Given the complexity, subtlety, history and character in Cajun and Creole cooking, Maine’s lack of sit-down dinner options featuring this style of food perplexes me.
My husband Travis maintains that Cajun food is “poor people” food (in a good way), and that aesthetic might explain why a higher-end restaurant might offer an entree or two that are Louisiana-inspired. But why we must set our watches a bit earlier and head to the Bayou Kitchen before it closes each day at 2 p.m. if we want both a Cajun menu and table service?
And about that table service? If you are a server, it is easy to be nice when the circumstances are ideal. It is tougher when your shift is about to end after a nutso morning filled with cranky and entitled-acting customers. Imagine that, just when you see the end in sight, one last party slides onto the wait list. And not just one last party, a party that orders almost every item on the menu.
We were “that” party.
The Bayou Kitchen in Portland is popular on any given weekend, but make it a holiday like New Year’s Eve, and the wait creeps to more than an hour. We were the last party added to the wait list, and during the wait, we lingered outside and peeked through the bright yellow-framed windows decorated with a dancing cartoon alligator.
Sheepishly, we apologized, but the server’s reaction was fantastic. She was tired and sassy, but still very friendly. Even when we gave her our order.
As we added item after item, she sighed and offered a nervous giggle, anxious about handling this final, enormous list to the kitchen staff who were, no doubt, looking forward to the end of their long shift. As we attempted to sample as many options as possible, she actually ran out of paper on her pad.
We heard “You have got to be kidding!” from the kitchen, but it was a good-humored shriek, and we never once felt rushed or like an inconvenience.
And then the magic happened. Coffee (endless cup, $1.65) was poured, hot and strong, and we got to tasting.
While the Bayou Kitchen offers brunch, emphasis is placed on the “bayou,” and most items are designed with a signature blend of Creole and Cajun flair. (The differences between Creole and Cajun are too lengthy to discuss here, but know that there was ample evidence of both on the menu.)
The Chicken Piquant ($7.50) is a soup made with bits of chicken simmered in olive oil and vinegar with onions, peppers, garlic and tomato. Served over rice, the result is both belly-warming and sweet, well-balanced and delicious.
For the uninitiated, the main difference between gumbo and jambalaya is that jambalaya is a rice-centered dish similar to a paella. (Interesting side fact, if it is to be believed: Jambalaya takes its etymology from the French “jambon,” or ham, which was a traditional ingredient in jambalaya’s earliest days.) Alternatively, gumbo is a roux-based stew, typically made with okra. (Another interesting side fact: Gumbo is derived from a Bantu word, “ki ngombo,” meaning okra.)
People often equate jambalaya and gumbos with heat, and while the heat is present in the Bayou Kitchen’s versions, it is a smooth, subtle and well-portioned heat wrapped in layer after layer of flavor.
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo ($8.50) is advertised as a “Louisiana country stew with peppers, onions, okra, chicken, and Andouille sausage in a home-style gravy over rice.” Add crawfish (and you should, portions are not scanty) for $3. This gumbo was roux-brown, thick and rich with smokiness.
Classic Jambalaya ($8.25) is the Kitchen’s rice specialty with chicken, Andouille sausage, onions, peppers, garlic, rice and the restaurant’s own “Jamba Juice.” Again, add crawfish for $3, and the heat from this paella-like dish was like Goldilocks’ porridge — not too hot and not too cold; just right. (The veggie version costs $7.50 with onions, peppers, garlic, mushrooms, tomato, broccoli, rice and the same “Jamba Juice.” Mmm.)
Both the gumbo and jambalaya are served with homemade cornbread or biscuit. (Side orders cost $2 and $1.75, respectively.) The biscuit is the thick and substantial type, and cornbread is offered in plain, jalapeno and blueberry varieties. This isn’t the cakey cornbread though; it’s crispy — as if toasted on the grill. Mmm, again.
Louisiana classics noted, the Bayou Kitchen is a brunch joint, and the menu is filled with egg and griddle options. My personal favorite is the Cajun Scramble ($9.75) with crawfish, Andouille sausage, sliced jalapenos and cheddar.
Aptly named, it is a plateful of eggs cooked as requested (I like mine cooked hard) with enough heat in the abundance of peppers to power a furnace. And if I needed even more heat, both Tabasco and local Maine-based Lost Woods hot sauce bottles graced the table.
The Tri-Sausage Scramble ($8.75) was the same scramble concept but made with Andouille, Polish, and Chorizo and cheddar. Add a side of bacon — three of the biggest, tastiest, crispiest, perfectly-cut pieces in town — for $2.50.
The best, though, is the Custom Pancake Shop. (Let me emphasize this again: custom pancake shop. I was in carb heaven.) Choose from ginger, coffee, pecan, blueberry, banana, chocolate chip or granola. A short stack costs $6.50; tall, $8.75.
We chose pecan, and I was initially apprehensive because of the large box of Gold Medal Complete Buttermilk Pancake Mix sitting on the counter bar. Pancake mix seemed like cheating, but whatever the base ingredients, the result is an enormous pancake of atypical consistency. Rather than light and spongy, these pancakes were light and biscuit-y. Almost like a shortbread, but a shortbread filled with toasted pecans. (Add $1.75 for the real Earth’s Pride Organics maple syrup.) Now that I know what pancakes can taste like, I plan to return. It was a pancake epiphany.
From start to finish, the Bayou Kitchen was a warm and casual respite from the winter chill.
Service was a perfect blend of friendly and sassy, and the food prepared with an expert and subtle hand. Flavors were layered, and the menu showed an intelligent blend of options — each representing the Louisiana theme, but not catapulting it into caricature.
I will be back, earlier next time, to linger and savor.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”