Cajun Bayou Food Trail mixes cuisine and culture
Anthony Bourdain, the late, great food and travel writer and celebrity chef host of the CNN series “Parts Unknown,” may have done more than anyone else to awaken America to the savory delights and unique cultural significance of Cajun food.
Bourdain cherished southern Louisiana and he visited the region many times. His last visit, to join a boisterous Cajun Mardi Gras celebration in 2018, aired on CNN in June, a little more than a week following his death.
“Cajuns do things their way, always have, always will,” Bourdain says on “Parts Unknown.” “Whether it’s hanging on to the French language of their ancestors, their music traditions, or food, Cajuns fiercely keep it all alive.”
And now, one Louisiana parish is doing its part to keep alive for visitors the special appeal of Cajun cuisine and the unique culture that surrounds it. Located about an hour’s drive south of New Orleans, Lafourche Parish is a 1,500-square mile swath of saltwater marshes, bayous and crossroads communities strung out between parish seat Thibodaux (pop. 14,567) and Port Fourchon on the Gulf of Mexico. It is a region authentically and unapologetically Cajun to its roots, going all the way back to its 17th century settlement as a district of New France.
Seeking a plan designed to promote its wealth of Cajun eateries, the parish tourist office — Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou Tourism — earlier this year launched the Cajun Bayou Food Trail. The Trail includes 18 restaurants and six festivals and events, all of which focus on helping visitors understand how the region’s food and culture are so deliciously and forever intertwined.
“Here along the Bayou, Cajuns use what’s around them, pulling from the water and plucking from the land to find the freshest ingredients — and then they tend to mix it all together in one big pot,” says Timothy Bush, president and CEO of Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou Tourism.
“Our food has a story that’s rooted in traditions and expressed by the wonderful storytellers who own and operate restaurants along the Trail.”
Navigating the Trail is simple. Go to www.lacajunbayou.com/ foodtrail and download a trail map and a passport. Visit at least
seven of the 18 participating eateries, ask your servers to stamp your passport, and then drop by Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou Tourism Visitor Center on Highway 1 in Raceland to receive a free T-shirt that reads “I Wandered Up & Down the Bayou.” Or you can mail the passport to Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou Tourism, P.O. Box 340, Raceland, La., 70394, to receive your shirt.
Most of the 18 restaurants on the trail are strung out along Louisiana Highway 1, a two-lane blacktop that runs for 72 miles from Thibodaux south to the Gulf at Port Fourchon.
Following that route south, my first stop on a four-day itinerary aimed at sampling several of the Trail’s eateries found me at Harry’s Poboys, a no-frills roadside food stand in the rural community of Larose. It was a timely arrival, just ahead of the lunchtime crowd that assembles every weekday to feast on oversized shrimp, chicken or beef sandwiches turned out by Chas and Nicole Cheramie.
A second-generation member of Lafourche Parish’s most prominent food family, Chas purchased the shop two years ago from its original owner of 26 years, Harry Herbert. Beef is a rarity on most Cajun menus but it was Harry’s roast beef poboy, seasoned with a highly secret concoction of spices, that became the region’s longstanding sandwich sensation. So, of course, I had to try one. It was a messy, two-fisted task, but the zesty flavor of this super-sized sub more than delivered on its promise.
Next stop on my agenda, about a dozen miles down Highway 1, was Galliano, a town of about 7,500 people nestled alongside Bayou Lafourche, where I would meet up with Anthony Goldsmith, owner and chef at Kajun Twist.
Another long-established enterprise, this restaurant, smartly decorated in ’50s style, was founded 32 years ago by Goldsmith’s grandfather. Although he’s best known for his fried chicken, Goldsmith likes to dabble in more traditional Cajun fare and wanted me to try his shrimp boulette. A sandwich of sorts, it features a deep-fried patty made up of shrimp, potato, pepper and onion that harkens from an original Cajun specialty known as a boulette de crevette frite. Piquant and comfortably crunchy, I’d take one of these over fried chicken any day.
Although I’d eaten twice in the last couple of hours, the prospect of trying some seafood at Leeville Seafood Restaurant, a highly rated restaurant right on the edge of the Gulf near Port Fourchon, seemed promising. Greeting me was owner and manager Sue Cheramie, mother of Chas (of poboy fame), and grande dame of the Cheramie family of restaurateurs. Chas’ brother Norah and his wife, Donna, operate a seafood eatery of their own, Cher Amie’s, another of the trail’s restaurants, in the nearby town of Cut Off.
None of the Cheramies had any culinary training. “It just came to us from cooking for the family,” said Sue as she served me a sampling of her specialties: a bowl of shrimp, crab and corn chowder, soft shell crab and a platter of fried oysters. All of Sue’s seafood is delivered fresh daily by local fishermen — a big reason why it is way beyond delicious.
In the “big city” of Thibodaux, I visited the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. The center traces the history and culture of the Acadians (Cajuns) from the 1600s to the present — a perfect adjunct for anyone following the food trail.
Back to the business of eating, I made my way to Bubba’s II Poboys, the city’s most popular lunch spot. Counter service keeps things moving quickly and I had to think fast as I surveyed owner Neil Swanner’s lengthy menu that lists far more seafood dishes than poboys. I went for a bowl of gumbo and a Super Seafood Salad — a sizeable creation overstuffed with boiled shrimp, crawfish and crabmeat and topped with a savory remoulade dressing.
I was particularly impressed with the gumbo and when I told Swanner so, he said that gumbo is often the subject of friendly competition among Cajun chefs, adding, “Like I usually tell the others, ‘Your gumbo is great — but mine is just a little better.’ ”
That evening I walked downtown to The Venetian, housed in one of Thibodaux’s oldest buildings. It’s something of a Cajun nightclub, featuring Acadian food and music. I devoured an enormous pile of boiled crawfish (a Cajun delicacy seasonally available from roughly March to June) and a platter of duck tenders. It was the consummate finale to another great day on the bayou.
Later in my trip, with lunchtime looming, I made my way north to U.S. Highway 90, then headed east toward New Orleans for a few miles, destined for Spahr’s Seafood Restaurant in Des Allemands. Surviving hurricanes, recessions and a destructive 2002 fire, this bayouside restaurant and lounge has reigned as a regional icon and seat of aquatic culinary eminence for 50 years under the direction of founder Bill Spahr and his family.
“Spahr’s has always been proclaimed as the place where ‘Catfish is King,’ ” says chef Ryan Gaudet, “but we’re quite well known for our gumbo as well.”
Taking the hint, I obligingly ordered fried catfish fillets and a bowl of gumbo. Normally I don’t order catfish since so much of it these days is farmed, but this fish, wild caught right here in Des Allemands (a town declared to be the “Catfish Capital of the Universe” by the Louisiana Legislature in 1980), was definitely superior to any I’ve ever eaten. As for the gumbo, I’m so crazy about this dish that every one of them I try seems better than the last.
The Spahr family also operates a restaurant in downtown Thibodaux and another in Galliano, so there’s no excuse for your Food Trail passport to be missing a Spahr’s stamp.
Boiled crawfish, a Cajun delicacy, is among the dishes served at The Venetian in Thibodaux, La. The Cajun Bayou Food Trail was launched this year.
Fishermen along southern Louisana’s Bayou Lafourche supply fresh seafood to Cajun Food Trail restaurants.
Chef Anthony Goldsmith serves up Shrimp on a Bun at his Kajun Twist restaurant in Galliano, La.