Before permanent signage was mounted, a tethered banner in front of K’Lynn’s Southern & Cajun Fusion in Rio Rancho listed a few of the delicious treasures available in the tiny restaurant: “catfish, BBQ, gumbo, po boys, jerk chicken, carne adovada fries & more!” Yeah, we did a double-take, too. One of those items just seemed a bit out-of-place? If you’re thinking “carne adovada fries” don’t belong on the list because they’re not Soul food, you’d be wrong. Carne adovada fries definitely belong on the list. So does jerk chicken which, by most conventional definitions, isn’t soul food either. The one item we thought to be out-of-place was “& more.”
I mean what more could you possibly want listed on the banner. If it didn’t have you at “catfish” you probably haven’t had catfish down South…and if it didn’t seal the deal with “gumbo,” you definitely need an infusion of South in your mouth. Beyond catfish and gumbo, the rest is gravy and it’s absolutely delicious. Until the summer of 2016, restaurant-goers craving Southern cuisine had only one option for soul food, albeit a wonderful option in Bucket Headz (sadly now closed). For those of us on the “west side,” the trek to the International District for Malaika’s fabulous cooking was a long (though well worth it) trip. With the launch of K’Lynn’s Cuisine, we now have a second option to succor our souls.
Residents of the City of Vision may be asking themselves where this new denizen of deliciousness is situated. Most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment’s third most populous city, after all, are clustered on three main arteries: Rio Rancho Blvd., Southern and Unser. K’Lynn’s occupies a Lilliputian space on the northeast side of the Rio Rancho Marketplace, a retail shopping center whose anchor tenants include Target and Albertson’s. Even if you take Ridgecrest west-bound, it’s not easy to spot. Trust me. It’s there and it’s worth a detour from the well-beaten, well-eaten path.
K’Lynn’s Cuisine is the restaurant arm of K’Lynn’s Cuisine & Catering, an enterprise owned and operated by Karen Johnson-Bey, aka K’Lynn. A self-taught chef, K’Lynn launched her restaurant on July 7, 2016 after having focused solely on catering. It’s no longer Rio Rancho’s best kept secret. Word is getting out about the tiny place where you can enjoy food for your soul–a mix of Southern, soul, Cajun and Caribbean cuisine. Her culinary repertoire is even more expansive, catering “all types of cuisines from American, New Mexican, Italian and more.” There’s that “and more” term again.
You probably won’t peruse K’Lynn’s menu too thoroughly. That’s because the day’s specials, scrawled on a white board on the counter, are so value-priced and tempting. Listing only a handful of items, the specials list may include such mouth-watering items as crab cakes, oxtail and barbecue ribs. The menu belies the smallness of the restaurant, listing only a few starters, salads, po’ boys, specialties, tacos (gator tacos anyone?), baskets, platters and sides. We visited larger Cajun restaurants in New Orleans that didn’t offer such variety. There’s one certainty–you won’t leave hungry…and we haven’t even gotten to the housemade desserts which are worth a visit in and of themselves.
2 October 2016: Gumbo is an archetypal Cajun offering and almost inarguably the most popular dish ever conceived in Louisiana (as emblematic of the Bayou State as chile is to New Mexico). It’s a veritable melting pot dish, transcending all class and income barriers. With a fragrant bouquet that precedes it, a steaming bowl of good gumbo is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures. K’Lynn’s offers two options for its gumbo: Andouille sausage and chicken or shrimp. We can’t speak for the version made with shrimp, but the version made with Andouille sausage and chicken is “close your eyes and let the aroma and flavors wash over you” satisfying. It goes without saying that it pairs best with cornbread, some to sop up that great gumbo and some cornbread with lots of butter.
2 October 2016: One of the Southern traditions we quickly embraced upon moving to Mississippi was a family-style meal of catfish and fried chicken after church every Sunday. For umpteen consecutive Sundays we visited Aunt Jenny’s in our hometown of Ocean Springs for a bounteous repast. Aunt Jenny’s set the bar for catfish rather high and only a handful of restaurants (such as the aforementioned Bucket Headz) in the Land of Enchantment are even in the same zip code as that bar. Though K’Lynn’s source for catfish isn’t the murky ponds of Mississippi, Californian catfish is still very good. Sheathed in a golden-hued, lightly seasoned batter, the catfish is light and delicate with a deliciousness that defines any notions you may have about the bottom-dwelling fish. Catfish goes especially well with mac and cheese and fried green beans, both of which are quite delicious.
