Wining & Dining
Navigating Southwest Louisianas Growing Food Culture
5/12/2014 11:44:29 AM

Southwest Louisiana had an identity crisis for years. Straddling the cultural line between Cajun country and Southeast Texas, the community has grappled with competing cultural ideologies. Should we force the Cajun motif? Is Lake Charles, at its core, more "Texas” than "Louisiana”? Is it a college town, an industrial center or an entertainment hub?

The question of cultural identity led to cultural stagnation. However, the city seems to have found itself in recent years. In spite of its relatively small population, there is a diverse and thriving foodie haven nestled between the marshes of Louisiana and the plains of Texas.

As it turns out, Lake Charles doesn’t fit into any single motif. It doesn’t have a single "thing” that identifies it. Ironically, the fact that the community doesn’t ascribe to any one cultural identity is its identity.

From its very inception, Southwest Louisiana was occupied by the misfits and outcasts from a then newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and Spanish-controlled Texas. This area was a lawless "no man’s land” that didn’t play by anyone’s rules. This cultural misfit identity has remained and flourished in the region, spawning a unique dining culture.

Although area hard-hitters like Darrell’s, Casa Manana and Luna are delicious and contribute greatly to the food culture of the city, this article is about the outliers—the mom-and-pops that offer unique plates for adventurous eaters. If you’re looking for beautifully decorated dining rooms, long-aproned waiters, visually appealing meal arrangements and expensive tabs, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Tasterite Jamaican: Visit once and this will be your "one love” in Lake Charles.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of great food in Louisiana? It’s a safe bet that jerk chicken and plantains wouldn’t, but that’s exactly what the folks at Tasterite Jamaican Bakery are cooking up.

The menu is steeped in Jamaican/Indo-Caribbean/island fare. From more exotic dishes like "oxtail” and "curry goat” to the well-known "jerk chicken,” Tasterite delivers slow-simmered, savory goodness. Most dishes are served with Caribbean brown rice, vegetables, sweet plantains and a colorful, crisp cabbage salad.

A word of caution, though: Don’t expect a sit down meal. Tasterite is takeout only.

Best on the Menu: While the jerk chicken or pork is always a safe bet, try any one of the daily specials. Seriously, any of them.

Leonard’s Food Quarters: Not your grandma’s "soul food.”

Just down the road from Tasterite is the purveyor of the most culturally diverse menu in the city, Leonard’s Food Quarters. This place is not "Cajun,” nor "Creole,” nor "soul food,” nor "Italian.” It is all of them and it is none of them.

Featuring everything from pizza to poboys, if you try to get a handle on the cultural identity of this menu, you’ll fail. In that way it’s a perfect metaphor for Lake Charles. The only thing many of the dishes on the menu have in common is that they’re all delicious.

Best on the Menu: Leonard’s red beans and rice could put New Orleans to shame. And their boudin balls are baseball-sized and delicious.

Taj Mahal Grill: Humble confines, majestic taste.

In spite of its name, Taj Mahal is not a palatial marvel of architectural prowess and beauty. It’s sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and a laundromat. But magic happens in these unassuming confines. This mom-and-pop operation has a sizable contingent of McNeese students eating out of the palm of its proverbial hand.

Taj Mahal is an Indian/Pakistani fusion restaurant. Don’t be intimidated if some of the menu items seem foreign to you. They probably are. They are also spicy and delicious. Many dishes are served with rice, a fresh cucumber salad and a tart and creamy yogurt dressing.

Best on the Menu: Don’t be drawn in by the familiarity of the kebabs on the menu (although they are fantastic). Try any one of the daily specials. Pro tip: just about anything with "curry” in the name is delicious. If you must stick to the menu, try the Chicken Tikka Boti. It’s grilled chicken with a spicy red marinade.

Pho Tien: Vietnamese, if you please.

Like many of the others on this list, Pho Tien is the only place of its kind in Lake Charles (aside from L’auberge’s "Asia”). This family owned and operated restaurant has a twin of the same name in Lafayette. They offer traditional Vietnamese dishes and reasonable prices.

Don’t be daunted by the somewhat large menu and giant fish tank in the middle of the dining room. Pho Tien’s dishes have robust flavors and plenty of spice.

If you’re a beginner, try the Pho beef noodle soup. Piping hot beef broth, served with thin beef strips, rice noodles, cilantro, onions, jalapenos, lime, fresh mint and bean sprouts. Mix the ingredients to your taste and dive in.

Best on the Menu: Pho Tien’s green curry (yes, curry again) soup with shrimp is arguably one of the best soup dishes in town. Served over rice, this creamy masterpiece is a must.

Victoria’s Taqueria: Authentic tacos. Need I say more?

Perhaps the most authentic Mexican lunch haunt in the city, Victoria’s calls a repurposed gas station home. These folks essentially do one thing—tacos. But they do it better than anyone.

With a pretty sizable breakfast menu, Victoria’s opens early for the breakfast crowd. The only drawback is that it’s not a dinner spot. They close at 4 p.m., so show up early.

Best on the Menu: For the faint of heart, there are deliciously tame items like Molida (ground beef) and Fajita de pollo (chicken fajita). But, for the more adventurous souls, there’s the lengua de res (beef tongue). Before you recoil in horror, any taqueria worth its salts is going to have these delicious melt-in-your-mouth morsels on the menu. Come on, live a little.

Posted by: Chris LeBlanc | Submit comment | Tell a friend




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