Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Bit of Artsy Funky in Rural Louisiana

Knowing that we were headed to Opelousas for the day, I made it a point to engage in some on-line dining research. On the one hand, there was the Palace Café, described at as “Owned by the same family since 1927…the place to sate your crawfish cravings....” But that just wasn’t what I wanted that day.

Then I consulted and the Foodie’s review of Café Breen. “Outside the world of fried food, heavy sauces, and fatty sausages for which Opelousas is famous (and Lord knows I love it all), there is the occasional time when I decide I should maybe be putting something a little different down the ol’ gullet....“

Originally located in the back of an antique store, the café now shares space with a frame store and is “…owned and operated by Edward and Claire Breen. Edward, an award winning chef from Las Vegas made his way to Louisiana to help out in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. He fell in love with the area and the cuisine. He…combines the best of Cajun cuisine with the drama of Las Vegas.... Claire Breen is a native of Louisiana, growing up in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Breaux Bridge, Opelousas & Lafayette” (from the restaurant’s web site).

One look at the building’s colorful exterior (along with the automatic bubble machine sending large soap bubbles out into the street) was the first clue that this was not your average Cajun lunch spot.

And once you stepped through the vivid red doors, you were immediately bombarded with color. One wall sports a large “portrait” of the Incredible Hulk with the caption “It isn't easy being green.” (Sorry, Kermit.)

On another wall, the artist is channeling his/her inner Picasso. As you might expect, jazz plays over the sound system.

A long coffee bar runs along one wall, and behind the partial orange wall at the end of the bar sits the frame store.

Opelousas is the seat of government for St. Landry Parish and the government offices are located near the café. It seems that this is a popular lunch spot for workers in these offices. Perhaps that explains why we, along with the couple who entered just behind us, had to wait over five minutes to be recognized by the hostess. And, once we were seated, it took time before we obtained menus and water. And it took time for someone to finally take our order.

The lunch menu contains the standard list of salads, wraps, sandwiches, and burgers—many with a Louisiana twist. The list of
burgers (called Gangsta Burgers, for no reason I can fathom) includes the Crazy Cajun Gangsta (a half pound of Angus beef, strips of grilled andouille, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, and pepper jack cheese with chipotle mayo) and the Cafe Breen Crabcake Gangsta (crab cake, three grilled shrimp, topped with spinach, tomato, alfredo sauce). (Yes, I know this is not a burger, but the menu lists it under burgers.)

Salads include the Seafood Salad Extravaganza with grilled tilapia fillet, fried crab cake, and grilled shrimp over a bed of spinach, cherry tomatoes, colby jack, fried onion rings, red onions, and pepperoncinis; Crawfish Boulette Salad with fried house-made LA crawfish boulettes over a bed of spring mix, cherry tomatoes, blue cheese crumbles, and red onions and sprinkled with fried crawfish and pepperoncinis; and the Crab cake Salad with a house made crab cake, and battered and fried grilled shrimp over a bed of spinach, cherry tomatoes, red onions, pepperoncinis, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and wasabi peas.

All three of the above salads sounded delicious, but we both decided to go with one of the café’s po-boys. For Chuck, it would be the po-boy with fried Louisiana crawfish dressed with lettuce, tomato, and chipotle sauce. This came with an order of their house made seasoned potato chips.

My choice was virtually identical except that my sandwich contained both fried catfish tails and crawfish boulettes. It was dressed the same as Chuck’s and came with the same seasoned chips.

The boulettes (little balls) are similar to the stuffing used to fill the crawfish heads in crawfish bisque. They are made from bread crumbs, a binder (like eggs), Cajun or Creole seasoning, and either chopped or small crawfish tails. The mixture is formed into balls, dipped in an egg wash, and rolled in corn meal, cracker crumbs, or flour before being deep fat fried. This results in a crunchy outside and a soft and spicy inside.
In addition to the two large boulettes (a contradic-tion in terms perhaps), the sandwich contained a good number of largish battered and fried crawfish tails. (As the season gets further along and weather warms, the crawfish crawling out of the mud [hence the name “mudbugs”] get larger. This is a good time to be in Louisiana.) And the chipotle sauce added just a bit more zing to an already tasty sandwich.

Chuck’s sandwich was the same, minus the boulettes. And his serving of chips was far superior to mine which contained a number of “clumps” which didn’t manage to get completely cooked.

A final word about cutlery. We, along with diners sitting at three tables near us, all had to request napkins and cutlery after our food had reached us. And these four tables were waited on by three different servers. Are they trying to save money on paper napkins and dishwashing? This, along with the wait to be recognized at the hostess station, indicates that the Breens need to tighten up their service.

That said, with the exception of my only half-cooked chips, the food was good and Café Breen earns a 4.0 Addie rating for the food, but only a 2.5 Addie rating for service.

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