2 October 2016: While you’re more likely to find restaurants pairing fried chicken with catfish than you are restaurants pairing catfish with jerk chicken, the latter combination goes very well together. Infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call, the chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning. If you prefer your jerk chicken to render you a coughing, sputtering, watery-eyed frump, K’Lynn’s version won’t do that for you, but you will enjoy it.
2 October 2016: In his terrific tome Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time culinary historian Adrian Miller declared red Kool-Aid to be the official soul food drink. That’s a pretty audacious claim for which he puts up a good argument. In the South, Kool-Aid tends to be made with almost as many scoops of sugar as there are granules of Kool-Aid. That’s why we prefer K’Lynn’s grape Kool-Aid and ginger ale. Not only is it not cloying, it’s got a nice effervescence and it makes you feel as if you’re getting away with something.
2 October 2016: While the Land of Enchantment is second only to Georgia in the annual production of pecans, Southerners would argue that only in the South can pecan pie be made the right way. The “right way” means an almost sickeningly sweet pie, palatable only to diners with a seriously sweet tooth. In the South most pecan pies are made using dark Karo syrup which has a more pronounced and sweeter flavor courtesy of the addition of molasses. K’Lynn’s version is made with the not-quite-as-sweet blonde Karo syrup and it’s topped with a smooth bourbon sauce redolent with the unique bouquet of the oak casks in which it is distilled. Whole pecans and a flaky crust offset the cloying elements. While some Southerners might complain it’s not sweet enough, most diners will enjoy it very much.
20 October 2018: Sometimes the most flavorful dishes are born not of deliberation and design, but out of necessity. Jambalaya, Louisiana’s favorite one-pot-dish, evolved over time from ingredients just thrown together, a melange of whatever was on hand at the time. Several cultures had their hand in its evolution. Spanish cooks, for example, are credited for the addition of tomato as a practical substitute for the rare and expensive saffron they used in paella. French cooks contributed assertive spices ferried over from the Caribbean while rural Cajuns introduced proteins plentiful in nearby swamps. Not surprisingly, the name “Jambalaya” is derived from the French term “balayez” which means to “throw something together.” Within New Mexican cuisine, perhaps the only dish comparable (at least in terms of being soulful and comforting) is our sacrosanct green chile stew. Both are hearty and bold elixirs for whatever ails you, their restorative properties particularly wonderful in cold weather.
K’Lynn’s jambalaya is a jumble of chicken, Andouille sausage, shrimp, rice and the Cajun “trinity” of onions, celery and green bell peppers seasoned assertively the way New Mexicans love their food. Who would have thought that despite having lived 90 miles outside New Orleans for some eight years, we’d have to return to the Land of Enchantment to have jambalaya made with crawfish instead of shrimp? K’Lynn’s happily accommodated this request, a testament to the made-to-order nature of its dishes. It’s a wonderful variation. We were as pleased with the generous amount of crawfish as we were with the fact that they weren’t mealy in the least as crawfish tend to be so far from Cajun country. K’Lynn’s jambalaya joins the one from Bosque Burgers as the best jambalaya we’ve found in the Land of Enchantment in a very, very long time.
20 October 2018: Satirist Jonathan Swift, renowned author of Gulliver’s Travels, is credited with having said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Domestic dumpsites unearthed by archaeologists in Australia show that mankind has been “brave” for at least ten-thousand years. Despite being an important source of food lo those ten millennia, Swift would discover that not everyone is as brave as the bold man (or woman) who first ate an oyster. Even some so-called foodies are still trepidatious at the notion of slurping up the bivalve delicacy in its raw form. Some won’t even try oysters on a dare. To be sure, oysters do have a bit of an “ick” factor, mostly attributable to texture.
Anthony Bourdain described his life-changing experience of eating a raw oyster: “It tasted of seawater…of brine and flesh…and, somehow…of the future.” My own first experience wasn’t quite as epiphanic as Bourdain’s though like him, I embraced the new experience with gusto. It was love at first bite that quickly grew to include oysters in any form. During our eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I devoured oysters by the netful, sometimes right off the boat. Obviously, oysters that fresh aren’t available in landlocked New Mexico. Still, you can find pretty tasty oysters if you look. Count K’Lynn’s oysters among them. Available as a starter or entree, these battered plump juicy oysters are sheathed in a crunchy coating then fried. Bite into the coating and you’re rewarded with the unique umami-rich flavor that characterizes fried oysters. They’re served with your choice of several dipping sauces, including a New Orleans quality Cajun remoulade.
