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The Cajun Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Albuquerque's Cajun Kitchen

Albuquerque's Cajun Kitchen

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.

Hungry alligator headed toward Cajun Kitchen

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.

One wall has a Mardi Gras theme

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.

Cajun lexicon

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.

Seafood Gumbo

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.

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

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.

Catfish filets topped with crawfish etouffe

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.

Oyster Po Boy with seasoned fries

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.

Lynn Hebert's famous Bread Pudding, one of Albuquerque's very best

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.

The Cajun Kitchen
5505 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
344-5355

LATEST VISIT: 3 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 19
COST: $$
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

Cajun Kitchen on Urbanspoon

  • Gerard Rollins says:

    Being from SW Louisiana myself, whenever I want a taste of home I pay a visit to the Cajun Kitchen and have a bowl of Mrs Hebert’s gumbo or etouffe. This is not fancy cooking, just good-tasting, authentic SW Louisiana cuisine. Plus Mrs. Hebert and the rest of the staff are about as friendly a group as you can find in a restaurant.

    November 21, 2008 at 10:13 PM
  • JAKE says:

    i’F YOU LIKE CAJUN FOOD TRY MARDI GRAS GRILL

    April 11, 2009 at 5:13 PM
  • ABQ CAJUN says:

    Love me some of that Cajun Kitchen etouffe!

    Mrs. Hebert is a nice a lady you can find these days. Chances are you’ll run into one of their family members on each trip. Even they can’t get enough.

    April 15, 2009 at 4:32 PM
  • Not Impressed says:

    I was really looking forward to eating at Cajun Kitchen, but after one lunch visit, I will never go back. I tried the server’s recommendation and ordered the etouffe – which was also one of the least expensive things on the menu at 12 bucks. I thought I was looking at the dinner menu with those prices. Ice water poured into a plastic cup, and buttery toast served in a plastic basket – I do not expect that for a 12-dollar (plus tip) lunch. And, the etouffe didn’t taste that good. I had to pour on the hot sauce since the desired Cajun spice wasn’t there. There are way better places in town to drop 12 dollars on a lunch. I’ll stick with Ragin’ Shrimp when I have a Cajun cravin’.

    May 28, 2009 at 2:15 PM
  • Jim says:

    what a wonderful restaraunt. We have eaten lunches and dinners there 35 or40 times and have never had a bad experience. The food has always been great. I especially love the fried oysters. The owners are wonderful and Mrs Ebert has always been there to make sure that our dinner was as good as we hoped. The food has always been great, especially the fisherman’s platter. Keep up the good work and we will keep coming back.

    The Cajun Kitchen is such a great treat. JimG

    September 28, 2009 at 10:25 AM
  • jax says:

    Go pay the cajun kitchen a visit, the heberts are some of the warmest, friendliest people you’ll come across

    March 23, 2010 at 6:13 PM
  • Natalie says:

    This was the worst restaurant I’ve been to in a long time. Besides the food being mediocre, the waitress/owner was rude, didn’t seat us, didn’t refill our drinks, didn’t bring us our food or didn’t bring us the check. My husband had to get up 3 times during the course of our dinner to get service. And we had to go search for someone to pay our tab. At first I thought it was generally bad service. Then I noticed she was being delightful and extra attentive to other customers. The only difference between us and them was our skin tone. I usually hate jumping to the conclusion that we were discriminated against due to our race. But when other customers and waitresses notice the same problem, then I know it’s not just me. As Americans we love to think that we have grown past this issue and have higher ideals. Then something happens that reminds me that we haven’t grown past it. It is still an issue. While I know it’s not everyone, but these archaic neanderthals hurt me to my core. It causes a pain that is indescribable and it makes me angry. This is why people of color are angry. We want to live our lives as everyone else. We want to raise our kids, enjoy life and be treated with respect. But people like those at the Cajun Restaurant strip us of the basic respect every human is entitled to have. The most disempowering thing is that I can’t do anything about it except never go there again. I could put on a one woman protest. But like so many others of her kind, she’ll just hide behind her self-righteousness. She’ll excuse her actions and blame my over-sensitivity. So I’m writing this to those who incorrectly state that racism is dead. You’re just blind to its existence and part of the reason it will never be irradiated. Your silence only reinforces their behavior by saying it’s okay to behave that way. Just like the other customers and waitresses that were there that day. I challenge you to not be like them but to be better. Think about it.

