“Give me a good round or seven steak with potato salad or rice dressing, that’s Cajun cooking. I got to have that blue plate!” Chef Sonny Prather, Enola Prudhomme’s Cajun Cafe.
If you want to eat the kind of country cooking that Cajun and Creole people have enjoyed for centuries, the best place to look is at humble diners and cafes around Lafayette. Forget the fancy eateries that have jumped on the Paul Prudhomme bandwagon and serve all manner of blackened, sauced and stuffed concoctions. Traditional Cajun food is generally fried, smothered, or slow cooked in a big iron pot where all the flavors multiply in the dark. You won’t find any boring vegetable plates, just mouthwatering stews, gravies and gumbos seasoned like no other simple food you have ever eaten.
The first thing that I think of when planning a trip to the Lafayette area is, “Where am I gonna eat?” That thought often winds up determining everything else from time of departure to what swamp tour I will take, and even how long I will stay. Good eating is reason enough to make the scenic two-hour jaunt! The number of good down-home eateries in the Lafayette area is unmatched anywhere in the country, including such culinary capitals as Memphis and Nashville. These places are a real bargain (a full and filling meal will not exceed $7), but many are only open at lunch; in fact few serve dinner, so if you are going to visit the Hub City, plan ahead. Below is a list of my seven favorites. There have been times when I have eaten at four in one day! The reviews should help you make up your mind which ones to choose. The best advice is to be bold and go hungry!
Dwyer’s Cafe: The most popular lunch counter in Lafayette is busy proving that Main Street USA is still alive. Dwyer’s has been a fixture on Jefferson Street in downtown Lafayette (walking distance from Festival International stages) for over 60 years. They have good breakfasts (five omelets under $2) and the best coffee in the city. The coffee doesn’t have a chance to get burnt on the hot plate because the morning crowd keeps the pot flowing. At lunch time, ceiling fans stir air thick with the smell of pot roasts, gravies and stewed chicken. The service is cafeteria style, and by noon there is a twenty-minute wait for plates that are heaped with rice and cornbread dressings, mashed potatoes and well-cooked vegetables. Under $4. 323 Jefferson St. 235-9364. Monday-Friday, 4 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Saturday, 4 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Hub City Diner: Just before opening his all new ’50s-style eatery in 1990, owner George Graham described his menu: “We’ve got diner fare with Louisiana flair.” The Diner is one of the only places you can get home-style Louisiana cooking at breakfast, dinner and late night. The menu combines such standard diner fare as meatloaf and gravy, chicken fried steak, and vegetable plates with interesting local items like Catfish Louisiana (topped with shrimp etouffee) and Pain Perdu Po-Boy (French toast stuffed with sliced ham, topped with Steen’s cane syrup). In addition to the Pain Perdu Po-Boy, other breakfast specials include the Hub City Special Omelet (with tasso, shrimp, and Ro-tel tomato) and banana pecan waffles. Breakfast costs $3-$6, lunch and dinner $5-$10. The Diner is located near the Oil Center at 1412 South College Rd. They are open Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to midnight (3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday) and closed on Sunday.
Louviere’s: You are unlikely to find a more hearty, hefty, or downright Cajun meal than the workingman’s lunch at Louviere’s. The selection varies from day to day, but the essence of the menu here is a choice of four or five stews (crawfish, shrimp, fish courtbouillon, beef or pork) served with your pick of 2 veggies for $3. Drinks picked from the cooler and homemade iced tea are extra. There are better plate lunches in Acadiana, but hardly a better value. The rough little dining area is worth a visit in itself. Adorning the walls are alligator and crawfish stencils, a hangman’s noose, and “Jim Bowie’s Gun.” The latter is a huge musket with the accompanying historical note; “Fought at the Alamo, shooting from such a distance it took three days for the enemy to fall.” Located at Jefferson St. and Lamar St., just east of Johnston St. Open for lunch only, from 10-2 weekdays.