20 October 2018: For reasons similar to the distaste and fear some people have for oysters, crawfish seem to have an off-putting “ick” factor some just can’t get past. The notion of “pinching the tail and sucking the head” has more than double-entendre connotations to some. Others are scared, sometimes scarred when they see a crawfish’s beady eyes staring back at them. Still others take the crawfish’s nickname, “mudbugs” very seriously, especially the “bug” part. As crustaceans, crawfish are indeed among the large group of animals without backbones (invertebrates)–a group that includes insects, spiders, mites and scorpions. Yep, bugs. If only they knew how similar crawfish are to lobster.
There are many similarities between crawfish and its larger cousin from the cold Northeastern waters. They’re similar in appearance and are prepared in much the same way. Moreover, both are delicious. One, however is considered a delicacy while the other is considered a “poor man’s dish,” an inferior “baby lobster” or “lobster wannabe.” K’Lynn’s crawfish etouffee will make converts out of the disbelievers who can’t fathom something so icky can be so tasty. Etouffee (which my spellchecker insisted should be changed to “toffee”) comes from the French étouffer, which means to smother. K’Lynn’s rendition is very traditional: fat crawfish tails (or shrimp) in a homemade buttery roux topped with rice. It’s available in small and large sizes (you’ll want the larger portion) and like the jambalaya, will warm your tummy and sooth your soul.
20 October 2018: Almost every time we walked around Jackson Square in New Orleans, we ran into Paul Prudhomme, the world-famous chef who scoured the vegetable stalls from his motorized scooter. In addition to introducing crawfish to menus throughout the Crescent City, Chef Prudhomme invented and popularized the blackening technique now widely regarded as canonical to both Cajun and Creole cuisine. Blackening, in this case, doesn’t actually mean the fish is black or charred from overcooking. Rather, when a fish fillet that’s been dredged in a spice blend hits hot fat in a very hot iron cast skillet, the fish inherits a black, crisp sear and all the oils from the spices are released right into the fish. Prepared correctly, blackening, leaves the fish moist, tender and delicious. Chef Prudhomme used to say “A good piece of fish is good cooking, good eating and good lovin.”
That pithy observation is certainly true of K’Lynn’s blackened catfish, a dish so light and tender that it flakes off with a fork. It’s much like Prudhomme would have prepared it, meaning it’s seared, not charred and it’s seasoned for flavor not for assertiveness. You can actually taste the catfish and that’s the point. We had blackened catfish in New Orleans so emboldened with spices that we couldn’t taste the fish. The blackened catfish is served atop a bed of rice and is served with fried okra or red beans and rice. Ask for the okra, so lightly breaded and delicate that it’s almost like eating it raw.
20 October 2018: Autumn in New Mexico is indisputably chile time. Hazy smoke plumes waft upward from giant rotating drums. These irresistible smoke signals beckon hungry masses to roadside stands where flame-licked chile tumbles in steel-meshed drums. Those chiles blister then seem to hiss and spit in protest as their skins blacken, leaving their fleshy insides intact and imbued with an intoxicating aroma and addictive flavor. Autumn isn’t solely about chile. It’s also about roasted butternut squash from which we enjoy hearty, soul-warming stews, soups, curries, pasta dishes, risottos and soups. For many of us, autumn is also about the ubiquitous pumpkin spice.
Just how prevalent is pumpkin spice? You’ve probably experienced it on coffee, donuts, liqueurs, syrup, cookies and maybe even on chicken wings, but did you know there’s a Napa Auto Care Center in Albuquerque that offers “pumpkin spice oil changes?” Obviously the Tin Man of Oz would probably enjoy that oil change more than your car would. For the rest of us, K’Lynn’s offers a magnificent pumpkin spice bread pudding and it’s worthy of inclusion in Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame. There’s just enough pumpkin spice to let you know it’s there. That’s true also of the amount of sugar used. It’s not cloying as some bread pudding tends to be. You should probably wait a few minutes to dig into it as it arrives at your table plenty hot.
20 October 2018: What is it with cakes which purport to be citrus flavored? If you don’t know of what I speak, picture the last lemon cake you had. I’ll bet “lemon” was a misnomer, almost as if the baker only waved a lemon in front of the cake. If you were able to taste any lemon at all, it was probably so diluted by sugar or some cloying buttercream frosting that it was difficult to discern any essence of lemon at all. Lemon scented furniture polish has more lemon than most lemon cakes. To even call them lemon cakes is false advertising, the type of which may turn you off ordering citrus-flavored cakes.
