Sometimes it takes just one bite to change your future. As a rule, Greg Jones did not eat Cajun food outside the borders of Louisiana. So when his son dragged him "kicking and screaming" to the Lost Cajun in Breckenridge, this born-and-bred Louisianan was skeptical. Cajun food in a ski town? Get lost. But after one bite of the restaurant's gumbo, he realized that it tasted "like home" and immediately asked about franchise opportunities in Denver.
Fast-forward about two years to find Jones behind the debut of the Lost Cajun at 5350 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton, the first metro Denver branch of a Summit County favorite that started serving jambalaya, gumbo and beignets from a tiny building on Main Street in Frisco in October 2010.
New to Cajun food? Each customer is greeted with a complimentary sampling of the Lost Cajun's signature dishes before ordering. That way you can try tastes of traditional Bayou dishes like seafood gumbo with crab and shrimp, crawfish étouffée, rich and creamy lobster bisque, red beans and rice, chicken-and-sausage jambalaya and the spiciest gumbo on the menu before ordering full portions.
The Lost Cajun serves soul food steeped in 400 years of a tradition of "one-pot meals" worked for hours in cast-iron, scraping the trinity of celery, peppers and onions to build layers of flavor. Gumbos are cooked for eight hours with big chunks of okra and tomato in a rich, dark roux. Cajun classics like creamy Louisiana red beans with spicy Cajun sausage or crawfish étouffée (crawdad tails smothered in thick roux) are served over rice with toasted, buttered French bread.
Meals begin with a "lagniappe," a word to describe "a little something extra" — in this case, appetizers. These include a smattering of fresh, fried-to-order catfish bites, shrimp, oysters, hush puppies and okra. Dust them with the Lost Cajun's signature seasoning blend or shake on a little house cayenne hot sauce. Crispy alligator bites, featuring 100 percent white-meat alligator tail, sided with housemade tartar sauce and remoulade, are a must-order for any adventurous diner. "Chicken wishes it tasted as good as our alligator," says Jon Espey, president of the Lost Cajun chain, which now numbers eleven locations in four states.
Fried meatballs, anyone? Cue the boudin balls: Louisiana's beloved boudin pork-and-rice sausage, here breaded and deep-fried to a dark golden brown and spiced to a lingering heat, a Louisiana culinary treasure dished up as a fast-food, pop-in-your-mouth bite.
All of the company's rich roux bases are handmade in Denver to ensure quality and consistency before being finished with vegetables and proteins at each location.
“An awful lot of love goes into these dishes," says Jones. "You don’t just jump up and throw them together; it's not a twenty-minute meal. They are labors of love."
“There is no 'Chef Mike' in our kitchen — no microwaves," adds Espey.
Jambalaya (dirty rice with chicken thighs and spicy Cajun sausage) is made fresh twice daily and has been selling out before close regularly, according to Jones. Stir-fries, like blackened catfish or Cajun shrimp, are heaping portions of seafood and baton-cut vegetables over rice. Po'boys are piled with a choice of roast beef, sausage, fried catfish, shrimp, oysters or gator — all sandwiched between halves of warm garlic French bread.
Leave room for beignets (fried pillows dusted with powdered sugar) and a Louisiana chicory coffee to end the meal as though you were lounging at legendary New Orleans eatery Cafe Du Monde.
After sampling the Cat-ouffeé, Southern fried catfish glazed with crawfish étouffeé, native Louisianians Carole and David Kyle — drawn by the promise of home-style cooking — deemed it authentic. David hails from Shreveport and was impressed that even the sweet tea was just right, nothing but Lipton and simple syrup.
“I may sneak in a few times for lunch and then we will be down for supper," he promises. "I love Cajun food. I grew up on it. I cook it, but it takes so long to make the roux, it's much easier to come here and grab it instead."
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Founder Raymond "Griff" Griffin seems to have gotten it right, at least for Louisiana transplants such as the Kyles and other "lost Cajuns" like Espey and Jones. The restaurant, adorned with Mardi Gras beads and decorations, offers Southern hospitality along with Cajun cuisine. The servers, dressed in tie-dye, bop to upbeat music and call orders loudly while remembering the friendly service Griffin ordered, where "Please, thank you and you're welcome" are mandatory with every interaction.
"Louisiana gets a bad rap," says Jones. "One thing we will not take second place to anyone with is our culture and our food. This food is in my blood. I will test the line and taste the food. If it is not right, I will send it back. I want to share it. I hope that the people of Denver will enjoy all we have to offer.”
With plans to start crawfish boils in mid-February and open additional locations in the metro area "before the snow melts," Jones is bringing Louisiana to Littleton one pot at a time. The Lost Cajun is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.