[Pre-disclaimer: This has been sitting in my unpublished drafts since before the BP oil spill turned so catastrophic. My heart isn't into writing anything like this at the moment but I figured since I already wrote it I'd put it out there.]
[Disclaimer: For my Austin peeps, this isn't personal, I pretty much trashed most of the Mexican food in New Orleans when I lived there too.]
I've always had opinions about the few places where you could get one or two decent New Orleans dishes here in Austin (good gumbo at Shoal Creek Saloon, Casey's Sno-Balls are good and authentic although nothing like Hansen's etc), and after getting to live back home the past few years, I'm here again and missing the food more than ever.
And for some reason, I guess because my recent history makes it a conversation topic, people lately keep wanting to know where to get good New Orleans food in Austin, and when I tell them the very short and disappointing list (see below), they feel compelled to tell me where they got some great "Cajun" ("stop: Cajun food isn't New Orleans food," I say; "Yeah, sure, OK, whatever, anyway like I was saying..." they say) food. And I'm always skeptical. But I figure I'm gonna try, every few months, to give some of these great "Cajun/Creole/What-does-it-matter-they-don't-know-the-difference-between-the-two-anyway" food places a try. Because what the fuck else you gonna do while you're living in exile?
So last week I tried Sambets.
Now I had been to Sambets back in the mid-90's. Tried their crawfish etouffee and found it way way way too spicy, and one-dimensionally spicy at that; typically Texan, it was all black and red pepper. Texans are all into that macho "make it hot enough that I scream" bullshit, which is OK for what it is but it's got fuck-all to do with Louisiana cooking, either Cajun or Creole. Creole food should be well-seasoned and balanced, it should not be hot hot spicy and painful. In general Louisiana food has a good deal less heat than Tex-Mex.
But everybody told me "Sambets is great, you should give them another try". And I work in far Northwest hell now, right around the corner from them, so I figured what the hell.
First I googled them. And unlucky me, it looks like they took down their old web site just yesterday because I swear to Christ as recently as two days ago the old site had a picture on it that was supposed to look like it was taken in the French Quarter looking toward Canal Street, but if you looked at it closely, you could actually see that it was taken on Mulberry Street in NYC, in Little Italy looking south towards Chinatown. I totally wish I'd grabbed a screenshot of it.
Fortunately their menu is still up. And from the very first line you begin to notice some weird shit:
"Muffuletta - Cajun tradition!"
Excuse me? Cajun? Jeezus. Sit down and shaddup and let me teach you some basics. It is widely known (outside of Austin, at least) that the muffuletta was invented in the early 1900's in New Orleans, by Sicilians, most likely at the Central Grocery on Decatur Street by Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant. It's a Sicilian sandwich. It has Italian meats and Italian cheeses and olive dressing on a type of Sicilian bread which was called "muffuletta". It's a Sicilian word, ferchrissakes. There is nothing remotely Cajun about it, and in the early 1900's there were very few Cajuns at all in New Orleans, since Acadiana is over a hundred miles to the west over on the other side of some pretty daunting swampland.
"Specialty bread brushed with seasoned olive oil, topped with meats and cheese, grilled & heaped with our olive salad"
Grilled? OK, stop. The sandwich is a cold meats sandwich, and though originally intended to be served that way, and is still served only that way at Central Grocery, there is a contingent in New Orleans of "warm muffuletta" fans. But by warm we mean just warm. Not melted, certainly not grilled. You grill a sandwich full of cheese, there's already a name for that: a grilled cheese sandwich.
I point these things out not to be a pedantic dickhead. I point them out because they are examples of people not knowing even the basic history or traditions of a food that they purport to be enough of an expert in that they've decided to open a restaurant to sell it to the public. Whether or not it's good from a culinary standpoint, it is intellectually and artistically just wrong to call this a Cajun tradition or Cajun food, or to serve it as a grilled sandwich.
Anyways, I didn't get the muffuletta. I could have gotten a bunch of these other things though:
Turkey Muff - Turkey, Salami, Provolone Veggie Muff - Pepper Jack & Provolone cheeses grilled, topped with Olive Salad, Lettuce & Tomatoes Pest Muff - Muff with a twist! Pesto spread, Turkey Breast, Provolone, Bacon, Lettuce & Tomatoes, YUM!!
Muff muff muff muff muff WHO TALKS LIKE THAT? What is it about Austinites that everything has to be muffs and bugs instead of muffulettas and crawfish?
