Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Raised on Rice and Gravy

That’s the title of a documentary on plate lunch houses by filmmakers Conni Castille and Allison Bohlsecond that we viewed during our last trip to Louisiana. But we were at the end of our stay and never had the opportunity to investigate any of these uniquely Acadian (or Cajun Country or the parishes around Lafayette) places. (While we talk about the plate lunch concept, we will add a few pictures from the Church Point Courir de Mardi Gras.)

What is a plate lunch house?

“Meat Plus Three. Quick Lunch. Blue Plate Special. In Acadiana, it's a plate lunch. No matter where you are or what you call it, its food served up at lunchtime that represents the home-cooking and cultural food ways of the local folks.

“In a place as food conscious as Acadiana, the humble plate lunch is especially celebrated. Make a midday stop at one of Lafayette's lunch houses during the workweek and you'll quickly recognize that, among locals, Cajun and Creole food has little to do with nourishment, and everything to do with enjoyment. More than just meat and three sides, the plate lunch serves up an authentic experience of local daily life in Acadiana.

“…Arrayed in cafeteria serving style, the various dishes compete to entice you…Truth is, it doesn't really matter what you order anyway: you have to work hard to get a bad plate lunch. Pat Dupuis of Pat's Downtown says simply, ‘a plate lunch is somethin' good.’…Meals served at a plate lunch house are darn close to what you'd eat in homes around Acadiana. The food and the atmosphere of plate lunch houses evolved as a substitute for the home-cooked lunches once prepared by wives and mothers at a time when families still gathered daily for their midday meal at home… ‘Come see how we do rice and gravy.’

“…there's…something lasting and persistent in the plate lunch experience. The tastes and smells, the places, people, and feelings surrounding that midday ritual, it all seeps into your memory after awhile and makes you crave more, more of the food and more of the friendly people cooking it, serving it, and enjoying it with you”

Our first plate lunch experience found us at Laura’s II in Lafayette. Laura’s is owned by Madonna Broussard. “More than a generation ago, Lafayette locals ate at a lunch house owned by a lady familiar to all her customers by her first name, Laura. Beloved by her regulars, Laura and her cooking earned an intensely loyal clientele that included patrons from all walks of life. Thirty-five years later, Laura’s granddaughter, Madonna Broussard, still serves up the same family recipes.... In 2000, Madonna recognized her grandmother’s legacy was facing tough times, and the restaurant was in need of help. Her grandmother Laura had died, and Madonna’s parents, who were running Laura’s at the time, were not in good health.... Madonna decided that what her grandmother had created for the community was too precious to let slip away.... Her husband, her in-laws, and her friends worked together tirelessly to revive the good cooking and good times that customers had always associated with the original Laura’s. And in tribute to Madonna’s grandmother, Laura’s II was born” (

We arrived just before noon on a Thursday and already the small parking lot (shared with a Laundromat and po-boy shop) was jammed with trucks (mostly) and a few cars. (The photo, right, was taken after lunch.) After a few trips around the block, we were able to snatch a spot vacated by a landscaper’s vehicle.

The food service, i.e., cafeteria, station is to the left just inside of the doors. And a line of about twenty-five hungry diners stretched from the order station to the back walls of the restaurant. Behind the counter stood four, sometimes five, women, dishing out food from the steam table and from pans arrayed along the wall.

Laura’s had a spacious dining room (Sorry, we didn’t get any photos), but at least half of those in line were taking their food out in styrofoam boxes. And that is one hallmark of a plate lunch house—many of the meals purchased are for take-out. In fact, many local gas stations will have a daily plate lunch special strictly for take-out.

And the line consisted of black and white, workers and retirees, young and old. And the lead order taker seemed to greet at least half by name. People are loyal to their favorite plate lunch house.

Laura’s is one of the few lunch houses to have embraced the computer age and the list of daily offerings is posted on line. This being Thursday, we knew that the menu would include fried chicken, fried pork chops, stuffed baked turkey wings, meatball stew with gravy, BBQ ribs, BBQ chicken, BBQ sausage, baked BBQ beans, baked yams, hash brown potatoes, creamy coleslaw, and potato salad.

And, of course, rice. There are three givens to a plate lunch. One, you will be served enough food to feed a family of four. Second, the price will be very inexpensive. And third, rice will be on the cafeteria line. Laura’s offered two styles of rice—basic white rice and rice dressing (a.k.a. dirty rice)—topped with savory brown gravy.

For Chuck, it was to be the fried chicken (left) with rice dressing, BBQ beans, and potato salad. I chose the fried pork chop (Yum. Battered and deep fat fried pork product.) with rice dressing, cole slaw, and potato salad.

I did not care for the potato salad. It was of the mostly mashed variety and had a sharp taste—judging from the white color, not from mustard but from vinegar. The slaw was decent and was sweet from the addition of raisins.

I loved Chuck’s beans. These were Southern sweet—more than likely from cane syrup. The rice dressing was slightly peppery and delicious. As I was poking my fork through the grains I could see little bits of meat. I thought to myself “I bet these are from chicken liver and gizzards. Do I tell him now or do I wait?” I waited. I waited until our second visit to a plate lunch house (more on that in a later blog).

My enormous thin battered pork chop was marvelously crisp, but was a bit dry. But then again, so has any fried pork chop I’ve ever eaten. It may have been overcooked to begin with or may have dried out sitting at a warming station.

Chuck’s large breast and wing of chicken, on the other hand, were fresh from the fryer and were crisp, steamy, and moist.

We stumbled out the doors vowing not to eat that night (other than a donut, and more on that in a later blog). There were some hits and some misses, but we had devoured an immense amount of food for $16.00 and change.

An Addie rating? I’m not going to assign rating to the lunch houses. Would you rate Mom’s food? And that’s what we ate. At the end of our Acadiana sojourn, we’ll give you our list of favorites.

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