Note: After 24 years of serving Albuquerque in two locations, the Cajun Kitchen closed its doors on Friday, March 11, 2011. On a notice in the menu, the Hebert family wrote, “It has been a privilege serving the Albuquerque community and have been equally blessed by the support of those who have graced our tables making the restaurant the institution it has become.”
When we moved back to Albuquerque in 1995 after eight years of living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we begrudgingly accepted the fact that in New Mexico, we would never experience the type and quality of Cajun and Creole cuisine with which we had fallen head-over-heels in love. Our taste buds, we thought, would be deprived of the very lively, very colorful and very varied rustic cuisine characterized by the use of the “holy trinity” (bell pepper, onion and celery), just-off-the-boat seafood, spicy sausage and perfectly prepared rice. Where, we wondered would we receive our meals with the “laissez bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll) attitude so prevalent in the Deep South?
Obviously we didn’t know about the Cajun Kitchen, where Duke City diners have been getting their Cajun and Creole cooking fix for nearly a quarter of a century. In that time, several usurpers–including chains–have come and gone. The Cajun Kitchen is the real deal, an unpretentious and authentic, straight-forward purveyor of Cajun and Creole cuisine as well made as it can probably be done in Albuquerque, especially considering the distance to the Gulf and to seaside suppliers. This should not be interpreted in any way that the Cajun Kitchen is some sort of “consolation prize.” It is a very good restaurant with a loyal following that includes many other Gulf Coast transplants who recognize and love its food.
The Cajun Kitchen is 1,162 miles from New Orleans, 1,082 miles from Baton Rouge and 918 miles from Natchitoches. How do I know this? Similar to the iconic signpost from the television series MASH, the walls on the kitchen at Albuquerque’s Cajun Kitchen are adorned with signs indicating the distance to those three Louisiana bastions of Cajun and Creole cuisine. Greatness of distance to Cajun country does not mean greatness of distance to good Cajun food in Albuquerque.
The Cajun Kitchen is festooned in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). One wall is bespangled with expressions of “Fat Tuesday” celebrations: multi-colored beads and bangles, Mardi Gras masks and more. Some of the green comes in the form of a large mural depicting a bayou swamp replete with a large alligator and other fauna and flora indigenous to the bog. The gator’s mouth is open wide, a mere foot or so away from the open kitchen.
Yet another wall (pictured below) lists the lexicon of Louisiana–po-boys, French Market, krew, Hebert (the family name of the restaurant’s owners) and more along with pronunciations for some of the words not widely spoken outside of the deep south. Immediately above this dictionary are some of the trappings of the Mississippi Gulf Coast fisherman, the life’s blood of Cajun and Creole cuisine. A painting of Louisiana manor named Lemeuse takes up much of the easternmost wall.
While all the symbolism is reflective of the Cajun culture and life in Louisiana, nothing shouts Cajun louder than the restaurant’s food. It’s the food that tugs most at our heart strings. It’s the food that brings us back. The Cajun Kitchen’s menu is hardly a compendium of all the great foods showcased on the menus in the great restaurants of New Orleans. Instead, it focuses on a select few familiar offerings, those entrees that even those barely conversant in Cajun would recognize.
Most would recognize gumbo–if not the dish, certainly the word which is actually a corruption of the African name for okra. Okra is only one of the vegetables on traditional gumbo where it shares the stage with the aforementioned holy trinity of vegetables (celery, bell peppers and onion). The strength of the Cajun Kitchen’s gumbo is its roux, a thickening agent made from flour and fat (perhaps clarified butter). Gumbo options include seafood (fish, shrimp and scallops) and crawfish, both of which are quite good. This is a flavorful, full-bodied soup!
Cajun Kitchen starters include seasoned Cajun fries which are much better than the flaccid fries most restaurants serve–so good, in fact, they’re starting to catch on in other restaurants. As good as the crispy seasoned fries (coated in Cajun seasonings) are, most diners will start off with a crawfish basket, an oyster basket or a shrimp basket, all three of which feature fried, delicately breaded seafood. The popcorn crawfish tend to be the most fresh, with the surprising sweetness crawfish tend to have. All are served with traditional cocktail sauce, but are better with the “po’boy sauce,” a sweet, tangy orange marmalade sauce that contrasts nicely with the briny seafood taste. It goes without saying that the well-dressed oyster po’boy should have plenty of that po’boy sauce.
