In Louisiana, if you want to try Cajun specialties, you can go to the expensive places down in the French Quarter. Or you can head south over the Huey Long Bridge into bayou country or out west to St. Martin's Parish and seek out the real stuff.
As it turns out, we have a similar option here in Charleston. You can get upscale versions of Cajun specialties like jambalaya and gumbo at restaurants down on the peninsula. Or you can head out over the Cooper to Hanahan and check out Cherie's Specialty Meats & Cajun Cafe.
Cherie's was founded by Steve Meaux, a native of Abbeville, La., who migrated to the Lowcountry some 25 years ago. Meaux found that every time he went home to visit relatives he wound up dragging back coolers full of Cajun specialties like boudin and crawfish etouffee at the request of his South Carolina friends. In 2008, he finally decided to let someone else handle the shipping, and he opened Cherie's Specialty Meats with his daughter-in-law, Heather Hill.
It's a small shop in a rather new strip mall, right next door to a pizza joint. There's a display case full of sausages next to the counter with the cash register, and a row of tall freezer cabinets line the wall to the right. A handful of tables are arranged in the middle where you can have lunch during the day or just sit down to catch your breath if you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of Cajun options that lay before you.
Those freezer cases hold an assortment of birds and cuts of meat sealed tight in clear packages and dozens of white plastic tubs of gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish and shrimp etouffee. The sausages and smoked meats include andouille, tasso, fresh beef and pork sausage, alligator (yes, alligator) sausage, and the legendary boudin. There are shelves stocked with pralines, filé powder, and an array of Louisiana hot sauces, too, along with whole bean and ground coffee and Steen's 100 percent Pure Cane Syrup.
Fortunately, the staff is quick with the samples and recommendations to help narrow down your choices. The alligator sausage turned out to actually be pork-and-alligator sausage, and it confirmed for me something I've long thought about gator meat: The only remarkable thing about it is that you are eating a giant reptile and it still tastes pretty OK. "Like really chewy chicken" is an apt description. Mixed in with pork and all the Cajun spices, it makes for a firm, chewy, and tasty sausage. If I were stuck in a swamp with no pig or chicken around, I wouldn't mind eating alligator, but I'm not going to make a special effort for it. But, if you're in the mood for adventure meat, Cherie's can take care of you not just with the sausage but also with pre-marinated alligator tail, which is bound to liven up your next backyard cookout.
But alligator is the least of the attractions at Cherie's. Of the samples I tried in the shop, the shrimp etouffee was the most impressive, and I took home a big tub for dinner. In a saucepan, it thaws down to a surprisingly thin sauce, but once you pour it over a bowl of white rice it makes for a filling and very spicy meal. There's only a small amount of shrimp in the mix, and they're the tiny kind that mostly add flavor, not substance. All in all, while I think $19.99 is a bit of an expensive stretch for about four servings, it's still a rich and delicious treat.
The shrimp etouffee ($7.99) is also one of the items on Cherie's small lunch menu, which is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's joined by sandwiches like a mini muffuletta ($5.99), a pulled pork BBQ sandwich with Louisiana barbecue sauce ($6.75), and one of those smoked alligator and pork sausages served on a bun. There are more substantial plates, too, like chicken and sausage gumbo ($6.99) and jambalaya ($6.99).
Many of the more interesting offerings, like the stuffed chickens, are take-home only. This isn't your ordinary bird with a cavity lightly filled with chunks of bread and herbs. The chicken is ballottined, meaning it's totally deboned (except for the wings) and then crammed full of all kinds of good stuff. The options include jalapeño and cornbread, crawfish jambalaya (yes, jambalaya stuffed inside a chicken!), shrimp and sausage jambalaya, dirty rice, and wild rice pecan.
I settled on the dirty rice version ($15.99) and took it home to roast according to the handy instructions on the package. An hour and a half later, I had a sizzling, golden brown bird that I sliced lengthwise and then crosswise into inch-thick chunks, exposing an explosion of thick dirty rice from within. The chicken is moist and tender, and the rice has a subtle heat that flows through several seconds after you swallow, all punctuated by the dusting of red pepper on the chicken skin. But that was hardly a surprise, for how could any product not be good when its ingredients list includes "turkey and/or chicken gizzards?"
The Cajuns seem to be pretty keen on stuffing things. In addition to the ballottine chickens, Cherie's offers Cornish hens, duck, pork chops, pork loin, and quail stuffed with everything from sausage to dirty rice to fruits and nuts. For appetizers, there are shrimp- and crab-stuffed jalapeños, crab-stuffed shrimp, and sausage-stuffed bread, and on Thursdays and Fridays you can get twice-baked potatoes stuffed with shrimp etouffee.
But the crowning triumph of Cajun meat stuffery has got to be the Turducken. This is a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned duck, which is, in turn, stuffed inside a deboned turkey. There's your choice of seven fillings (including cornbread, jambalaya, and pecan wild rice) that get layered inside somehow, too. This is not a small dish. Weighing in at around 15 pounds, it will feed upwards of 20 people. With more and more families branching out on the Thanksgiving traditions (my own family hung up the roasting pan years ago and now deep fries two turkeys every November), I predict the turducken to show up on more and more holiday tables this year, so place your order in advance.
Cherie's makes some of their items in house — like the gumbo and jambalaya on the lunch menu — but the stuffed chickens and the turducken are the product of La Boucherie, a family-run business operated by the descendents of the Hollier and Broussard families of Abbeville, who have now relocated to Houston (and are related to Meaux by marriage). The etouffee is made by Poche's Meat Market and Restaurant in Breaux Bridge, La., as is the boudin.
And, oh, the boudin. Despite the turducken and alligator novelties, the boudin is what really drew me out to Hanahan. Boudin is hard to characterize except to say that it's a classic Cajun sausage made from pork parts, spice, and a whole lot of rice. So much rice, in fact, that with your first bite you realize that it is not a sausage that is meant to be included in some other dish but rather a self-contained meal unto itself — a rich, chewy, spicy self-contained meal. Calvin Trillin called it "a soft mixture of rice and pork and liver and seasoning that is squeezed hot from the mouth of a sausage casing, usually in the parking lot of a grocery store and preferably while leaning against a pickup."
You can buy it frozen ($6.50 for a pound, which is three sausages) to take home and reheat. But, if you want to try it Trillin's way, Cherie's will dish it out steaming hot along with saltines and hot sauce ($3.99 per link), and you can take it out to the strip mall parking lot and eat it leaning against the hood of a Honda Accord. It's not exactly the same as a country road in the middle of the Louisiana countryside, but it's a close substitute that just might do until you get a chance to hop a plane for bayou country.