Before you give up on citrus flavored cakes, you owe it to yourself to try the lemon cake at K’Lynn’s. It’s an exemplar of what lemon cake should be. Even the buttercream frosting is imbued with lemony flavor–not the lip-pursing sourness you get when you bite into a lemon, but a pleasant sweet-sour tartness and fragrance. Moreover, it’s a very moist cake–not nearly to the degree of pastel tres leches, but certainly more moist than ninety nine point nine percent of any other cake you’ll find. K’Lynn is as amazing at baking as she is at cooking.
3 May 2019: In October, 1987, the Air Force assigned my Kim and I to Mississippi. Before we had even finished unpacking, we began exploring the culture and cuisine of our new Deep South home. On a backroads trek to Pensacola, Florida, we espied a cavalcade of conveyances parked in front of a nondescript restaurant named The Irondale Cafe. Surmising there was something special about this small town Alabama eatery, we stopped for lunch. Our server apprised us that the restaurant was the inspiration behind the recently published Fannie Flagg novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Fried green tomatoes, we quickly discovered, are a Southern staple, as part of the culture as good manners. Before we even read the book or watched the movie, we were besotted by tangy fried slices of succulent fresh-from-the-garden green tomatoes.
We don’t often find fried green tomatoes in restaurants across the Land of Enchantment, but when we do we invariably order them and compare them to the “love at first bite” version we enjoyed at The Irondale Cafe more than three decades ago. K’Lynn’s version certainly triggers pleasant memories. Okay, K’Lynn’s fried green tomatoes are more thickly breaded and her tomatoes aren’t quite as green, but they’re quite good in their own right…very good when dipped into the flavor-enhancing remoulade. Make sure to ask for a double portion of that remoulade. It’s as good, if not better, than the gallons of remoulade we enjoyed across the Deep South.
3 May 2019: Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, one of James Patterson’s 1,300,452 novels may have best expressed what most people think of grits: “Popcorn for breakfast! Why not? It’s a grain. It’s like, like, grits, but with high self-esteem.” That’s probably not a paragraph Patterson could read aloud in the Deep South where grits are as revered as Lynyrd Skynyard music and sweet tea. “Like grits, but with high self-esteem” makes grits sound like the canned beans hobos cook over a campfire. Maybe Patterson has never had good grits. He should visit K’Lynn’s Southern & Cajun Fusion Cuisine.
While the menu offers “shrimp and grits,” the accommodating staff happily substituted crawfish for shrimp at my request. Crawfish and grits are a new favorite. Much like tofu, grits don’t have much flavor on their own even though they’re made from ground corn. Instead, they inherit the flavors of seasonings in which they’re simmered. In other words, they have to be well-seasoned for your palate to appreciate them. K’Lynn’s grits are very well-seasoned and packed with green onions, thick bacon bits, cheese and of course, plenty of that delicious decapod known as crawfish. With those ingredients, the coarse-ground grits can’t help but be delicious.
3 May 2019: My Rio Rancho neighbor Sarita, whose thoughtful comments and great photographs frequently grace this blog, loves K’Lynn’s and has recommended several dishes to your friendly neighborhood restaurant review blogger. One of her favorites is Catfish Lebeaux, a dish we didn’t see often in the Deep South, not even in Mississippi, the most prolific producer of catfish across the fruited plain. In fact, we saw it only once at a restaurant in Louisiana. It’s only fitting that the name “Lebeaux,” which can actually be spelled several ways, translates directly from French to “the beautiful.” Your initial impression when Catfish Lebeaux is ferried to your table just might be “this is almost too beautiful to eat.”
3 May 2019: The operative word there is, of course, “almost.” There’s no way you’ll pass up a morsel of this beautiful dish: fried (or blackened) catfish topped with a zesty, creamy crawfish étouffée garnished with green onions and served over rice with a side of okra. On any list of Cajun food pairings, this one should rank rather high. You’ll want to sop up every bit of that creamy étouffée so make sure you order a side or three of cornbread…or dip the okra into it. This is a superb dish!
Visionaries (isn’t that what residents of the City of Vision are called) have started to discover K’Lynn’s Cuisine, but it shouldn’t take long for savvy diners from throughout the metropolitan area to find out for themselves that food for your soul is good for everyone.
4300 Ridgecrest Drive, Suite O
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 4 May 2019
1st VISIT: 2 October 2016
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Cornbread, Catfish, Mac and Cheese, Fried Green Beans, Jerk Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, Grape Kool Aid, Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce, Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffee, Blackened Catfish, Pumpkin Spice Bread Pudding, Lemon Cake, Fried Oysters, Catfish Lebeaux, Crawfish and Grits, Fried Green Tomatoes