    July 9, 2010 at 2:18 PM
  • Carlos says:

    I’m not attempting to make this a gastronome’s review of the Cajun Kitchen. We eat there often, and have done for 18 years or so. And we have seldom had a complaint. We think the food is excellent.

    But I must respond to the accusatory comments written by Natalie. First, they skirt very close to libel. I have seen occasional inattentive service when the place is crowded. Have you tried to hire and retain wait staff recently? Nonetheless, it is completely implausible to me that someone would be almost ignored throughout their dinner as Natalie has described. The scene she describes is 1000 miles from anything I have ever seen there.

    Equally, I have never seen any behavior that could be taken as rude. As I take it, rudeness is deliberate, and nothing could be further from the nature of the owners, as I have observed them over almost two decades. This is a cafe that attracts regulars, and it is not surprising that the owners might view those regulars as friends of a sort and spend some personal time with them. If Natalie was jealous about that, she should try getting attention in an English rural pub or a Parisian cafe.

    The implication that the owners are racist is a special kind of nonsense. The family has long trusted their affairs to a black attorney (or accountant, I’m not sure which) who seems to enjoy a very cordial relationship. There are many black customers that seem to enjoy the cajun food and I’ve never seen any kind of anger or recriminations. Natalie seemed to want to write a treatise on our nation’s racial history and to conclude that the owners were wedded to that troubled past. It’s just ridiculous to anyone who has spent any time with the owners.

    Frankly, I sense in Natalie’s comments a person who has a victim’s chip on their shoulder and who all too easily infers a racial slight to any random event that grates on her sensibilities. I may be wrong about Natalie, but I know that she is wrong in her judgment of the Cajun Kitchen owners.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:49 PM
  • Morgain says:

    Good food, good service. Love the red beans and rice!

    February 26, 2011 at 9:37 AM
  • joe says:

    Went by yesterday and, sad to say, CK is closing soon. So if you want some good fried oysters best get there in the next week.

    March 3, 2011 at 10:40 AM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      After 24 years of serving Albuquerque in two locations, the Cajun Kitchen will indeed be closing its doors for good 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.” Lynn Hebert, the 73-year young owner, her family and staff will be much missed.

      March 3, 2011 at 7:59 PM
  • Larry McGoldrick says:

    {Sigh}
    Only one week left to gorge on that exemplary Bread Pudding.
    Sic transit gloria mundi.

    March 4, 2011 at 3:09 PM
  • Morgain says:

    Clearly, I will have to make the “ultimate sacrifice” and eat there twice in one week!

    March 5, 2011 at 8:48 AM
  • Joe says:

    This is so sad. I hope the Heberts are retiring with happiness and peace after many years of wonderful and hopefully profitable service. My greatest regret is not eating there more often. Where else can you get fried crawfish, crawfish bisque, or crawfish etoufee? Coming from Southeast Texas with my parents from Southwest Louisiana, I really miss good cajun food out here in the desert. I will miss it more now that the Cajun Kitchen is closing. Things are getting bad: Copelands gone, Rockfish gone, 2 out of 3 Captain D’s gone… I hope more Cajun restaurants open soon.

    March 8, 2011 at 6:39 PM
  • Cristina says:

    Lived in Albq many yes ago and worked at the Cajun Kitchen. Came into town and was hoping to enjoy the great food as I do every time I come into town only to sadly find they have closed. I will surely miss them.

    July 28, 2011 at 10:03 PM

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