Norbert Foods, Inc.: This little lunch counter and cafe is the oldest restaurant in Broussard (15 minutes outside Lafayette) and serves the best plate lunches and barbecue east of Lafayette. John Norbert and his wife Lillie Mae turn out definitive versions of crawfish stew, real “dirty” dirty rice, and tasty chicken or crawfish pies. They usually have a selection of three or four meats and five veggies (pick two) each day. Monday, the special is chicken fricassee and red beans. Friday’s special usually includes fried catfish and crab jambalaya. I recommend the Thursday barbecue plate. Pork ribs are slow cooked over a smoky fire until crusty on the outside and tender within. They are served with a moderately-hot oniony barbecue sauce, creamy potato salad, dirty rice and hot-hot corn. Lunch plates cost $3.75. Norbert’s faces Rt. 90 on the on the corner of Avenue C in Broussard. 521 Ave C. 837-6704.
Prudhomme’s Cajun Cafe: From a name like Prudhomme you expect some pretty fancy dining, and at dinner here you can get as hoity-toity as you want without spending over $15. The serious Cajun food comes down at lunchtime though. How about garlicky stuffed pork roast with sweet potatoe soufflé, rice dressing, homemade bread and dessert for $4.50 or less. The selection changes each day, but you can always get the best oyster po-boy on earth. Prudhomme’s puts all the same attention that goes into dinner items like the eggplant pirogue into their incredible plate lunches. The only reason I would not insist that this is the best place to go for a lunch is that you will probably want to eat dinner here. 4676 N.E. Evangeline Thruway (I-49 service road) at Carencro exit. 896-7964. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Creole Lunch House: The Creole Lunch House is a plate lunch and soul shop with a unique twist. That twist is the talent of owner/cook Merline Herbert. Herbert’s most notable creation is her patented Creole’s Stuffed Bread. A rich filling of Creole sausage, meat, cheese and peppers (optional) are wrapped in homemade French bread dough and baked to a crusty perfection. A good idea is to take a friend so you can split some bread and have room for Herbert’s soulful specialties, like stuffed baked chicken (stuffed with spices and herbs) served with dirty rice. Herbert also fixes a mouthwatering plate of black-eyed peas served with sweet cornbread. They are seasoned enough to warm the palate and put a fog of condensation on the forehead. Another spicy dish is the Sausage Creole, which comes in a sauce piquante over rice accompanied by a corn muffin. Creole Lunch House at Northgate Mall is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.; the locations at 713 Twelfth St. (the quaint original lunch room) and 2936 Johnston St., are open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. 232-9929 or 237-2451.
The Depot Restaurant: “Depot” is an appropriate name for a place that downloads meals of such truckload proportions. Between the copious quantities of home cooked food and relaxed country atmosphere of the dining area, a lunch at the Depot can make time stand still. Rene and Valerie Balser and Rene’s mom Shirley arrive early in the morning to prepare such simple and savory fare as meatloaf and gravy, fried catfish, hamburger steak and crawfish fettucine. If you are lucky they will be serving dad’s pork barbecue (pit cooked) or marinated Chicken Catalina. The buffet generally includes three entrees, four or five vegetables, and several desserts. The double dark chocolate cake with soft-serve ice cream and barely-sweet bread pudding are wondrous. The buffet alone costs $5; with the sparse-but-fresh salad bar add 50 cents, with a choice of hearty soups or gumbo add $1. Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 809 Cameron St. Broussard. 837-3663.
Borden’s Ice Cream: No, this is not a lunchroom, but the best place to cap off a good meal on a hot day. This is the kind of old-fashioned ice cream parlor that would set any child nagging his dad relentlessly; “Can we get some? Can we puhleeeeze?…” The façade is strictly deco, with glass bricks and stucco supporting a neon BORDEN’S sign. This is the last operating branch of what was once a thriving chain. Borden’s specializes in the really gooey stuff like splits and sundaes made with fruit toppings and wet nuts. What knocks me out are the ice cream drinks. Here at last is a place where people know the difference between a shake, a float, a soda, and a freeze and serve definitive versions of each. Try the “Flip” (sherbert blended with carbonated water and milk) to cool off on a hot day. There is no place like Borden’s to fight the South Louisiana heat. Located just off Jefferson on Johnston St. in downtown Lafayette, Borden’s is within walking distance of downtown and Festival International activities. They are open 7 days a week from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Macon Fry is currently finishing The Cajun Country Guide, an in-depth guide to Acadiana. The new book will contain the most complete directory to zydeco and Cajun dance halls ever compiled, a swamp tour guide, and the best out-of-the-way places to eat. Look for the book in December.