktails at Pamplona where racks of artisanal bitters and house made tonics and syrups are perched behind the bar, and an ample variety of beers and spirits are available. Head bartender James Waise says, “It’s a progressive traditional cocktail bar. We have more than 80 original cocktails, make our tonics form scratch, squeeze our fresh juice and carbonate our own soda water.” I sipped on a White Manhattan with un-aged whiskey and white sweet vermouth.
St. John’s Cathedral Oak was the perfect spot to rest and take in the beauty of The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist: On the National Registry of Historic Properties and dating back to 1916, the cathedral is a superb example of Dutch Romanesque architecture with massive brick walls, graceful arches, delicate red and white brickwork, and turrets flanking the octagonal steeple, from which the bells toll each hour.
Make sure to make reservations for dinner at Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro featuring the culinary stylings of Executive Chef Manny Augello. Jolie’s get its name from the painting titled “Jolie Blonde” (Pretty Blonde) by world-renowned Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue, and is owned by George’s two sons, Andre and Jacque, along with Steve and Suzi Sabntillo. Jolie’s offers an eclectic Creole menu featuring fresh, local, seasonal Louisiana ingredients harvested weekly by local farmers and food artisans. Our table shared the Roasted Bone Marrow appetizer followed by the Zapp’s Crusted Crawtator Louisiana Drum with crawfish cream sauce.
Don’t leave town without rolling up your sleeves for some finger licking food at Johnson’s Boucanière, a Cajun French word meaning “smoke house.” This was one of my favorite spots on the tour!
In Eunice, Louisiana in the 1940s, the Johnson family became famous for their smoked sausages and boudin, but luckily brought their skills and time-honored smokehouse artistic devotion from the Cajun Prairie to Lafayette. Nosh on slow-smoked country-style ribs and jambalaya while enjoying the wonderful stories from local legend, Wallace Johnson. This place will have you clamoring for the Parrain Special- grilled cheese stuffed with a fried boudin ball that is smashed and covered with house made bbq sauce and placed between two slices of American cheese on an Evangeline Maid bun.
With an invigorating restaurant scene, chefs adapting traditional dishes into edible art, and communities supporting local farmers and food producers, you’d be wise to extend your stay when traveling to Lafayette. First-time travelers rarely allow enough time to take in the region’s treasures, but do plan to bring an ice chest if possible, as you will want to take some of Lafayette home with you.
Eat & Do:
Randol’s Restaurant & Cajun Dancehall
The French Press
Jean Lafitte National Park Acadian Cultural Center
Bayou Teche Brewing
Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro
Social Southern Table & Bar
Pamplona Tapas Bar & Restaurant
The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist
The Cajun Boudin Trail
Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission