A case could be made that “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the name of a 1977 hit by Santa Esmeralda, could well be a lament about New Mexican cuisine (in addition to being the background music during the classic sword fight between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill I). As frequently chronicled on Red or Green: New Mexico’s Food Scene is on Fire, national print, online and onscreen media continue to refer to the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct cuisine as “Mexican food.” The same media talking heads also insist on spelling our state’s official state vegetable as “chili.” Maybe it’s not fake news, but it’s pretty darn lazy journalism.
Right about now, denizens of the Bayou State (that’s Louisiana for you Yankees) are saying “you think you’ve got it bad.” For decades, most of us–laypeople and media alike–don’t recognize that Louisiana actually has two nationally renowned regional cuisines: Cajun and Creole. And if we know about Louisiana’s two distinct and prominent cuisines, most of us can’t tell you the difference between one and the other. Yeah, that does sound a bit like not recognizing the difference between New Mexican and Mexican cuisines. Maybe we can commiserate with our boudin-loving buddies over sopaipillas and beignets (which, as you’ll find out, are remarkably similar).
A few years ago, Thrillist broke down the myths and truths about Louisiana’s distinct cuisine, first addressing the myth that Cajun and Creole cuisine are the same thing. As Thrillist explained: “Cajun and Creole is more than just cuisine, it’s two different cultures, developed about 70 miles apart. While there is some crossover of ingredients, Cajuns were basically the rural folks, while Creoles were the urban city slickers, and that’s reflected in their foods. Cajun is comfort food of the “stick to your ribs” variety and heavily utilizes ingredients found in the local swampland. These are normally simple meals, cooked in a cast iron pot, served with rice and beans.”
“Creoles, meanwhile, looked for ways to incorporate European ingredients into their diet while using what was available in Louisiana. So they would import some ingredients, like squashes and eggplant, then turn out multi-course, opulent meals featuring complicated dishes.” Sounds easy enough, but nothing is black and white in Louisiana, whether you’re talking food, Zydeco music, the Saints or voodoo. We lived just over an hour outside New Orleans for eight years and I’m not sure we can always tell you with absolute certainty which dish is Creole and which is Cajun. It’s not always easy to remember the differentiators: country style versus city-style, rustic and hearty fare versus rich, sophisticated preparation, a little bit country versus a little bit rock and roll.
During our time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we discovered early on that many restaurants proffered both Creole and Cajun cuisine. Restaurants purporting to offer only Creole cuisine tended to be more expensive which makes good sense considering the part of Thrillist’s aforementioned criteria for Creole food lists “multi-course, opulent meals featuring complicated dishes.” When 3C’s Bistro opened its doors in September, 2020, it didn’t take much deduction to figure out the three Cs are “Corrales,” “Cajun” and “Creole,” not necessarily in that order.
Peruse the menu and you will indeed find dishes showcasing both Creole and Cajun cuisine. You’ll also find an engaging staff which is very passionate about the restaurant’s cuisine. Owners Aaron Hundley and Chef Julian Maestas are from Michigan and New Mexico respectively, but they don’t take lightly the challenge of interpreting cuisine with which they didn’t grow up. Both have spent much of their professional careers in one capacity or another of the food service industry and know what it takes to succeed.
Moreover, they’re uncompromising about quality just as no savvy diner should ever compromise on quality. So when we see menu items priced a bit higher than we’re used to, that’s the price we should all be happy to pay for seafood flown in daily from Louisiana and Florida. You just can’t get good alligator from the Rio Grande or fresh oysters from the diversion channel and from what a source has told me, blackened German brown trout just doesn’t taste as good as blackened catfish.
3C’s Bistro is located in the edifice which previously housed Las Ristras Restaurant and before that The Spot. 3C’s certainly hopes to buck the trend of Cajun and Creole restaurants not having longevity in the metropolitan area (although K’Lynn’s in Rio Rancho appears to have staying power). It certainly has the elements a restaurant needs to succeed: committed ownership, a talented chef, accommodating waitstaff, plenty of seating, an expansive dog-friendly patio and a menu that could have come right out of New Orleans. We also appreciated that the ambiance didn’t shout mardi gras stereotypes (purple, green and gold.
