The Crescent Connection
1910-E Montague Ave.
Entrée Prices: Inexpensive
Serving: Lunch (Tues.-Fri.), Dinner (Tues.-Sat.)
Cajun Kountry Café
1382-B Remount Road
Entrée Prices: Inexpensive
Serving: Lunch & Dinner, Closed Sun.
There are plenty of things one could complain about after visiting the Crescent Connection or Cajun Kountry Café. Both reside on the seedier side of the already bedraggled North Chuck. They sit unpretentiously, almost hidden if not for a couple of well-placed signs. They're more dependent on developing loyal, local clientele than attracting attention through the media. The service can be slow and uneven, and your stomach may have to growl loudly before the chef buttons his lip and stops jabbering with the guests long enough to actually cook some grub. In fact, the only thing flashy about either place is the sequined masks and reflective beads that drape the walls. They're the kind of places where the owners will know your name, and your kid's name, before you leave. In other words, they're pretty representative of the Big Easy — especially once you taste the food.
If you've been mourning the absence of real red beans and rice in the Holy City ever since Latasha's Taste of New Orleans abandoned the dark art of voodoo cookery years ago, then your time has come — it's Fat Tuesday in North Chuck, and you've got more than one option to peruse.
The only difference is in degree. For an informal meal, a takeout box, or a quick bite, I've been hitting Cajun Kountry. It's hard to decide whether the ability to munch everything from rabbit to frog legs in a sort of fried tapas style is cooler than a big bowl of spicy chitterlings for $8.59 every day of the week, but at these prices, you shouldn't have to decide. Fried frog legs on a stick with spicy mustard? $2.50. Southern fried gator stick? $2.50. Rabbit stick? The same. You get the idea, but you won't realize how lucky you are until you taste a Boudin Lollipop (yep, $2.50), or dig into the Cajun-fried Boudin Balls ($3.50), which come in somewhere between Eastern Shore scrapple and Lowcountry liver pudding, having been formed into lumps and deep fried to crunchy perfection. This is soul food of the bayou, served with a complimentary dish of boiled peanuts and a warm smile from the lady who co-owns the joint. Of course, they do have larger entrées, fanciful things like the Cajun collard greens wild boar po' boy sandwich ($10.59) or a gator meat cheesesteak for eight bucks. There are fried oyster platters ($10.95) and everything from quail to soft-shell crabs. You can't go wrong, but if you're looking for the ultimate place to take a date, then mosey on down to the Crescent Connection.
Here you'll find Iran Coleman, owner, proprietor, and chef all wrapped into one with a big chain of Mardi Gras beads hung around his neck. He'll serve you with an infectious grin and a steady beat of southern jazz ringing in the background. They have a beer license here, so you and your date can knock back a few Turbo Dogs, or perhaps a Blackened Voodoo or two. And despite the low rent of the neighborhood, you'll feel as if you belong, no matter how close you live to Broad Street.
Everyone should start here with the gumbo, because it comes in a small appetizer portion and it just might be the best gumbo this side of the Mississippi line. After that, you should move on to the delicious stuffed crabs ($6.95). Your server will list the night's specials, which seem to outnumber the regular menu items, and you'll have a hard time choosing between the Crescent quail ($14.95) and lobster jambalaya ($18.95). Then there is the Crawfish Tchoupitoulas ($17.95) — "sweet crawfish tails via étoufée served with crawfish potato salad stuffed inside a seasonal fish of the day, topped with a soft-shell flying crawfish" — it's some kind of a mouthful. And if you really dare, a five-course chef's tasting promises unforeseen delights for 25 bucks. All I know is that they have the best fried catfish in town ($12.95).
These are the kinds of places that Charleston never seemed to recover after losing them to Hugo, and that New Orleans stocked in droves before Katrina. It is no coincidence that the latter blew good fortune our way. The owners of these establishments are part of a larger diaspora spreading the Cajun and the Creole across America in the wake of tragedy. It is a cultural dispersion of which we enjoy the benefit. The Crescent Connection in particular struck a chord when I first heard the name, and later I learned why: it's also the name of the fateful bridge that crosses the Mississippi between New Orleans and the city of Gretna, La., the one that police blocked after the storm to keep potential inner-city evacuees out of the more affluent suburban section of town. It's an apt metaphor for the tale of our two cities. Perhaps these new connections can bring us together and help repair the past. I, at least, no longer have to cry about missing that elusive taste of New Orleans.