Remember the legendary white chocolate bread pudding at the late, lamented Bayou Bar and Grill? Well, it's back, and so is the man who brought the recipe here from his native New Orleans. Bud Deslattes, the Bayou's original chef-owner, has returned to San Diego after nine years in the north, and he is again behind the stove at Bud's.
His new eatery is a bright little storefront next to the Waterfront Bar & Grill on Kettner. You'll know it by the red banners out front, the red umbrellas shading tables for two on the dining patio, and the strings of beads (in Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and yellow) hanging from the patio fence. Inside, you'll find a casual café. There's an open kitchen, eight tables, and a counter for placing orders. A fridge behind the counter holds beer, soda, and for-sale packages of tasso (Cajun peppered smoked ham) and Cajun Prairie-style boudin (pork and rice sausage). Vibrant posters for Louisiana musical events and sepia-toned paintings of New Orleans restaurant scenes decorate the multicolored wainscoted walls. You can eat here, but you're also welcome to get your food "to geaux" (as in "beau"). If you call in the order about 15 minutes ahead, they'll have it ready when you arrive.
The menu is concise: two soups, one salad, six entrées, four po' boys, two desserts, plus one or two daily specials. This covers the basics, but not all the bases, of Louisiana cooking. There is no dirty rice or barbecued shrimp, for instance, but the owners do plan to introduce more dishes over time. (The joint just opened last October -- and, remember, it's small.)
Bud's offers a crazy-wonderful "seafood bisque." Not exactly a bisque -- in this case, that's not bad! -- it's a creamy sweet-corn chowder with shrimp, crab, and crawfish meat, flavored with tomato, sherry, and hot pepper. Don't miss this.
A clever option called "cupa-cupa-cupa" gives you one cup each of jambalaya, gumbo, and red beans and rice. The jambalaya is an unusual version with no seafood or tomato. House-smoked chicken, andouille, and tasso are the proteins; the "holy trinity" (sautéed minced onions, green peppers, and celery) and raw scallions are the garnishes. The dish is tightly constructed and dryer than norm, though a tomato-based hot sauce comes on the side for you to stir in to taste and heat tolerance. It's not just a moistener, but completes the flavors of the dish, lending balance to the smoky meats. (In your takeout bag, it'll be a fiery orange colloid in a ramekin-sized container labeled "JAM." Don't mistake it for a fruit spread -- you won't want this on your morning toast unless you're crazy for the heat.)
The New Orleans-style okra gumbo is a light version. It starts with a "red" roux (the long-stirred thickening mixture of flour and oil) and is spiced to a just-right slow burn. Brimming with shrimp, crawfish, and smoky andouille, it arrived with a scoop of rice already mixed in and has a nice ratio of rice to liquid.
But I'm sorry to say that our first "cupa" of red beans and rice was more than three-quarters rice to a scant quarter of beans. Cooked with ham hocks and amended with andouille, the beans seemed delicious -- from what we could taste of them. The next time we ordered, I invoked the Atkins diet and asked for the rice on the side. That proved the way to go. The beans were now perfect, the ham hock giving its all to turn them creamy and smoky. Understand that if your takeout order follows this strategy, the bean container won't be quite full -- but it's plenty of food.
Excessive rice and a skimpy topping also wrecked my first to-go order of crawfish étouffée (which means "smothered"). I want flavor, not size, and a mountain of boiled white rice that smothers the "smother" sauce won't fit the bill. Again, ordering the rice on the side brought a generous portion of rich stew that showcased the flavor of a belle roux -- the Cajun name for the stuff when it comes out a perfect shade of mahogany. Although the frozen Chinese crawfish tails don't have the same earthy undertones as Louisiana-born mudbugs, anything you dump in that sauce would taste great.
Po' boy sandwiches occupy a quarter of the menu, and they're served on baguettes "fully dressed" with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade sauce. I went straight for the fried oyster, which is my favorite at Uglesich's in New Orleans. The heavily battered oysters were hacked into pieces, with a few oyster halves. They're Apalachicolas, Louisiana's briny bivalves. Bud has them shipped, already shucked, from the homeland. These were strangely neutral in flavor, with tough streaks. (Do bivalves have sinews?) The coral-pink remoulade resembled Russian or Louis dressing with a lash of sharpness from Zatarain's Creole mustard (a brand you'll find in every southern Louisiana kitchen). I enjoyed the sauce, but the sandwich had little seafood and too much bread and dressing -- a po' boy from Poverty Row.
A satisfying "sloppy roast beef" po' boy was more generously filled with tender, pink-centered sliced deli beef. Garlic mayonnaise replaced remoulade on both bread halves, with a splash of au jus gravy.
With any sandwich or entrée, you can order a side of Caesar salad for $3. The mediocre Parmesan is thickly grated; otherwise, it's a standard version. Jalapeño cornbread is another inexpensive option for mouth fun, but the day we tried it, the underbaked batter was mushy.
Every day brings a special or two, though I was less impressed with these than with the regular menu items. Mondays and Tuesdays, the special is BBQ ribs -- St. Louis-cut pork baby-back ribs, smoked for six hours over hickory in the kitchen's electric smoker. (Bud does them on Sunday, when there are no customers to inhale the fumes.) The ribs are tender, mild in flavor, and almost fatless. They're mopped at reheating with an outsourced red barbecue sauce that's pleasant but not particularly Louisianan. (At the restaurant, you'll also get a ramekin of Randy Jones's barbecue sauce, served at Petco Park.) Wednesday and Thursday, the special is a plate of fried Louisiana catfish with a side of Caesar salad, or a catfish po' boy. (I didn't get a chance to try the cats.) The week closes with Friday's specials of shrimp remoulade and Cajun shrimp cocktail. The remoulade had chopped romaine lettuce, sliced cukes, a quarter of a hard-cooked egg, and a quarter of a turnip-hard winter tomato, all surrounding several medium-large shrimp sleeked with the same dressing as the oyster po' boy. The texture of the seafood was mealy, hinting that they were probably low-priced frozen tiger shrimp farmed in warm waters (e.g., Indonesia or Bangladesh).