Having lived 90 miles outside of “The Big Easy” for almost eight years, we were naturally filled with the spirit of laissez les bon temps roulette (let the good times roll) when we found out the 48th Copeland’s restaurant in America was launching on our backyard in Albuquerque’s West side in November, 2001.
We had been back in Albuquerque for six years and were experiencing withdrawal symptoms that only a fix of heartily spiced Cajun cuisine could quell. Copeland’s we thought would be a welcome breath of fresh air for the Duke City, albeit not the steamy, salt-kissed air of the Louisiana coast.
Copeland’s is a restaurant with which we were quite familiar when it wasn’t the national presence it is today, but a regional chain founded in 1983 and firmly ensconced in a tough Cajun market. Brainchild of restaurant impresario Al Copeland (who also founded Popeye’s and Zea’s), Copeland’s was a relatively inexpensive alternative to more costly Cajun restaurants in the Crescent City area.
In terms of ambience and attitude, Copeland’s doesn’t really provide the type of sensory bombardment reminiscent of Mardi Gras in which excess is celebrated. In fact, it is relatively low-key compared to some New Orleans restaurants we frequented.
A soundtrack of blues, jazz and boogie-woogie plays continuously but not loud enough to drown out the hushed volume conversations inspired by mood lighting.
The restaurant is thankfully not festooned in the cliché and overdone Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power) but in the colors of purple, black and red which are traditionally Lenten colors.
The wait staff, often adorned with traditional Mardi Gras beads and thematic ties is at your beck and call without being disruptive. We’ve rarely visited Copeland’s when a manager hasn’t dropped by our table to ensure our satisfaction.
The menu is replete with the confusingly intertwined cuisines characterized as Cajun and Creole. Cajun cuisine is said to have its genesis in the cooking of peasant Acadian populations who lived in Southern Louisiana’s swamps. It is more heavily spiced and pungent. Creole food is said to be more refined and subtle with its basis being French traditions but with influences from Spain, the West Indies, Africa and more. Native Louisianans might tell you that Cajun is country while Creole is city, that Cajun is cooking while Creole is cuisine. The truth is, any meaningful distinction between the two has been lost over time and the two terms seem to be used interchangeably.
Many of the entrees at Copeland’s are well-seasoned and redolent with the olfactory arousing aromas of complementary ingredients (onions, bell pepper, garlic, celery, parsley and green onions chief among them) and dark brown (Cajun) or tomato-based (Creole) roux. You’ll also find several heavily spiced and piquant blackened fish entrees as well as rich, voluptuous desserts. It’s no wonder Mark Twain said in 1884 that “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
That being said, Copeland’s just doesn’t do Cajun or Creole quite as well as many of the restaurants we frequented in New Orleans’ French Quarter or Garden District. We have occasionally been disappointed in the absence of addictive flavors we knew so well. That’s especially true when we order seafood entrees such as the prodigious seafood platter, an assemblage of fried and heavily battered catfish, oysters, shrimp and crawfish tails served with a mountain of fries and a tangle of fried onion strings. Perhaps as a consequence to being in land-locked New Mexico, the seafood just doesn’t have that “just off the boat” taste you can get in Louisiana.
Likewise, several of the seafood-based sandwiches we’ve tried have been mundane at best. Served on a toasted bun the size of the tires on my car, the dwarfish crab cake sandwich just doesn’t captivate our taste buds as might the same sandwich in Opaloosa, Louisiana. Made with lump crabmeat mixed with onions, bell pepper, celery and seasonings, this crab meat creation is almost as boring as fish sticks out of a box. Even worse is the oyster po’boy on New Orleans French bread, inferior by far than its New Orleans counterpart. Perhaps masked by breading, the fried oysters don’t have that flavor burst that typifies oysters on the best po’boys.
Among the appetizers, we have been ensnared by Cajun pot stickers, spicy, pan-fried then steamed pork filled dumplings covered in a creamy tasso (a flavoring agent made from lean, highly-seasoned pork) sauce. Tragically, this appetizer gem isn’t always on the menu. Better than any of the appetizers is an apple, pear and candied pecan salad with Maytag blue cheese and drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette. The sharpness of the blue cheese contrasts nicely with the candied pecans.
Where Copeland’s does succeed is in the preparation of traditional sauce-based entrees such as the crawfish etouffee (a French word for “smother”), a tangy Cajun stew made with garlic, green onions, spices and a dark roux (a mixture of flour and fat that’s slowly cooked until brown) served over rice. This stupendous stew is one of the most flavorable entrees on Copeland’s menu.
Copeland’s also holds fast to New Orleans traditions with the quintessential Big Easy dish of red beans and rice with andouille sausage. Traditionally served on Mondays, it’s good any day of the week (albeit somewhat salty at times).
Also quite good is Copeland’s gumbo (a corruption of the African name for okra, one of the vegetables used as a thickening agent) which is also served over rice. Unlike etouffee, gumbo is considered a soup, but it’s a thick, hearty soup which explodes with flavor. The gumbo featuring chicken and andouille sausage is classic.
Hearty portions may mean foregoing dessert and that would be too bad because Copeland’s serves a wonderful white chocolate bread pudding. A thick layer of decadent white chocolate covers a thick slice of spongy bread while a strawberry-based sauce decorates the plate. You couldn’t call yourself a true Cajun restaurant without a good bread pudding and Copeland’s passes muster here.
Lastly, you can’t have Cajun and Creole food without the original Barq’s Root Beer, the root beer with bite. Barq’s was first brewed in my old stomping grounds of Biloxi, Mississippi in 1898. It’s a “different” kind of root beer with a higher level of carbonation and without the cloying sweetness of other root beers. Not especially foamy, it’s the official root beer of the Deep South and a long-time favorite of mine.
10051 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2006
# OF VISITS: 14
BEST BET: Cajun Pot stickers, Crawfish Etouffe