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.
"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.
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.)
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.
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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.
These tastes of authentic Cajun cooking have whet my appetite for more exotic Cajun and Creole dishes, such as rabbit and "pirogues" and paneed veal. But until someone's brave enough to bring them to Denver--perhaps LeBlanc herself--the tiny Cafe Evangeline is a lovely lagniappe for Denver diners.
Cafe Evangeline, 30 South Broadway, 303-282-8955. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.