Better yet, if fried seafood is what you crave, order the large combo platter and you’ll be treated to a fisherman’s fried dream: Louisiana style oysters, crawfish tail meat, catfish, and shrimp. Because these treasures of the sea are lightly battered, it’s their native flavors that will captivate you, not some thick coating which masks those flavors. In all honesty, it’s with the fried seafood where you can most tell you’re not on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where it’s not uncommon to partake of freshly caught, just-off-the-boat seafood treasures. Oysters, in particular, are best when that fresh and when you’ve had these pearlescent gems just plucked out of the water, you’ll notice the difference. From among the large combo platter, the catfish stands out. In Mississippi, we lived in the catfish capital of the world and will attest to Cajun Kitchen’s preparation of catfish being some of the best we’ve had anywhere–and certainly the best we’ve had in New Mexico…by far.
The fried seafood entrees are served with your choice of red beans and rice or seasoned fries. The red beans and rice, with or without sausage (and it would be a sin not to have the sausage), are in a class of their own in the Duke City. This Louisiana Creole dish, traditionally served on Mondays is good seven days a week (although the Cajun Kitchen is only open Monday through Friday). Red beans and rice get their kick from cayenne pepper, but their flavor from the holy trinity as well as smoky Andouille sausage. By the way, at the Cajun Kitchen, all the wait staff can pronounce Andouille correctly which is always a good sign.
It’s because we love the fried catfish so much that the entree I’ve had most often is catfish smothered in crawfish etouffee, an absolutely stunning dish brimming in the rich, flavorful spices that make Cajun cooking so popular. The basis for the Cajun Kitchen’s etouffee, a French word for “smother” is a thick, well-seasoned tomato sauce served over perfectly prepared white rice. The sauce wholly dissimilar to the tomato sauces used in Italian cooking. It’s redolent with the fragrance of the holy trinity and the olfactory-arousing seasonings so prevalent in Cajun cooking.
Another saucy and spicy offering New Mexicans will appreciate is the restaurant’s chicken sauce piquant, two fried chicken breasts in a very hot and spicy sauce made with jalapeños and cayenne peppers simmered in a tomato roux. Hot and spicy Cajun style isn’t synonymous with hot and spicy New Mexico style. Anyone who’s had Tabasco sauce can attest to the zesty heat the capsaicin-rich cayenne can generate, but it wouldn’t, for example, be very good on enchiladas. What cayenne does is invigorate acidic-based sauces such as the tomato roux used on this dish. The fried chicken is terrific, as good as any fried chicken in town. It’s lightly breaded, moist and delicious.
On the “Personal Favorites!” section of the menu is a delightful surprise for diners who like flavor combinations. It’s blackened salmon chipotle, salmon lightly glazed with raspberry chipotle and served on a bed of herbed rice and red beans and sausage. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, blackened entrees are de rigueur, but not many restaurants blacken salmon. Give the Cajun Kitchen an “A” for originality and high marks for execution, too. This entree is surprisingly good with a flavor profile that includes piquant, savory, sweet, smoky and tangy combinations.
A highlight of any meal at the Cajun Kitchen is the buttery, toasted French bread. It’s accompaniment for most of the non-sandwich options, but so good you might want a slice or two even with a po boy, so good it doesn’t need butter or any topping. This stellar bread is wonderful for dredging up any of the wonderful sauces and roux. The only problem with this bread is that you’ll have a few slices too many and might not finish some of the other Cajun delights.
Among the Cajun specialties no self-respecting Cajun restaurant would be without are po boys. While some essayists will tell you a po boy is essentially synonymous with other sandwich types–submarines, heroes, grinders and others, Louisiana natives will argue that the po boy is different, that it’s better. One of the things that distinguishes the po boy from other sub-type sandwiches is the French bread, baked into two-foot-long “sticks” then sliced into “half” (a six-inch sandwich called a “Shorty”) and “full” at a full foot long. Po boy are served “dressed” with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise with pickles and onions optional. Traditional po boys are served hot. That’s the way the Cajun Kitchen makes them. The po boy menu includes catfish, crawfish, shrimp, oyster, a shrimp-oyster combination, blackened catfish and chicken. Po boys are served with red beans and rice or seasoned fries.
Though portions tend to be very generous, diners should never leave the Cajun Kitchen without finishing their meal with Lynn Hebert’s famous bread pudding, a version my friend Larry McGoldrick, New Mexico’s preeminent expert on bread pudding rates among New Mexico’s best. His assessment of the Cajun Kitchen’s bread pudding: “smooth, velvety texture, and the taste is enhanced by a light honey-based syrup and a slight cinnamon taste. Pretty delicate dessert.” The only thing I’ll add is that this bread pudding isn’t cloying as some syrup-enhanced bread puddings tend to be.
Cajun Kitchen has been our respite when missing the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a terrific reminder of that there is laissez bon temps rouler in New Mexico.
LATEST VISIT: 3 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: Fried Crawfish, Fisherman’s Platter, Crawfish Bisque, Garlic Bread, Crawfish Etouffee, Chicken Sauce Piquant, Beans and Rice, Oyster Po Boy, Seafood Gumbo, Bread Pudding