Come to mama

A Louisiana family spices up Portage Bay.

ITS WATERWAYS notwithstanding, Seattle's Portage Bay neighborhood could not feel less like the Louisiana bayou. No snapping 'gators, no buzzing mosquitoes, no soaking humidity. Retired Microsoft execs where the draping moss ought to be. No country store purveying boudin of uncertain origin; just the tidy little Canal Market keeping yuppies in microbrews. But right next to that . . . another story entirely. Mudbugs at the Bayou Creole Kitchen

2917 Fuhrman E, 329-0988

takeout dinners Wed-Sat 5-8pm; private dining and catering by appt.

no credit cards; no alcohol "Heah sweetheart, take a li'l bite-a this. That OK?" The woman emerged from behind the lace curtain, spoon outstretched. "Gumbo I made yesterday. Chicken and sausage and shrimp." Big slurpy bite. Oh, lawdy . . . oh yes ma'am, I do believe I can call that OK! Flavors so deep and complex they beggared description. Spices and seasoned meats combining to form a gentle ring of fire around my palate. Flavors so distinct even the rice held its own beneath the murky roux. Shellfish so tender and bursting with juice it could have been gummed by a baby. And an accent so thick you could cut it with a knife. "Ya like that, sweetheart? That gonna work foah ya?" asked Monica Spooner, mama of the operation they call Mudbugs at the Bayou. "Lemme go spoon y'up a plate." Mudbugs is in fact the enterprise of Monica's daughter, Marisa Spooner-LeDuff, but on any given day either mother or daughter might be found stirring the bubbling pots behind the lace curtain. And there might be a good many of those bubbling pots, for the two-year-old Mudbugs is primarily a catering enterprise, and a burgeoning one at that. "Y'all'll have to forgive the delay today, we'ah doin' a pahty of 250 this evenin' and my granddaughter's in a play this aftanoon," Monica called out from the kitchen as I waited for my takeout. Takeout is Mudbugs' sideline, since the Portage Bay space they lease isn't licensed as a restaurant. But parties of 2 to 22 can call ahead and Marisa and Monica will set up a table. Not a bad option, I thought as I looked around the place. This may be Portage Bay, but when you're at Mudbugs you're in someone's charming Creole parlor, where lace spills off every antique table and the pots on the wall look like they've seen the inside of a century's worth of blackened ovens. As I waited I sank into a comfortable couch and watched Marisa's 8-year-old daughter Makena practice her part for her grandmother. Like I said, someone's charming Creole parlor. "OK, I think we'ah all set heah," trilled Monica, flinging back the lace curtain to waft all kinds of extraordinary kitchen smells my way, arms overflowing with styrofoam boxes. "Lemme just carry these out to yoah cah foah ya, honey," she sang as she teetered out the door. AND HERE IS what those boxes contained: Shrimp Creole, here called "Make Ya Wanna Hollah Creole Tomato Sauce with Prawns" ($9.95 ࠬa carte with salad, $11.95 as a "Suppah Plate" with a side dish and cornbread), was a sparkling version of the New Orleans classic; its tomato sauce at once light and substantial, studded with a heap of shrimp and served over that sensational rice. (Turns out it's basmati, a long-grain variant with exceptional flavor and almost flaky texture.) Shrimp 鴯uf饠($11.95 ࠬa carte, $13.95 for a meal)—oops, I mean "Make Y'all Say New Awlins, Not N'Awlins and Certainly Not New Orleans ɴouf饢—is a cousin to shrimp Creole but darker and fuller, with richer seasonings and a deeper thrum. The Spooner version released its splendors slowly and generously from the first bite, adding up to a complexity that I would rate just about perfect. Once again the shrimp had been cooked with ideal restraint; once again the rice beneath the stew was flavor-rich. Alongside (we ordered the full "suppah") were mashed yams, a sweetly straightforward foil for the savory intrigue of the main dish, and a serving of saut饤 cabbage, a lovely hot and wilted dish replete with peppers and Creole herbs. All dishes come with irresistible little mini-muffins of sweet cornbread that are brown and crunchy along the edges. "Make Ya Thank the Lawd" red beans and rice ($7.95 ࠬa carte, $9.95 for a meal) was solid; we had ordered it with gourmet sausage ($3 extra), which added significantly to the flavor of the dish. A child's serving of macaroni and cheese ($3.50) was similarly unremarkable, though perfectly eatable. (We did not enjoy the child's serving of chicken strips, $4.99, which were overcooked and seasoned haphazardly.) A dish called "Feels Like Mardi Gras Grits and Grillades" ($10.95 ࠬa carte, $12.95 for a meal) broadened our horizons; though it's a mainstay of New Orleans breakfast menus, I'd never tried it before. Over a pool of creamy grits came slices of peppery beef smothered in a pool of roux-based beef gravy. The sparkle of this dish comes from the interplay of the bland, smooth grits with kicky beef; it was great fun to eat. So was the catfish ($9.99 for the meal), which was delicately seasoned in lemon-pepper cornmeal and lightly fried, then served over dirty rice. The latter will not be to every Seattleite's taste—the concept of rice seasoned with all manner of chicken innards is perhaps too Louisianan to bear—but hardened meat-eaters should have no problem loving it. SANDWICHES were terrific, too. Saut饤 chicken with peppers, onions, and garlic ($6.75); prawns with Creole herbs, lettuce, and tomato ($7.95); or plump fried oysters with mustard and a heady dose of garlic are all served up on crusty baguettes with Tim's jalape�otato chips and plenty of napkins. Better still was the Spooner jambalaya ($11.75 ࠬa carte, $13.75 for a meal), which we sampled on two visits and found enchanting both times. Shrimp and sausage both showed up in this version, which was so entirely redolent of the sausage it was like the dish had been plucked whole from a pig. It was quite spicy, but not spicy enough for some of us around our table. For my money it was just right; I like it when my fire offers more light than heat. Light, indeed: Because Mudbugs' food is so sure-handedly seasoned, nearly everything we tried shone. Monica Spooner's mother, Marisa's grandmother, was known in '60s-era New Orleans as "The Dinner Bucket." Once every couple of months she'd open her home for $5-a-plate dinners and draw a crowd. Clearly her progeny have inherited the family gift. (Though perhaps not the family thrift; you'll note that prices charged by the Spooner women have escalated rather alarmingly since those days.) The only other flaw is the flip side of Mudbugs' folksy charm: an utterly seat-of-the-pants operational style. Place an order for a pickup at 6pm and you're likely to get a phone call at 5:15 saying they're all out of bread today and wouldn't you rather have a nice plate of jambalaya anyway and would 7:30 be OK? It's your call, of course—but you'd be a fool to say no.

 
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