Food Matters: Finding unexpected charm at a Cajun hole in the wall
February 7, 2019
I was so hungry and worn out that it didn't matter that the gumbo tasted like flour. It looked like Mississippi River sludge, too, but thick with shredded chicken and a few salty wheels of sliced sausage, at least. I needed nourishment. So I dragged a few spoonfuls over sticky white rice scattered with scallions and slurped it up.
I'd found the joint near my hotel, located in a dreary culinary wasteland not far from the Texas airport where I'd missed a tight connecting flight, conveniently the last one back to Aspen for the night. It was an unseasonably cool, drizzly Saturday, but I couldn't face the sadness of the deserted hotel restaurant onsite, so I set out into the mist on one final adventure. I would take a chance at sampling some local cuisine, at a longtime Cajun seafood eatery with an oyster bar to boot.
Online reviews were mostly positive, and a brief website description promised authentic Cajun and Creole specialties in a family environment. There was mention of a cigar-friendly bar. I felt conflicted about this: while I don't partake, it did remind me of Aspen's own beloved late-night smoke den. Flavor of home!
I tried to keep judgment contained in the vehicle when my Uber driver pulled up in front of the glaring neon sign out front. Inside, I found a good omen: every seat—maybe 24 or more—at the long U-shaped bar facing a wide open kitchen was occupied, with patrons elbows-deep into big stainless-steel bowls of peel-and-eat crawfish. The kitchen itself was a chaotic swirl of activity: cooks shucking shellfish amid huge tufts of steam rising from enormous pots of boiling water. Ample overhead lighting made everything fluorescent-clear, for better or worse. I wasn't in a sociable mood after the discouraging travel snafu, and was wearing remnants of Mexican beach, so I was glad when a hostess ushered me to a quiet corner table in the dining room adjacent.
On second review, I was relieved not to find cigar smoke wafting inside (turns out the website, obviously built on Angelfire, was last updated in 2001). I was searching for positive qualities, since suddenly I realized: I don't even dig crawfish!
I'd find familiarity, though. A waitress in all black glided over immediately to take my drink order: a glass of red wine, 19 Crimes, an inexpensive Australian blend. It's one of the better cheapie bottles I've bought at Airport Liquor in the ABC. Le soothe.
"Yes, ma'am, be right back with that," she said, looking me straight in the eye and pausing to finish speaking before turning on her heel and striding off purposefully.
I cracked the menu, seemingly designed on Print Shop with faded emerald ink that matched the room's evergreen fleur-de-lis carpeting. On second thought, I wasn't in the mood for fish—catfish fingers or broiled redfish/salmon/snapper/swordfish/mahi mahi/halibut/black drum/pecan trout, with optional Southern-style toppings laced with fruits of the sea cooked in buttery or creamy sauces. Frogs legs are seasonal, apparently.
There were soft-shell crabs, turtle soup, chicken Creole, étouffée and jambalaya with assorted seafood and those darn crawfish tails. I was overwhelmed, moreso as Elton John wailed on the piano in the final moments of "Bennie and the Jets" playing overhead. I safe-ordered.
Despite that murky gumbo, a soggy Caesar salad, and limp greens beans just a minute overdone, a spread of broiled, spiced shrimp and whipped mashed potatoes redeemed the meal. Meanwhile, my interactions with staff made the experience. The service was straightforward, friendly, explanatory and humorous yet concise. The service was impeccable.
Waitresses—and I think it's fair to call them that as there were no male employees in the dining room—were moving at a brisk yet controlled clip, clearing plates and checking on folks in a smooth choreography. These eagle-eyed ladies had every table covered as if on an invisible running schedule, serving entrées piping hot, swanning over to deliver menus to newcomers who had settled into date night, refilling beers to two guys deep in a gripe session, and making sure that my meal was enjoyable and water glass full. They hustled—they didn't saunter around waiting for customers to call them over. Having worked in restaurants, bars, or for catering operations essentially my entire adult life, I deeply respect their work ethic.
Jessica peppered every interaction with, "yes, ma'am." It wasn't overly formal, just reflexive Southern hospitality. When she deposited my main plate to the table it was accompanied by a jovial, "OK, it's here girl!" Satisfied that I was satisfied, she was off.
Despite feeling tired and grumpy, I found myself smiling during our interactions. Even though I wished I'd had the good sense to order famous grilled oysters, and wasn't at all thrilled with my dinner, I wasn't disappointed in the visit. Instead, it was something I needed: positive human interaction far from home in a foreign, weird place.
The same might be said here in Aspen, which sometimes gets a bad rap for unchanging menus at the old guard and lame service at newer spots. Recently, I was at a pricy newbie, and the bartender, whom we'd spent an hour chatting with while dining at the bar, had the audacity to serve my friend a $45 glass of wine instead of the $15 glass that she so obviously wanted when she ordered a "glass of rose." Jessica would never pull that trickery.
Certain restaurants have survived 15, 20, 30 years in this town … and is not always about the food. Often it's about the service, and the people, too.
Who knows, I might find myself stranded again for a night near that Texas airport. And if that happens, I might revisit that restauraunt. But this time I'll order grilled oysters.