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But what territory this country covers! Fans of anything cornmeal-dusted and deep-fried or pepper-crusted and grilled will love Cafe Evangeline's food. I fell in love at first bite with the addictive Cajun-style crawfish ($7.95), a large serving of the little buggers coated in a standard batter, fried and served with a mild cocktail sauce. The catfish fingers ($7.95) were a bit bland, but that seemed to be the fault of the fish, not the thin layer of cornmeal or the perfect flash-frying, which left the flesh naturally oily and plush.
And while the "BBQ" oysters ($8.95) were not what I expected--the "barbecued" shrimp and oysters I've eaten in New Orleans were all sauteed at a very high heat in a well-seasoned butter-garlic-beer-Worcestershire sauce, and these weren't cooked that way or barbecued in any other sense--the cornmeal-coated oysters were delicious nonetheless. They came with a potent, buttery Tabasco-kissed sauce that reminded me of the traditional Creole-mustard-spiked sherry sauce that comes with popcorn crawfish down on the Bayou. (Che, who doesn't like the "barbecue" moniker, either, says he's going to revamp the dish.)
Another splendid sauce, a Creole meuniere, came on the filet of fish Evangeline ($15.95), that day's catch of tuna. Foucher has tinkered some with Percle's recipe, and the result is a seafood-stock-based sauce painstakingly thickened with a roux, then slapped silly with cayenne. It arrived draped over a thick tuna steak that had been lightly peppered and grilled--maybe a little too long, since the fish was a tad dry, but the sauce fixed that right up. The sauce also did wonderful things for a "Mardi Gras" medley of vegetables--the usual summer-squash parade, enlivened here with black pepper--and I even smashed some of it into my second side, wonderfully salty and soft red beans and rice. The second I saw those red beans, I longed for cornbread, which my husband had spotted on a few tables. When we asked our server, she told us you don't get the bread unless you request it; shortly after we did, a basket of it, still steaming, arrived at our table. (LeBlanc says she's still unsure about serving complimentary cornbread, because some people don't want it.)
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Cornbread was also in order for sopping up the remains of the roast pork loin ($15.95), thin slices dotted with cracked black pepper and covered with a seasoned cream sauce that was light on the cream and heavy on the spicy seasoning. With this entree we got more of the veggie medley and the MoJo potatoes, mildly spiced slivers that had been boiled and baked. The spuds were fine, but they were nothing compared to the potato salad we ordered with our crabcakes ($15.95). This was a creamy, pickle-heavy version just right for cooling our tongues--and they needed that treatment after a bite of the cakes, which had been gently blackened around the edges and covered with Evangeline's etouffee, a subtle, not-overly-thickened shrimp mixture. Beneath the two crab patties sat rounds of fried eggplant, which added an unnecessary element of grease but were still undeniably tasty.
Like the rest of Evangeline's dishes, the desserts are something to be reckoned with. The bread pudding ($3.95) was a dense, hefty helping that seemed more like cake than bread soaked with a sugary rum sauce; the pecan pie ($3.95) had few pecans and plenty of good filling that resembled solidified corn syrup. And even though the banana pie ($4.50) bore no resemblance to bananas Foster, despite our server's promise, its lack of sweetness and straightforward banana flavor were appealing.
When we returned for lunch, we started with a cup of shrimp-and-corn soup ($3.25)--a nice brew, a bit sweet and packed with small shrimp--and a cup of the gumbo ($3.25). This take on the Cajun classic is nothing like the gumbo served at his father's place, Che says, but it was fine by me: bits of chicken and seafood in a thick, rich base with a hint of sausage heat.
On my first visit to New Orleans, I'd ordered a po' boy and nearly fainted when I saw how many oysters they'd packed into a big, sopping wet sandwich that cost about five bucks. While Evangeline's oyster po boy ($7.50) wasn't quite as startling, it still got the job done, with a respectable number of the same cornmealy oysters we'd enjoyed at dinner tucked into a huge but serviceable chewy-spongy baguette. Our other choice, the sloppy roast beef ($6.95), arrived dripping with rich juices oozing from the tender shreds of beef. (After we caught sight of the size of these sandwiches, we realized why Evangeline's offers half a po' boy, a cup of soup and a side for the same price as one po' boy.)
A few days later I went back to the Bayou yet again for a plate of jambalaya ($6.95). The dish's name comes from the French jambon, which means ham, the African ya for rice, and the Acadian way of saying everything "à la"; most food historians agree that it's a derivation of paella, which makes sense. Cafe Evangeline's jambalaya moves even further away from the original inspiration, with turkey instead of chicken mixed in with the andouille and not even a hint of tasso or any other smoked ham. Still, the dish worked because the proportions were right: garlic, cayenne, bay and thyme, well-cooked rice, a good stock for the base.