I was recently invited to participate in a Cajun Culinary Adventure in Southwest Louisiana with a group of fellow food writers and knew instinctively that I should only pack stretchy pants. We were going to be sampling food that would be both elevated and chef-driven but also native and down-home.
It might be difficult to succinctly describe the flavors of dishes served in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but most of the major influences are obvious when you visit the city in person and talk to the locals. The lake itself, which begins as a lagoon before meandering thirty miles and then emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, accounts for the abundant supply of seafood.
Thousands of acres of rice fields explain why Louisiana is the third largest rice producing state in the United States and why the grain shows up in so many dishes. Area sugar cane farms contribute to the sweetness of dishes as well as the production of rum and vodka. Then you factor in the Cajun culture with its special recipes and spices, and you begin to understand why the culinary scene in this part of Louisiana is so extraordinary.
Two of my biggest surprises pertaining to food involved cowboys and crawfish. When other portions of the South were driven by cotton and sugar cane plantations, cattle ranches dominated this area and still have a strong influence. That’s why a fabulous steak can be virtually guaranteed. And, previously unknown to me, once a rice field is harvested, it is perfect for crawfish to emerge out of the ooze, breed and grow. How convenient since Cajun cuisine and crawfish are practically synonymous!
Cast Iron Cook-Off
Another aspect of cooking that is synonymous with Cajun cuisine is using cast iron. The movers and shakers of Lake Charles hosted an inaugural event this year focusing on that fact – Southern Cast Iron Cook Off. On November 1-2, 2019, the Lake Charles Civic Center was filled with vendors, entertainment and live cooking demonstrations presented by well-known local chefs using cast iron, of course.
Beginning with lively zydeco music from Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and The Zydeco Twisters at the VIP Party on Friday night and ending with a country music grand finale concert by Craig Morgan and his band, the venue was hopping while the competitors showed off their skills under tents set up outside. Chef Ryan Trahan demonstrated New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp, then I watched hungrily as Chef Lyle Broussard let us in on his secrets for making Alligator and Andouille Sauce Picante.
Lake Charles Humor and Gambling
Some of Broussard’s quotes made me chuckle: “I want to meet the guy who can ruin a cast iron pot!” When he talked about his cooking background, he shared that he didn’t learn from a recipe, but instead watched an aunt, an uncle or his grandmother. “This is Louisiana. EVERYBODY knows how to cook.” Regarding the alligator meat he used in his recipe: “Most people say it tastes like chicken. To me, I say it tastes like alligator.” I wanted to see the demos for making bread pudding, Southern biscuits and cast iron-seared scallops but had to move along, so I will be watching the SouthernCastIron.com website when the videos from this event are added.
Lake Charles is also recognized as being Louisiana’s largest casino market and likes to quip that “Houston folks come here to sin!” For the group of food writers and myself, our interest was in the superb restaurants attached to the casinos, rather than in the slot machines and gaming tables.
The Array of Lake Charles Dishes
Our first evening we had dinner at Jack Daniel’s Bar and Grill inside L’Auberge Casino Resort where Chef Broussard is the Chef de Cuisine. The last night we enjoyed an elegant meal at Ember Grille and Wine Bar, also inside L’Auberge.
In between, we sampled Darrell’s Special, an amazing meat sandwich with jalapeño mayonnaise, at Darrell’s, frozen treats at Boombox, quiche and cinnamon roll bread pudding at The Bekery (yes, that’s the correct spelling), pizza at Crying Eagle Brewing Company, topnotch organic coffee at Acadian Coffee Roasters, appetizers at Luna Bar and Grill, fresh boudin and cracklins at B & O Kitchen and Grocery, crab beignets, bone marrow and a jaw-dropping wedge salad at Restaurant Calla, a relaxing brunch at Villa Harlequin and burgers and fries from Panorama Music House.
As we left Lake Charles, every member of the group vowed to fast and spend time on our treadmills, but each new pound we gained was deliciously acquired. I highly recommend planning a trip to eat your way through this fascinating city. You’ll be greeted warmly and will encounter one-of-a kind tastes.
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Visit Lake Charles hosted this trip, but every opinion is my own.
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