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State of the Union

A few weeks ago I awoke dogged by a beautiful fantasy. This was it: Every day precisely at noon, I would rise from my typewriter, don my fedora, slip a detective novel into my suit pocket and head over to the Union Station lunch counter, where a sneering counter boy in a white paper hat would slap "the regular" in front of me at 12:05. I didn't care so much what the regular would be--a BLT on toast and cup of joe, let's say. While seated on my habitual stool, fourth from the left, I would absorb piquant bits of humanity, which would show up that afternoon in my writing. I would develop a network of Chandleresque informants, who would sidle up to that fourth stool from the left and give me hot story leads under their breath. See, they would know where to find me.

As fantasies go, this seemed a lot more workable than winning the lottery or suddenly developing triceps, so at noon one recent weekday, I rose and went. But the Railcar Diner, as the lunch counter is now called, was closed. I went to the Amtrak window to find out why and received the following intelligence from a depressed-looking man in a conductor's hat.

"It's usually closed."
"Is it open when the trains come in?"
"Sometimes."
"When will a train come in?"
"Just why are you asking?"
"I'd like to eat there."

Amtrak Man fixed me with a doleful stare. "I wouldn't eat there if you held a knife to my throat," he said.

This would have been an opportune time for one of my informants to sidle up and give me the straight skinny, but none materialized. So I did some sidling of my own. It turns out the Railcar Diner is no longer the only place to eat in Union Station--in fact, the station is flanked by two new restaurants in spaces previously occupied by just slightly older restaurants. Not only that, but these places are open at regular hours, regardless of the Amtrak schedule.

I decided to move beyond the BLT.
My first Union Station lunch took me to Redfish Seafood Kitchen, the "Looziana Roadhouse" now inhabiting what was recently a T.G.I.Friday's. Aside from some patio tables that offer a discouraging view of a high-priced parking lot (and a gulp of carbon monoxide with your lunch), the physical plant at Redfish appealed to me instantly.

A huge space, it is softened by mahogany-trimmed acoustic panels suspended from the ceiling, which means you can have a conversation and still listen to a wonderfully obscure soundtrack of blues and Cajun music. You can sit in a cushy booth, at either of two bars (one devoted to oysters) or at a more central table, or you can simply park yourself at one of two bar-sized pool tables. Redfish is big but intimate.

Our waitress told us that Redfish is part of a chain but that there are only a few Redfishes, and they're each encouraged to add their own variations to the mix. We wanted to keep things Louisianan, though, so we began with Dixie Crimson Voodoo beer ($4.25), Front Porch Ice Tea (served sweet or not, for $1.50) and a half-dozen oysters, market-priced at $7 that day. The oysters came on a bed of crushed ice in a vintage Coke tray and could not have been fresher. The tea was a rip--it sipped exactly like Lipton's mix (which may be the authentic Lafayette flavor, for all I know). But Dixie's Crimson was as remarkable for its delightfully creepy label as it was for its robust, bitter taste.

Ten minutes later our table was covered with a selection of entrees and appetizers, beginning with the gumbo Ya Ya ($3.95 small, $6.95 large)--a thick, file-heady paste of a soup without as much smoked chicken or andouille as we might have hoped, but with lots of authenticity. More satisfying were the jumbo lump crabcakes ($8.95), which, unlike some sissy versions, were both lumpy and crabby and were served in a pool of creamy mustard. A side of sweet-potato chips ($1.95) added a touch of delicate fried heaven--but you had to eat them right away, as they became a sodden mass in five minutes. The Voodoo house salad (2.95), your basic iceberg mix, had been hexed by a dousing of Georgia peanut vinaigrette that was all vinaigrette and no peanut (did the server forget to mix the dressing?). Finally, we tried a North Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($6.95), stuffed with shredded-to-bits tender meat but disappointingly drier than the sandwiches I've eaten in North Carolina diners, which were so saturated with barbecue sauce that the bun welded to the meat.

Still, I was encouraged enough to return for a blue-plate special at noon one Monday, when chicken-fried chicken ($8.95) is the standard offering. Fried chicken is boot camp for a restaurant: It's either very bad or very good. I held my breath and received...two excellent chicken breast fillets deep-fried in seasoned breadcrumbs alongside a lump of andouille cheddar mashed potatoes that tasted like an entire bereavement casserole. (What has become of plain old mashed potatoes with nothing in them but lumps?) Then we dismantled an oyster po' boy ($9.95) that featured an addictive remoulade and delectable fried oysters swimming in a way-too-bready (but probably authentic) shell of baguette. With the blue-plate special, served on an actual blue plate, Redfish sidestepped the official fried chicken exam--but otherwise the restaurant passed my lunchtime test with frying colors.

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