Anyway, I thought I'd try the basics. I got a roast beef poor boy and a cup of chicken and sausage gumbo. The roast beef because it's kind of the basic poor boy...it's like a cheese slice at a NY pizzeria, if they fuck up the cheese slice then nothing else they do is going to be worth a shit. And chicken and sausage gumbo is the most basic of basic gumbos.
A typical, average New Orleans roast beef poor boy (and just an aside, the poor boy was also invented in New Orleans, in part by Sicilians, but I digress) is supposed to look like this:
French bread and roast beef with gravy and debris, either plain, or dressed with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayo. You can request other stuff like Creole mustard. You cannot request onions, and you cannot for the love of God request cheese.
The Sambets poor boy looked like this:
and it's so wrong in so many different ways that I might as well just start from the top and work my way down.
The tomatoes...good, quality tomatoes. Sliced way too thick to be put in a sandwich, which I guess is why they didn't put them in the sandwich, they put them on the sandwich. Now due to the boat-like construction of this thing, there is absolutely no way to hold this sandwich or squeeze it or get your mouth around it in any such way that you can get some tomato as part of a bite of sandwich. The only thing you can do is eat the tomatoes first. Like a salad. Which I did. Which brings us to the next level...
The lettuce....not shredded, but large hunks of Romaine lettuce. Yes, Romaine. Romaine lettuce is so staggeringly wrong for a poor boy. It's one of the more strongly flavored lettuces, and the Romaine-ness of it overpowers the more delicate flavors of the sandwich filling itself. Especially when you put a metric fuckton of the stuff on it like they did here. And again, it rests on top of the boat. Good luck eating the lettuce with the sandwich instead of before the sandwich. You're better off thinking of it as part of the side salad.
At which point we come to the roast beef. It looks like good quality roast beef, cooked right, sliced correctly. And it's got gravy. No sign of debris, but if the gravy is right we can forgive that. Taste the gravy.
SWEET JESUS IT'S SALISBURY STEAK ONION GRAVY!
Sorry, I had a Luby's flashback there. Do I have to explain why the kind of gravy you put on a salisbury steak, reeking of cooked onions like a French onion soup, is not the kind of gravy you want on this sandwich? Just trust me if it isn't obvious. The onion gravy stench is so strong I can barely taste the mayo. In fact I can barely see the mayo. In face why the FUCK is there no mayo on my poor boy? Wait, what's this white stuff?
It's melted cheese. Provolone, I think. Follow me now....Romaine lettuce, onion gravy, and melted provolone cheese. If you were to draw a culinary Venn diagram around these things, it would be impossible to get all three of them in the same circle without bending space and time so much as to render Stephen Hawking speechless. Romaine lettuce + onion gravy == WRONG. Melted provolone + onion gravy == WRONG from the opposite direction. The flavors just don't work. Again, I'm not being a pedantic authenticity Nazi here; it doesn't matter whether or not this is a traditional New Orleans-style poor boy, because there is no culture on earth where these three flavors can co-exist in the same mouthful and not be repulsive.
After all that, even a fresh loaf of Leidenheimers couldn't save this. Fortunately they didn't waste the good bread on a bad sandwich; it's pretty much a featureless sandwich bun, not particularly crusty or tasty or anything. It's just a receptacle, a means of transporting le déjeuner misérables from table to mouth to trash.
I took three bites (not counting the tomato appetizer). Cassidy took one bite and said toss it. I tossed it.
After that atrocity, the gumbo had to better, and admittedly it was. If it was served to me in New Orleans I'd give it a 4 out of 10, but in Texas it gets graded on a curve so it gets a 6. The roux was actually decent, the sausage was good, the texture was right, they served it over plain white rice. The only problem, the same old problem that Texans always have when they venture into Louisiana territory, was the seasoning. All I could taste was black pepper and thyme. Lots of thyme. Lots and lots and lots of thyme. All the thyme in the fucking world. Seriously, if I put a piece of andouille sausage in my mouth and the most prominent flavor profile is thyme, you've got too damn much thyme in your gumbo.
So, my dear dear friends from Texas: I love you all, but you don't have to recommend Sambets to me any more. I tried.
Next up: a new place in East Austin called the Shuck Shack. They have oysters and crawfish every Friday, I think. OK, I know y'all from New Orleans are wondering how anybody can fuck up a raw oyster, right? Trust me, in Austin it happens all the time. More on that later on.
Oh yeah, the authoritative list of where to get decent New Orleans food in Austin:
1. My house.
3. Get in your car and drive east for, oh, about 9 hours.