Though not specifically called out as such, the first items on the menu represent appetizers: crab au gratin, Cajun boudin, fried alligator and more. There’s only one item on what would be the “soup” section of the menu, but when you’ve got shrimp gumbo, you don’t need anything else. Five salads precede five po’ boys (what Louisianans call a sandwich). Then come the entrees, the first few of which are Creole: rock Cornish game hen, duck Myrtille and roast Louisiana quail Elzey. The rest of the menu is a mix of Creole and Cajun dishes, most of which are familiar. We were very happy to see a breakfast menu.
During our time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I couldn’t convince my Kim to try alligator. Telling her “it tastes like chicken” only prompted the response “then let’s go to Popeye’s.” So what does alligator taste like? Steaks and Game.com does a better job explaining it than your humble blogger would: “Did you know the lean, mean alligator is know in the Bayou as the chicken of the swamp? Who knew? Apparently, lots of folk, and especially those who love their Cajun and Creole cooking. Turns out, alligator is the other white meat!” The feature goes on to explain the flavor and texture of the meat varies depending on what part of this swamp beast you’re eating. It’s a great read.
17 September 2020: 3C’s offers an appetizer sized fried alligator (which our server called “alligator bites”) served with a Creole aioli sauce. After begrudgingly acquiescing to trying the “overgrown water lizard,” my Kim’s next utterance was “I sure wish there was more” followed by “it doesn’t taste at all like chicken.” It’s likely the alligator bites served us come from the tail section which is used for making the ubiquitous fried alligator bites and gator on a stick. That section of the alligator offers white meat and is surprisingly tender and flavorful–like turtle, if you’ve ever had turtle (which also doesn’t taste like chicken). The Creole aioli, tinged with a hint of Cayenne adds personality to an otherwise creamy sauce slash dip.
17 September 2020: When we ordered the shrimp gumbo bowl, we expected maybe twelve-ounces, about a cup and a half. Instead, the bowl was roughly the size of a bowl of pho which, as aficionados of Vietnamese cuisine know, is about the size of a swimming pool. Had we known the bowl was so large, we might not have ordered two entrees. As we always have, we pondered the color of roux (flour that’s browned in fat (like oil or butter) to thicken and flavor gumbo), the foundation for the entire dish. Gumbo aficionados often argue that for the richest flavor, a proper gumbo roux should be chocolate brown. 3C’s roux was more the color of peanut butter. Roux color not withstanding, this was one hearty, rich and delicious roux with a netful of fresh shrimp and smoky Andouille sausage. We were grateful for the French bread which we used to sop up the very last remnants of a very good gumbo.
17 September 2020: For some inexplicable reason, my Kim was hankering (that’s Southern for itching for something) for a salad. Yes, a salad at a Creole-Cajun restaurant. No, I didn’t hide my head in shame when she ordered it, but The Dude, our debonair dachshund, may have. As salads go, the Bayou Seafood Salad (lump crabmeat and boiled shrimp on a bed of mixed greens with tomatoes, artichoke hearts, red onion, cucumber, sweet corn, Cheddar and Pecorino-Romano) is a good one, every ingredient working in concert on our taste buds. The deliciousness of large shrimp with a snap of freshness and sweet crab meat weren’t a surprise, but the sweet corn niblets and their roasted flavor were. So were the artichoke hearts and their mild, light and bright flavor which were a nice counterbalance for the Pecorino-Romano and its salty, nutty flavor.
17 September 2020: To paraphrase Doc Holliday from the movie Tombstone, “it appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.” Earlier in this essay, I harped about “the price we should all be happy to pay for seafood flown in daily from Louisiana.” My happiness stopped when my oyster po’ boy arrived at our table. Instead of po’ boy, it should have been named “broke boy.” It was a little more than half the size of the boatloads of oyster po’ boys I devoured in New Orleans where, according to nola.com the average size of an oyster po’ boy in 2016 was 8.83-inches and its price about $1.68 per inch. Okay, so C3’s oysters were fresh, impeccably prepared and delicious, but that just served to make me want more, more, more.
