By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
One of the last places you'd expect to find a former news director for Lewis and Floorwax is running a Cajun restaurant, but here's Marilyn LeBlanc at the helm of Cafe Evangeline, named after the Longfellow poem about a betrothed couple separated after they were forced out of Acadia in the 1700s. LeBlanc knows all about those two--it just so happens that she's from the Bayou, darlin'--and don't get her started on how that Evangeline story is as fictional as that thigh-slappin', washboard-strummin', zydeco-dancin' Cajun stereotype.
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"That whole Cajun thing has been so overused and overexposed," says LeBlanc, who moved to Denver in 1990 from Raleigh, North Carolina, where she'd been working for a radio station. Before that, it was radio in Miami; before that, New Orleans. And before that, she cut her radio teeth on the little stations up and down the Bayou near her hometown of Paincourtville, Louisiana, where her dad owned the Paincourtville Club, a combination dance hall, bar, barbershop and restaurant. But back then, LeBlanc wasn't interested in following in Pop's footsteps. "Radio was all I really wanted to do," she says. "But now, after seventeen years in it, and after being the victim of budget cuts so many times, I finally had to say, 'Enough's enough.'"
It was a budget cut at The Fox in 1997 that left LeBlanc with six months of unemployment pay and free time, during which she traveled all over, including back home. "I'd always thought Denver needed more in the way of good Cajun food, and my friends have always been telling me I should have my own place," she explains. "I started talking with people, asking them, 'How can I do this when I'm unemployed and have no money?'"
What she did have, though, was plenty of friends, among them Johnny Percle--dubbed "Johnny Jambalaya" by Dr. John--the chef at Nottoway Plantation, twenty miles south of Baton Rouge. "Johnny was great," LeBlanc says. "He sat down and went over things like budget and projections, helped me put it all together. I cashed in everything I had, got a second mortgage on my house, you name it. And now here I am, after all this time, doing just what my daddy did."
Not quite. In the small space that LeBlanc took over from Basil's Cafe, there's not enough room for anyone to dance more than two steps or drink anywhere but at his table, and no one's going to drop in for a haircut unless he wants a trim with a chef's knife. And once LeBlanc found the spot and decorated it in a genteel, unpretentious way, she still needed to find someone to cook there. But once again, things just fell into place. "I was at Einstein Bagels one day, and I saw this guy had a name tag that said 'Foucher.' I thought, whoa, he's gotta be from Louisiana, and I need to know that man. So I walked over to him and introduced myself. Turns out he's sure 'nough from my neck of the woods--and I didn't find out until weeks later, after he said he'd be interested in helping me out, that he has this whole history here."
That history involves the legendary Foucher's Cajun Creole, which sat on 17th Avenue for twelve years until it closed in 1988. Lloyd Foucher Sr. opened the restaurant with his wife, Charlesanna, and it's their son, Lloyd "Che" Foucher Jr., who's cooking at Cafe Evangeline. In addition, Che--who got his nickname from pals at Cherry Creek High School who were riffing off the end of his last name--is the nephew of Pierre Foucher, who's owned Pierre's Supper Club, at 22nd Avenue and Downing, for more than four decades. When Che was five, his family moved from Edgard, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans, to Denver, where his dad worked at Pierre's until he could afford a place of his own. At Foucher's, he and Che, who cooked with him from the start, quickly gained quite a reputation for their fried chicken, which some Denverites still swear is the best this side of the Mississippi.
But Che's not cooking up fried chicken at Cafe Evangeline--"Not enough deep fryers," he and LeBlanc say--or much else from Foucher's old menu. "People come in here expecting to get all the same food, but it's not," Che explains. "This is Johnny Percle's menu and his recipes, and I'm just cooking it." Yes, but how he's cooking it--which is very well, indeed--is important, because despite LeBlanc's concerns over Cajun misconceptions, the short menu is dominated by the very basics of Cajun cooking: andouille sausage, etoufee, blackened everything.
More history: Cajun cuisine is based on simple country French food, created by the French immigrants who were kicked out of Acadia (now Nova Scotia), and wound up all over Louisiana, where they adapted indigenous ingredients to the slow-cooking French style. The result is food that's spicier than Creole, which is a combination of cuisines from the countries that once owned Louisiana, such as France and Spain, along with the cooking of other ethnic groups in New Orleans, Creole's birthplace, including Italian, American Indian and African. Some New Orleans natives, like Cajun restaurateur Paul Prudhomme, call Creole "city cooking." In contrast, Cajun is country cooking.