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Bye-Bye Bourbon Street 

Cajun Pacific

Wednesday, Oct 25 2000
When I first visited New Orleans back in 1987 I got a horrible sunburn and then I got mugged. Since then I've been back five times. There's no escaping New Orleans' enveloping tenacity; it imprints itself on you. Luckily, there are recourses available to the marooned Californian. I myself throw shrimp boil parties. I go to the no name bar for the Ramos Fizzes and the Elite in late spring for the freshly shipped crawfish. I rent The Cincinnati Kid, look at old photos, leaf through cookbooks, listen to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. But the only way to get it -- the heavy, sensual air, the easy outlook, the languid patois -- is to get yourself down to New Orleans itself just as soon as your circumstances allow you to.

It's a unique, wicker-and-ceiling-fan sort of place, lazy as a cat's stretch, a tropical city of carnivals and siestas. It's almost as though the Louisiana Purchase took hold just north of Lake Pontchartrain, transforming the Mississippi Valley into America's heartland in the process, but through some meteorological phenomenon a pocket of damp, warm, sweet air separated south Louisiana from the rest of the package, preserving the best parts of every visitor and fermenting all the scraps into such happy amalgams as jazz, gumbo, and jambalaya. Take three centuries of French-African kitchen acumen, the Spanish delight in peppers and rice, and the city's superior geopolitical location at the Mississippi's Gulf Coast terminus, and you have New Orleans' long-standing predominance as the greatest city in the country for getting something to eat.

The culinary factor of New Orleans is tied so closely to the landscape that it doesn't travel well beyond Louisiana's borders. Like San Francisco sourdough, New Orleans cuisine seems to require the encompassing atmosphere in which it was nurtured to properly flourish. The only really good New Orleans cooking I've had outside the state boundaries was at Heaven on Seven in downtown Chicago, and the only reason I can come up with for that anomaly is the Mississippi lifeline that has linked the two cities since time immemorial. Even in Chicago the red beans weren't quite earthy enough, the gumbo wasn't quite bedeviling enough, the bread pudding wasn't quite silky enough.

Part of the reason for the lack of good Louisiana cooking hereabouts is California's blanket obsession with physical health, a concept more or less disdained in the city of salt, powdered sugar, and burbling vats of beef tallow. Also, with only a few New Orleans-style eateries on the local scene and a corresponding vacuum of healthy competition, you don't see the kind of qualitative growth you would with, say, a new Thai place.

Cajun Pacific exemplifies the caveats mentioned above, but it offers enough of an authentic experience to make a drop-in agreeably different. As befits its name it's located only a block or two from the cool, gray Pacific -- antipode to the funky Father of Waters, the Mississippi -- in an usually foggy stretch of the extreme Outer Sunset a stone's throw from the Golden Gate Park windmills. The restaurant's outside is painted in the bright pastels of the French Quarter, with an adjoining mural depicting a Mardi Gras parade en route to the Golden Gate Bridge. The inside is as disarmingly tiny, hot, and ramshackle as a dive in New Orleans' Ninth Ward neighborhood, with six tables crowded among an impressive array of brightly plumed Carnival hats and masks, Mardi Gras beads in the traditional colors (purple, green, and gold), chili-pepper lighting, a stuffed alligator hanging midsnap from the ceiling, and a poster of Marie Laveau, the 19th-century voodoo priestess whose tomb in St. Louis Cemetery Number One still attracts daily offerings from the faithful. Half of the tables are decorated with Times-Picayune newspaper clippings, Crescent City business cards, and apropos snapshots. And just like on Bourbon Street, when the door swings open a blast of rollicking music and good smells envelops the sidewalk.

The food doesn't often live up to the setting. Crawfish may be the outstanding culinary ingredient of south Louisiana cookery, but you wouldn't know it from the crawfish beignets served here: Dense, ponderous, and a far cry from the artery-clogging delights usually served sans crustacean, these quasi-crullers gain nothing from the amazingly taste-free meat ribboning the final product. The (admittedly out-of-season) crawfish is equally unprepossessing in the house jambalaya, but the rice here is fluffy and suffused with good, complex flavors, and its co-star -- andouille sausage -- is smoky, snappy, and sweet as a moonlit bayou. Crawfish finally regains its good standing in crawfish Monica, a big platter of al dente penne swimming in a luxurious, peppery sauce studded with scallions and the sweet, firm critter of the title: New Orleans in delicious microcosm.

Gumbo is Louisiana's signature dish, a distant descendant of bouillabaisse that in its multicultural complexity exemplifies the striking/subtle dichotomy of the local cuisine, but Cajun Pacific's version is watery and bland with a burnt taste beneath and a notable shortage of abundance. Abundance -- the crux of New Orleans cooking, in which bowls and platters brim with temptation and everything could use a little more cream -- is lost on this menu. The po'boy, New Orleans' contribution to the sandwich kingdom, is a traditionally unmanageable behemoth dripping with fried oysters, deboned pork chops, and catfish. Cajun Pacific's Da Bomb not only employs a Wonder bread-level sweet roll, but its advertised filling of barbecued shrimp and catfish is meager at best. Another po'boy, the seasonal grilled vegetable, is a decided improvement: Smoky, chili oil-marinated zucchini, butternut squash, and eggplant are cushioned with a sweet onion confit. The aforementioned deep, spicy andouille stars in the Louis XIV po'boy, a marvelous convocation of sausage, sweetly caramelized Vidalia onions, and a rich, warm chipotle aioli. Andouille also shores up the red beans and rice, an otherwise insipid platter of boiled protein boasting no discernible culinary depth, let alone onions or garlic. The stuffed pork chop emerges tough and overcooked, its sweet potato gravy a mere rumor and its doughy oyster-tasso ham stuffing tasting neither of oysters nor of tasso.

The dessert menu features a dense, dark, and delicious sweet potato pie, a pecan pie underburdened with pecans but buttery and irresistible nonetheless (there's a disarming hint of chocolate in the filling, but what's with the salty crust?), a light and lovely peach cobbler with, again, not enough peaches to its name, and perhaps the best bread pudding I've ever tasted: a creamy, buttery exemplar of comfort-food opulence edged in burnt sugar and chocolate. Cajun Pacific may not have the prototype down pat, but it offers up an occasional Pacific-refracted inkling that's especially valuable if you know what it means to miss New Orleans.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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