Epicurious Eating: Bud’s Louisiana Cafe
Zesty Creole meals from a latent chef
Published Thursday, 23-Jul-2009 in issue 1126
Bud Deslatte demonstrates that when New Orleans runs through your native blood, the ability to blacken catfish or conjure up a pot of gumbo comes instinctively – no matter at what age you start cooking.
Prior to opening Bud’s Louisiana Café in Tierrasanta (“the island in the hills”), Deslatte owned and operated eight other restaurants around the country, including Bayou Bar & Grill in Downtown San Diego. It was there in the early 90s when I was first exposed to his brightly spiced shrimp etouffee and creamy red beans and rice, which resembled those soulful versions served in kitchens dotting the French Quarter’s dicey outskirts.
But Deslatte didn’t delve into cooking until the age of 40, at which point he leapt from experimental dinner-party host to restaurant proprietor in 1979 with Feelings Café in New Orleans. He continued developing a repertoire of urban-Creole fare that carried through subsequent kitchens in Atlanta, Portland, the Bay Area and finally San Diego. Along the way he met his longtime partner, Rob Adams, who runs the front of the house at Bud’s.
Deslatte’s current portfolio reveals solidly flavored “heritage cuisine” presented in a cute, 650-square-foot space tucked into a neighborhood plaza. His cooking style lacks the pomposity and complications of Emeril Lagasse’s, although it’s enormously fine-tuned compared to the Creole chow you’ll find locally at Chateau Orleans in Pacific Beach, for instance, where the spices often seem amiss.
Cajun jambalaya proved an excellent starter, a “brown” version I’m guessing since we didn’t detect tomato sauce or excess moisture. At the forefront were caramelized onions, celery and green peppers (the holy trinity) jiving to the medium smokiness of Andouille sausage and Tasso ham.
With two companions in tow, we also circulated around the table cups of seafood gumbo reinforced by okra and a sturdy roux, plus seafood bisque laced with shrimp, crab and crawfish. A healthy dose of sherry added at the end injects an appealing boozy finish. Homey jalapeño corn bread muffins are a must with these starters. They’re both sweet and spicy, and cost only 50 cents a pop.
Several menu items are check marked to denote “Bud’s favorites.” We deferred to most of them for the remainder of our meal, proceeding with two Po’ boy sandwiches.
The “sloppy roast beef” was ordinary in comparison to the spicy “BBQ shrimp.” I would have preferred stouter gravy, zestier pickles and more beef. Conversely, the shrimp Po’ boy captured copious sweet shrimp dribbling out of the roll. A torrent of flavors ensued from garlic, Worcestershire and jalapeño tartar sauce. The addition of shredded cabbage on the sandwich imparted the perfect crunch.
Catfish St. Charles is the only item here that undergoes blackening in a traditional cast iron skillet. The fish is actually “bronzed,” meaning that moderate amounts of spices get “burnt” onto the filets over requisite high heat. The result is a quieter, less overwhelming spice coating that allows you to taste the protein underneath. It was love at first bite – peppery and subtly aquatic tasting.
Red beans and rice were also terrific; the beans exuding a milky creaminess and meaty pith from careful slow cooking with ham hocks. Pair it with light Dixie lager or Abita Amber, and the manicured streets of Tierrasanta start feeling like NOLA’s Garden District, driven solely by what’s in your mouth.
A third entrée, not check marked, was Louisiana chicken taking on the inherent French and Spanish influences of Creole cooking with greater obviousness. The breast pieces were smothered in cream sauce, mushrooms and peas and accented by semi-spicy Tasso. All combined, it’s a peasanty and filling dish with urban café flair.
“We’re about Creole city cooking, not country Cajun so much,” said Adams, summing up Deslatte’s culinary bent. Yet based on everything we ate, visitors can expect humble, homemade touches gracing their meals. The heat levels are moderate (as they should be), while the spices taste as though they’re employed at the start, rather than sprinkled into dishes late in the game.
Entrées include small Caesar salads served in heavy cereal bowls – plain and unexciting, but a nice attempt at rounding out the meals with a little bit of raw organic matter.
Our final course had us practically flaunting the party beads on our table in celebration of Deslatte’s Creole pecan pie. The dessert was a blissful departure from the Southern recipes that usually snuff out the toasted essence of the nuts with too much corn syrup. Instead the glaze was minimal, allowing for a thin layer of cheesecake to sweet talk the plump, fresh pecans.
We came away from Bud’s with intentions of returning soon. The prices are decent, the service is unpretentious and the food adheres faithfully to Deslatte’s Louisiana roots without bending the rules for San Diego palates.