In classic French cuisine, a roux is a sauce base of basically equal parts fat and starch that has its roots in the word for “red” or “browned.” You can’t have a milk gravy or that chipped beef on toast without one. Translated into American regional cooking by folks of French heritage along the Gulf Coast, it forms the backbone of all manner of Creole and Bayou dishes from jambalayas to étouffées. Only in this country does a roux realize all of its possible hues from blond to a brown that’s dangerously close to burnt, an almost mystical achievement of the most skilled of roux makers.
Or, it’s a funny spelling of the “oo” sound to use in lots of jokes around the gumbo shop. Which is exactly what you’ll get when you step into the n“oux”est and coziest neighborhood eatery in the vicinity of 10th and Post. The friendly folks at Papa Roux, which just about six weeks ago opened in the gutted former home of Emmanuel’s Heavenly Chef, wish “youx” a good “afternouxn” and point diners toward the “loux” (also labeled “Le Restroom”). The humor doesn’t stop in the signage. Fridays are “Foux Man Choux Day,” where anyone sporting the stereotypical facial hair (even a fake one penciled on) can get a free beverage.
But there’s no joking when it comes to the cuisine, and owners Art Bouvier and Colleene Kenna are very serious about the traditional Cajun dishes they’re serving up at their first restaurant endeavor. “Restaurant” is a bit of a loose term here, however, as a good deal of the business at this homey lunch counter is carryout, and the whole place, even the menu, is, as the owners admit, a work in progress. Right now, you never know quite what will be on the steam table when you stop in, from sausage and chicken stew to shrimp Creole, though you can be sure most of it will be tasty. Helping Bouvier and Kenna with their “experiment” are Paul and Allison Willock, who help make this one of the friendliest places where you’ll eat lunch on the whole Eastside. Most days, it’s Paul who will direct you toward the choices for your lunch or take-home dinner.
Cajun cuisine isn’t exactly “new,” however you spell it. Paul Prudhomme introduced it to the wider country in the late ’70s, and plenty of earlier restaurants have made it accessible to local diners. But there’s new interest in authentic Cajun eats in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Bouvier and Kenna, who moved up from New Orleans in 2000, are taking a somewhat more home-style and purist approach to the cuisine. Seasoning is straightforward and simple; dishes taste like what they’re made of (albeit with a good deal of butter), not needless secret spices or overpowering hot sauces.
Probably the most interesting dish they’ve offered so far is jambalaya “maïs lisse” or creamy grits with crawfish and one of the most balanced buttery sauces you’ll find at any Cajun eatery. For big, sloppy and delicious, the sausage po’ boy ($5.50) with red beans and coleslaw is probably the best bargain on the menu, though most dishes hover in the $6.50 vicinity for a regular portion with one side. Chicken and sausage stew is just as billed, served over rice, though a more aggressive spicing might make this just a tad more interesting. Slow-cooked pork chops come with some of the most expertly cooked firm but tender red beans you’ll find. Shrimp Creole has one of the richer, deeper flavors, and shrimp gumbo might benefit from a few more constituent ingredients, though it’s a soothing, warm dish of the sort your neighbor down the road would bring to a community gathering (if you lived, say, in Baton Rouge).
Sides are part of the work in progress that one hopes will change over time. Cornbread is a little overly crumbly, though tasty enough, and coleslaw is a bit runny and lacking much tang. Packaged cups of applesauce or pudding are the only other offerings right now. Bread pudding, once a side but now a dessert, is much more to the pudding side than you might imagine. Served cold, this thick, sweet concoction is definitely more at home at the meal’s end than next to your gumbo.
By fall, the folks at Papa Roux hope to spiff up the dining room a bit — it’s pretty much an outdoor patio indoors right now — and to regularize the menu to eliminate the guesswork. So, if you’ve got a favorite Cajun dish, stop in now to vote for it on the main menu. Just remember to draw on a moustache if it’s a Friday. And to spell everything with an “oux.”
8950 E. 10th St.
Lunch: Tuesday - Saturday
Dinnerr: 11a.m. - 8p.m.
Food: Three stars
Atmosphere: Two and a half stars
Service: Three stars
Recommended dishes: Jambalaya grits, sausage po’ boy, shrimp Creole, bread pudding