17 September 2020: During our eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the availability of beignets softened the blow of missing New Mexico’s sacrosanct sopaipillas. Now, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as drizzling honey into the pockets of a puffy sopaipilla, but the liberal dusting of powdered sugar on top of a beignet is right up there, too. The biggest difference between sopaipillas and beignets is that the latter are made with yeast dough while sopaipillas are made from all-purpose flour. 3C’s offers beignets for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At three per order, these delightful housemade deep-fried fritters are terrific–with or without chicory coffee.
17 September 2020: Bread pudding used to be a household staple and not only because it served the practical purpose of using up stale bread. Today it’s considered an anachronism, something that belongs in an earlier time. For some of us, bread pudding evokes feelings of nostalgia. It remains a favorite dessert, the transformation of dry husks into pure deliciousness. 3C’s version not only includes rib-sticking bread pudding flavored with warming spices, but a bourbon sauce that elevates a magnificent dessert for which you’ll happily let a few loaves of bread go stale.
30 September 2020: Many of our sojourns into The Big Easy were early morning foraging forays for breakfast. Throughout the French Quarter and outlying areas, we discovered a number of restaurants specializing in the most important meal of the day. New Orleanians love breakfast (and brunch, too, but that’s another story)–whether it be luxuriating over a steaming mug of chicory coffee and two (or five) beignets at Cafe Du Monde or splurging for eggs Hussarde at Brennan’s.
My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver would love the breakfast culture of New Orleans. He’s a breakfast guy from way back and 3C’s has a menu to sate his early morning appetite. The menu lists seven “French style” omelets though in practice they’re not exactly “French style” (which means just eggs and butter with no filling). What they are is delicious: fluffy folded eggs wrapped around meats and vegetables. Sr Plata enjoyed a mushroom omelet sans bacon while your humble blogger sought to relive early mornings in the Deep South with an omelet crawfish Creole (French-style omelet with crawfish, bell pepper, tomatoes and Swiss cheese). Fresh, sweet, succulent crawfish cut up into tiny pieces were an almost every bite treat. With a little imagination, the omelet conjured up breakfast in New Orleans without the humidity.
30 September 2020: Culinary historians believe that, unlike French fries, French toast actually did originate in France. Most ascribe its origin to “pain perdu” or “lost bread” which was brought to the spacious skies in the early 19th century by cooks who settled in Louisiana. Cajun humorist and chef Justin Wilson explained the dish this way: “it’s called “lost bread” because it’s made with stale bread which otherwise would be thrown away.”
3C’s Bourbon Street French toast (Southern-style made with French bread and dusted with cinnamon sugar served with fruit and maple syrup) is made from two thick (at least an inch) slices of French bread that may or may not follow in the lost bread tradition. We couldn’t tell, but what we did quickly realize is that through some process of alchemy or New Orleans voodoo, no additional maple syrup was needed to keep the French toast sweet and warm. Sure, the cinnamon sugar helped with the sweet part, but both Sr. Plata and I are used to drenching French toast with syrup.
30 September 2020: Long before America became infatuated with chicken and waffles, the Mississippi Gulf Coast area was doing chicken and waffles one better. The chicken was “Cajun style” which usually meant pan-fried, buttermilk-dredged chicken imbued with a fiery personality from cayenne and other Cajun seasonings. A city with as much personality as New Orleans needs fried chicken with personality to match. Cajun-style chicken is an any time of day treat we’ve really missed.
While 3C’s doesn’t have Cajun-style chicken on its menu, front and center on the breakfast menu, you will find a Pecan Waffle (Belgian-style waffle with pecans served with fruit and maple syrup). The pecans are finely chopped so that texturally they’re like a strussel. As with the French toast, very little syrup is applied yet the waffle loses none of its sweetness and because there is so little syrup, the waffle doesn’t become mushy. Fresh strawberries and blueberries provide a nice contrast to the sweet waffle.
Expect “laissez les bon temp rouler,” a Cajun saying which translates to “let the good times roll” resound from Corrales rooftops as locals discover a restaurant which celebrates the food, music and culture of the small towns and along the bayous of south Louisiana.
4940 Corrales Road, Suite 400
Corrales, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 30 September 2020
1st VISIT: 17 September 2020
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Fried Alligator, Shrimp Gumbo, Bayou Seafood Salad, Oyster Po’ Boy, Bourbon Bread Pudding, Beignets, Omelet Crawfish Creole, Bourbon Street French Toast, Pecan Waffle