Having worked in the tourism industry for a decade in Charleston, I have heard many incorrect assumptions about this city's native cuisine. Out-of-towners repeatedly mistake Lowcountry cuisine for Cajun. Countless ill-informed tourists roll into town expecting spicy etouffee-filled menus, crawfish lining our waterways, and the scent of chicory coffee perfuming our air. The irony is we don't have that many Cajun options here in Charleston. Thanks to Park Circle's LoLA, however, you no longer need to travel halfway across the country to enjoy a crawfish boil.
While not purely Cajun, LoLA presents its menu in a fusion of Cajun, Creole, and Lowcountry flavors, featuring Holy City classics like shrimp and grits alongside po' boys and seafood gumbo. The flavors run the gamut from spicy and bold to creamy and rich. Some succeed better than others.
Take, for instance, the shrimp andouille mac & cheese ($10). A contender for the top mac & cheese in Charleston, the dish features a spicy Creole mornay sauce, penne pasta, and huge pieces of juicy shrimp. An appetizer large enough to function as an entree, the richness of the thick mornay was cut by the right balance of heat in the Cajun seasoning, preventing the cheese from overwhelming the succulent and snappy shrimp.
The Oysters Rockefeller ($14), on the other hand, left something to be desired. While normally a tasty delicacy native to NOLA, these bivalves didn't live up to my expectations. While the oysters themselves were properly shucked, the Rockefeller recipe felt like it was ripped from a cook book with half the page missing. No flavors of Pernod existed. Instead, there was barely enough salt to flavor the greens. The mouthfeel was flabby and cold, leading me to speculate as to how long the oysters sat in the kitchen before presentation. I have never before left a Rockefeller oyster sitting on a plate but I couldn't get through more than one of them.
Next came the seafood gumbo ($9). I was surprised when it arrived at the table on a plate as opposed to in a bowl. My understanding of the Cajun iteration of the dish is that it is best described as a cross between a stew and a soup composed of stock, meat or shellfish, a thickening base, a Cajun mirepoix, and a noticeable lack of tomatoes which often goes in Creole gumbo. What I got was a bed of rice and some shrimp, sausage, and vegetables smothered in sauce. While the flavors were overall robust, bordering on too spicy, I was disappointed in the lack of stew-like consistency. Had it been described thusly upon ordering, I would have altered my expectations. The best way I can convey my disappointment is by saying I was expecting a dish that should be consumed with a spoon and I received one that was obviously intended for a fork.
But the inconsistencies of my first visit were quickly displaced by a winning second trip. This was largely thanks to LoLA's weekly crawfish boil.
For my second visit, I opted to sit at one of their picnic tables outside, and my server suggested I start with the Cajun angels ($11) — bacon-wrapped scallops served atop a bed of pan-seared corn and sprinkled with feta — along with loaded duck fat confit cheese fries. The angels were just a touch too soggy and could have been crispier, but the flavors perfectly mixed. It was a much milder dish than the previous entries, not drowned in cayenne or paprika, and the creamy saltiness of the feta counterbalanced the fattiness of the scallops. I'd even argue that the angels could be the star of LoLA's menu if they crisp up the bacon ever so slightly.
As much as I enjoyed the scallops, I was even more enamored of the loaded duck cheese fries ($7). Just crispy enough to hold their own against the same aforementioned mac & cheese mornay sauce, the fries were dusted ever so slightly with Cajun seasoning and were clearly made fresh in house. The duck confit was as juicy and tender as any I've had in Charleston, though there wasn't a massive abundance of it. The most surprising elements, however, were the bits of fried pickles sprinkled throughout the fries. The pickles added an element of sourness and salt that the dish was lacking, and there were enough of them to give a necessary punch to each bite.
About to chalk up LoLA as simply vindicated, my po' boy showed up and took the dinner from surprisingly good to excellent. I ordered the Big Easy po' boy ($15) as it featured both fried shrimp and crawfish. If there was ever a signature dish for a Cajun/Lowcountry fusion restaurant, this was going to be it. I can positively state that this sandwich is the most delicious po' boy that has ever been placed in front of me. The bread was crispy but not too tough, the tomato and lettuce were fresh, the sauce drizzled on top of the sandwich was just spicy enough to penetrate the bread and seafood, and the various shrimp were so plentiful that every time I picked up the sandwich, several of them fell to the plate below. It was so delicious that I continued to enjoy the sandwich until my elation began to dovetail with my own personal discomfort.
Seeing as how it was a Tuesday — crawfish boil day — I was heartily encouraged by my server to crush some crustaceans ($20). The meat was juicy and very rich, reminiscent to a tiny bite of buttery lobster tail. This was in direct contrast to the head which contains very little meat but makes up for that with a briny spice and the lingering aftertaste of a beer-based broth. While it's a lot of work for a small animal, it comes with a delicious reward. Pair the novelty of the crawfish boil with an IPA on LoLA's patio and you have a perfect Tuesday. And that's something any local can get behind. We may not have a lot of Cajun food here, but if there's one thing New Orleaneans and Charlestonians both appreciate it's laissez les bons temps rouler.