Not All Gumbos Are Created Equal

To eat Seattle’s best Creole and Cajun food, shop around.

New Orleans seems as much an idea as a place these days: Three years after Katrina, the city is still two-thirds its pre-hurricane size, and almost 100,000 former residents--along with tens of thousands of people from outlying cities and towns--have dispersed around the country, probably for good.New Orleans restaurants here seem as much an idea as a place, too. There are a couple of restaurants devoted exclusively to Cajun and Creole cuisines, with wildly varying success, as well as upscale restaurants like Sazerac and Steelhead that have an overt Louisiana tinge. Adding to their number, a few Louisiana expats, some of them longtime Seattleites and others post-Katrina arrivals, have recently opened three new restaurants in Seattle.Tiny King Creole Louisiana Gumbo and Barbecue, which opened up on Cherry Street and 30th Avenue two months ago, deserves credit for specializing in just two things: smoked meat and gumbo. The barbecue I've tried hasn't had enough swagger or bite to grab me, but I've been back a few times now for option number two.Owner Kinzie Saulk has been working in Creole restaurants here for more than a decade, and selling his gumbo around town for 10 years. In fact three years ago he began shipping it all over the country, but he temporarily shut down mail-order sales to get King Creole's storefront space running. (He's built a production and shipping area in back.) Served in paper tubs over white rice, to be savored at the tiny brick restaurant's window counter with the finest of plastic cutlery, King Creole's Darjeeling-brown gumbos are based on a deep, rich roux, the flour and fat toasted slowly over the heat to eke out their nuttiest flavors. The peppery chicken and sausage gumbo, chunky with enough aromatics and herbs to bolster the flavor of the meat, is the more straightforward of the two. The crab and shrimp gumbo is something even finer: Threads of crab flesh and forever-braised prawns are suspended in the thick soup, giving their particular crustacean sweetness to the flavor and teasing out the oddly appealing pine and clove notes of the filé powder added at the end to thicken the gumbo. There are slices of beef sausage, too, just spicy enough to make you aim for a clump of rice on your next bite. It's not quite the same stew each time you lift spoon to mouth.At the festively decorated Marcela's Cookery in Pioneer Square, Marcela Fuenzalida and Anthony McDonald, who moved here after the hurricane, serve a full menu of Cajun and Creole specialties. (Full disclosure: Seattle Weekly's production manager, Claudia Johns, is Fuenzalida's sister.) I haven't been captivated by the restaurant's gumbo—nor its jambalaya or red beans and rice—but Marcela's makes Seattle's best muffuletta, the sandwich invented by Italian grocers in the French Quarter a century ago. The album-sized bread rounds, cut in quarters or halves depending on how much you can down in one sitting, are a tad dense for their contents, but they're stuffed with that great mix of cured meats, provolone, and a kicky green-olive relish. And Marcela's oyster and shrimp sandwiches provide the three things a man wants from a po'boy: soft white bread, crunchy fried shellfish, and more mayo than you'd dare spread on yourself.I wasn't sure what to make of Skyway's A Taste of Louisiana the first time I visited. That night the strip-mall casino next door had filled the parking lot with cars and people; there were an awful lot of gamblers standing around the periphery, staring us down as we walked to the door, and the basilisk-eyed woman at the counter that night seemed to be having a very bad day. More critical, despite Taste of Louisiana's logo—a giant smiling crayfish wearing a chef's toque—there were no crawdads on the menu (I spotted a shrimp-crawfish pasta on the board on a later visit). In fact, the food, which changes daily according to a printed schedule, is mainly straight-up Southern: fried chicken and catfish, black-eyed peas, potato salad.But oh, do the cooks know what to do with a Fryolator. Out of the fat vat comes tender chicken meat, shiny with juices, wrapped in a wrinkled golden crust; catfish fillets pulled from the oil just as their cornmeal coating forms a papery golden shell and while the flesh is still too moist to flake; crisp breaded oysters with sea-custard flesh to stuff an oyster po'boy. The sides—creamy mustard-doped potato salad and invisibly meaty red beans served with gravy-bedecked rice—are just as good.For Creole food, you have to come back for Friday lunch, when both gumbo and jambalaya make the day's menu. With its barely browned roux and less-balanced mix of chicken, sausage, and shrimp, Taste of Louisiana's gumbo can't rival the ones from King Creole. But the shrimp jambalaya may be the highlight of your week. Owner Iran Alexander Jr., who has been in Seattle for two decades, comes from New Iberia, La., and he still has the native's touch. The rice, tomato-red and a little al dente, is threaded through with onions, celery, and plump butterflied prawns, and you can tell that behind that big tomato tanginess and the aromatic vegetables is a concentrated dose of shrimp stock.The jambalaya was certainly the best thing I put in my mouth that week. I'd distract myself for a few minutes by chipping away at the scoop of peach cobbler that came with every lunch entree, then return to the rice like a lovestruck fool who'd almost forgotten how beautiful his date was while he was at work.During the day, the restaurant turned out to be a haven for NOLA expats. Dim giants embraced on the big-screen TV, but the soap opera's volume was turned off to make room for the rolling discussion. Customers came in, ordered, sat down, and joined the conversation in the room while they waited for their food. The election came up, of course. Education in Louisiana versus Washington. The value of raising your children with strong ethics no matter where you are.Before that second drive to Skyway, I had been playing with the idea that I could put together Seattle's best Louisiana restaurant if I approached it as a virtual enterprise—driving around town to pick up gumbo from one spot, po'boys from another, and catfish and jambalaya from a third. But A Taste of Louisiana's customers reminded me: There's no surrogate for a sense of place.PRICE CHECK

King Creole

  Crab and shrimp gumbo $11.95

  Chicken gumbo $10.95

Marcela's

  Muffuletta  $8.50 for 1/4

  Oyster po'boy $11.50

  Shrimp po'boy $9.95

A Taste of Louisiana

  Jambalaya $9.50

  Oyster po'boy $7.50

  3-piece fried catfish $5.25 jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus