Successful Cajun is all about the love

Thelma Grimes
tgrimes@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/27/21

The secret to making truly good Cajun food boils down to one word — love. Restaurants and food trucks serving Cajun across the Denver metro area may give a quick, one-word answer when asked about …

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Successful Cajun is all about the love

Posted

The secret to making truly good Cajun food boils down to one word — love. Restaurants and food trucks serving Cajun across the Denver metro area may give a quick, one-word answer when asked about the secret, but that does not mean it’s simple.

Although there is some overlap, Cajun is not Southern. The love that comes in true Cajun food is all about the taste of Louisiana and New Orleans. Originally, Cajun from south Louisiana was considered peasant food, made from ingredients that rural families would have. The dishes focused on dirty rice, gumbos, jambalaya and andouille. But do not forget about the importance of frying everything from catfish and shrimp to alligator the Cajun way.

Natalie Vice, owner of the popular Cajun King food truck in Castle Rock, said true New Orleans Cajun is all about love, which means big family, generational recipes and — most importantly — a whole lot of food.

“We love our food,” she said. “We love our Cajun, and we are used to cooking for a lot of people we love.”

As the Cajun King works toward opening a brick-and-mortar establishment, the business has built a name with its food truck that serves a little bit of everything known as Cajun, with a focus on boils. Vice said the boils are where food, family and love come together.

In New Orleans, a seafood boil is tradition and part of the city’s culture, bringing families around a newspaper-lined table to eat large amounts of shellfish with bare hands and a lot of spice. Vice said Cajun King boils are authentic because they go directly to the source for supplies. This means traveling to Louisiana several times a year, picking up crawfish and alligator along with true-to-Cajun seasonings.

At Jessie’s Smokin’ Nola, in Centennial, there is nothing generic about the food or owner Jessie Rayford. From his strong Southern accent to his dedication to making a true taste of Cajun for a continuous line of customers, Rayford is all about cooking it up right.

While making his popular Half and Half dish, Rayford explains that putting love into Cajun means making sure there are no buildup of pellets in the batter. The Half and Half consists of fried catfish on a bed of rice smothered with half shrimp creole and half crawfish etouffee, which is a Cajun stew simmered in a sauce made from a light or blond roux.

“There is only one secret to this food we make — love. I don’t care how long you been cooking,” he said. “That does not matter if you don’t care. I teach the importance of loving and respecting the work we’re doing. This is mine. This is my passion. I love what I do and sometimes, I gotta admit, I can get loud.”

Rayford said his food all starts with the roux, which is a base mixture of butter and flour.

“If the roux ain’t right,” he said, “it ain’t gonna happen.”

In talking about his menu of recipes that he stresses all “come from my head,” Rayford talks and jokes with a line of regular customers, including another New Orleans man who says there is nothing better than having Rayford’s battered catfish between two pieces of white bread.

Rayford said he makes sure the catfish is not muddy, explaining that a Cajun secret to making good catfish is to take it out of the water, dry it out, and take away that muddy flavor people complain about.

Rayford is a constant director, pushing his staff to pass out perfect food. He shouts as he moves around the restaurant. He makes a point of telling cooks to stir the rice pudding and add the right ingredients at the right time.

“Everything we do here comes back to me,” he said. “I am all about this business and I am all in.”

Joe Koen, the franchise business consultant for several of Colorado’s Lost Cajun locations, including the Westminster establishment, said he came from south Alabama, and after learning Louisiana cuisine, he understands the importance of love, especially when it comes to the Lost Cajun’s batter.

Serving up a fried plate of shrimp, catfish and allegator bites, Koen said there is no skipping details when it comes to frying Cajun meat.

“Cajun is all about thought and care,” he said. “Stir the food often and stir it slow. When you think of a chain restaurant, you think of generic food that does not come close to the real thing. A lot of our processes come form 100-year-old recipes.”

Lost Cajun has locations in Littleton, Highlands Ranch and Westminster.

Some goodies at Lost Cajun include the gator bites and boudin balls. The boudin balls are a classic comfort food, consisting of pork sausage made with rice and seasonings that are stuffed in a casing.

Being from Alabama, Koen is no stranger to alligator, but noted that Cajun cooking Louisiana style makes them better.

“I grew up eating gator, but always felt like I was biting into someone’s leather wallet,” he said. “With (Lost Cajun) gator bites, it’s all about trimming them properly and marinating until it’s time to lightly fry them up.”

From Nola’s to Cajun King and Lost Cajun, all the restaurants say them have their specialities, but one of the most popular menu items is the po’ boy. Originally known as the “poor boy,” the popular sandwich started in the 1920s during the New Orleans streetcar strike.

The seafood po’ boy at Nola’s comes on French bread with lettuce, tomato, mayo, ketchup, and hot sauce. Nola’s po’ boys can be ordered with fried shrimp, fried catfish, fried crawfish, shrimp and Cajun sausage, or Friday oysters, which Rayford said is directly from the bayou.

One po’ boy is named after Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. The Cajun Manning consists of fried crawfish, shrimp or a Cajun sausage.

“They should have named this sandwich after me,” Rayford said. “But, given we are here in Denver, I named one after Peyton Manning.”

At Cajun King’s the softness of the French bread is a perfect casing for the crunchy shrimp and mixture of sauces that make the sandwich unique.

Cajun is all about good food and fun. There are several locations across the Denver metro area that will take anyone on a trip along Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

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