proclaims the brochure for The Original Don’s Seafood & Steakhouse. You must be kidding me! But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Our motives for having a late lunch at Don’s were not entirely honorable. We were in Lafayette for an early afternoon event and were looking for a place to park The Big White Truck. There was the parking lot for Don’s—empty at that time of the morning. The perfect place. Except for the signs reading “Parking for Don’s Seafood Customers Only." Violators will be towed.” (Or words to that effect.) So we decided to go in and ask if we could park the truck and return after the event for lunch. (Wink. Wink.) But return we did, and we were thankful that we did.
“The Don's tradition began in 1934 with the opening of Don's Beer Parlor by Don L. Landry. In 1939, Don's brother Ashby joined the business, which was quickly becoming well known for excellent food and friendly service. The name was changed to Don's Seafood Inn. By 1952, another brother, Willie Landry, combined his corner grocery store (which was next door) to Don's, thus the first Don's Seafood and Steak House! Over the years, other family members joined in the business, and the Don's…spread to other cities in Louisiana and Texas!” (kybg.halfoffdeals.com).
“While Cajun-themed restaurants were found in Louisiana during the antebellum period, Don's Seafood and Steakhouse was the first modern Cajun restaurant opened in Lafayette.... Other restaurants soon dotted the landscape throughout the 1930s and into the 1960s. Popular dishes in these earlier Cajun restaurants consisted of deep fried seafood that was not traditionally served in Cajun homes” (www.lafayettetravel.com).
It was mid-afternoon when we were seated in the rather characterless-looking dining room. I looked around and said to Chuck: “This looks like our parents’ seafood house.” That is, if our Mid-western parents had frequented seafood houses. Doug E. on yelp.com described Don’s: “Total businessman's, old school.... Squint hard, and you'll think you're in an episode of Mad Men.... This is where the players used to hang out when they were making oodles of money in the oil field. They still show up, except now they're in the 80's, and they bring their wives. A veritable Who's Who of patriarchs in Lafayette, still saying their niceties to each other as they make their way in and out of the restaurant.”
Mike S. on yelp.com reinforced that view. “This place looks like it was a fancy restaurant in the ‘80’s. That being said, it appears they haven't updated the decor since! …there was a sense of classiness, but the place sorely needs to be redecorated!” But the brochure says “Newly Remodeled.”
We really weren’t that hungry so decided to just have a couple of orders of gumbo and an appetizer. The menu assured us that “All of Don's Gumbos & Bisque start with a homemade roux and are slow simmered with just the right mix of seasonings and spices. Voted best in Lafayette.” So we chose a cup of shrimp gumbo for Chuck and a small bowl of crawfish bisque for me. Chuck’s gumbo was made with a medium dark roux, contained a good number of medium shrimp, and came ac-companied (as did my bisque) with a small paper cup of filé powder (also called gumbo filé it is a spice made from dried and ground sassafras leaves).
As I am explaining to him that this is a thickener meant to be stirred into the gumbo, a couple at the next table asked if this was our first experience with gumbo. I replied in the negative, but did indicate that this was the first time that it had been served with filé. (After the meal, we had an extended conversation with the couple that covered Mardi Gras activities and other local restaurants.)
My crawfish bisque is the most popular item on Don’s menu. And, like when ordering BBQ shrimp, you need to ask a few questions to make sure you are getting what you want. In most parts of the country, bisque is a thickish cream-based seafood soup. And some Creole restaurants do add cream to their crawfish bisque. What I wanted, and what Don’s served, is the roux-based soup that contains crawfish tails and crawfish heads or bodies that have been filled with a bread stuffing that may contain minced crawfish pieces and/or crawfish fat (from the heads).
Crawfish bisque is an important part of Cajun food tradition. www.onmyplate.com quotes Rob Davis of Lafayette: "My grandma made the finest crawfish bisque. My grandpa would go crawfishing and we'd boil them when he returned. After, we'd clean the heads of crawfish and keep them for my grandma. We'd also peel any uneaten crawfish so there was always lots of tail meat to use for other things...such as bisque…. My grandma would mix up this huge vat of crawfish stuffing to go into the head shells. I remember smelling it as she gently turned it in the pot so as to not knock the filling from the head. The sauce it was covered in bubbled and every now and then a crawfish head would be up near the surface where you could see the bright red shell in the brown sauce. My grandma always fixed me a plate of bisque, and I'd sit there with 20-30 shells stuffed with the best bisque I can remember eating. It steamed and I used my finger to push the inside stuffing out to eat. Being a kid, I also licked the shell to get every bit.”
The roux in my bisque was a bit lighter than that in Chuck’s but still had a slightly nutty flavor from the cooked flour and oil. And the dish contained a good number of shells filled with a slightly peppery stuffing.
With our soups, we shared an order of fried bite-size Atchafalaya catfish—the most perfect catfish either of us has ever eaten. The mostly flour coating was ethereal with only the slightest amount of corn meal for texture. And, under this delicate coating were the most wonderfully moist and sweet nuggets of fish. And, to attest to this kitchen’s skill, Chuck—no fan of tartar sauce—even used and liked Don’s.
A few days later found us back in Lafayette, this time for an evening event. We found parking elsewhere, but decided to make the short walk to Don’s for an early dinner. This time, I ordered the seafood gumbo and Chuck the chicken and sausage gumbo, and we again shared the catfish bites.
My cup of gumbo, again made with a medium dark roux, was filled with shrimp, crabmeat, oysters, and crab fingers and was equal to the crawfish bisque.
Chuck’s small (yes, that is a small bowl) gumbo was outrageous-ly good. Chicken and sausage gumbo is often made with a darker roux (or more roux) than that in a seafood-based gumbo since the flavors can better hold their own than in the more subtle seafood gumbo. This had an intensely browned flour taste and was spicy and smoky from the large piece of sausage. And this came served in old time Cajun style with a large piece of on-the-bone chicken.
And the catfish bites. Well they didn’t disappoint. In fact they disap-peared. Quickly.
I had always thought that Prejean’s (also in Lafayette) served the best gumbo. But my heart now belongs to The Original Don’s Seafood & Steakhouse. Is everything on Don’s menu equally good? I’ll probably never know. Should we go back, I can’t see us ordering anything else than these 5.0 Addie dishes.