While New Orleans is probably the first city that comes to mind when you think of great Louisiana food and drink, Lake Charles in the Southwest part of the state is the Cajun capital. Forget about eating hot dogs when you’re in Lake Charles. This is the home of the boudin, a sausage-y creation that’s as ubiquitous as the dirty water dog in New York City and as artisanal a food as you’ll find anywhere in the US. For a more haute cuisine experience, you can also enjoy Rouge et Blanc, Lake Charles’s premier wine and food event, this year scheduled on October 17 at McNeese State University. www.visitlakecharles.org
When people ask what American cuisine is all about, Cajun cuisine rises to the top of the list. A little bit Creole with a dash of French, Cajun is smoke and spice, seafood and meats, and a whole lot of hand-crafted boudins and cracklins. In Southwest Louisiana, it’s a way of life, and a true expression of the local culture.
Different from a boudin blanc or boudin rouge that you might find in France or the Caribbean, Louisiana boudins are rice sausages, made of pork liver, pork meat, greens and spices, encased in a wrapper made from washed and boiled pig products. Each boudin restaurant has its own standout version, and there are also seafood and alligator boudins. I made it my business to try as many as I could as family recipes differ significantly.
Cracklins are as much a part of this tradition as are boudins. Made from pork belly as is bacon, cracklins are their own entity because they’re cubed and cooked with their skin on. Deep fried and delicious, these pork rinds make the perfect finger food when you’re craving something salty. In Cajun country, cracklins are like potato chips. You eat them any time of the day and you can get them as smoky or spicy as you’d like. Grab some in a sack, add a few fried boudin balls (a smaller version of the sausage), and you’re ready to tailgate. No veggies allowed.
There are so many local restaurants offering boudins that the folks have organized a Boudin Trail, a trail that makes for good eating and people meeting for days on end. Think you’ve tried boudin if you stop at only one or two? Not really. Boudin is the Louisiana equivalent of BBQ – you’ll have a different recipe everywhere you go. You may not want to try all 27 on the trail, but a good half dozen will begin your journey into boudin expertise.
Five that I highly recommend:
Famous Foods – In Lake Charles. Three generations of the Guillory family have been serving Pappy’s boudin recipe for nearly 25 years. Customers drive in from all parts -- especially from Texas -- for the Creole-style menu. Famous Food will even ship to you. These boudins and cracklins achieve four-star status in my book. www.famousfoodsllc.com/ 337-497-1477
Sonnier’s Sausage and Boudin – In Lake Charles. The newbie of the group I visited, this seven-year old takeout shop sells smoked, spicy and regular boudins. All are marvelously addictive. 337-656-2876
B & O Kitchen and Grocery – In Sulphur (10 miles from Lake Charles). A veteran of 30 years and three generations, the shop makes boudins of varying spice levels as well as cracklins, beef jerky, smoked sausages, and Cajun slim Jims. Be sure to ask master boudin maker Jeff Benoit to see the huge vats where the cracklins are made and don’t miss the cheese-filled boudin balls, my personal favorite. 337-625-4637
Hollier’s Cajun Kitchen – In Sulphur. Perfect if you can’t make up your mind, Hollier’s offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet and a dinner seafood buffet. My suggestion is to stay focused and just order up the boudins and boudin balls. This is the place to try alligator balls. http://hollierscajunkitchen.com/ 337-527-0061
The Sausage Link – In Sulphur. No seating. The Sausage Link is mainly a butcher shop. They'll gladly let you watch them make the boudins, which come in multiple varieties. Lots of other meats are for sale here, too, including the mind-numbing turducken, a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck which is then stuffed into a deboned turkey. Of course, the turducken can be stuffed with boudin. 337-625-2030
Jambalaya, Seafood and Gumbo
Being near the Gulf of Mexico means there’s an abundance of seafood, all done up Louisiana style. Boiled shrimp, seafood gumbo, crawfish, oysters and jambalaya go perfectly with the Cajun music that’ll have you dancing and tapping your feet. You should try the different kinds of jambalaya that you’ll find: some have more seafood than meat, some mix the two, each with a wondrously smoky flavor. True Cajun gumbo is served on a bed of rice and can similarly be of a seafood or a more traditional sausage variety.
You can gorge yourself silly at the über-popular Seafood Palace in Lake Charles, where communal tables are quickly covered with heaps of crawfish boulettes, crab pistolettes, fried okra and bowls of shrimp and crab gumbo. If it’s the season, order a platter of giant Louisiana blue crabs – they’ll show you how to eat them. 337-443-9293
In Sulphur, The Boiling Point specializes in crawfish and local Gulf seafood. This is a good choice if you want to enjoy the area’s seafood but don’t want to lose an opportunity to try out another boudin. http://theboilingpoint.net/index.htm 337-625-9282
Other Foodie Experiences
Each year the Rouge et Blanc Food and Wine Festival sells out to hungry folks from the area and beyond. Stands showing off the best of Southwest Louisiana from tacos to tamales and BBQ line the field, and wine is poured generously. It’s a dress-up kind of event, absolutely Southern in flavor, but appealing to all, and one that you should try to book well in advance. The four-hour tasting event sells out quickly. http://www.rougeetblanc.us/
Southwest Louisiana has its fine dining spot, too. La Truffe Sauvage prides itself on its six-course wine pairing dinners, featuring varying American vintners. Here you can sample baked French-inflected wild Gulf red snapper with saffron risotto or beef Wellington, for example, followed by a sinfully rich chocolate oblivion torte. http://www.thewildtruffle.com/ 337-439-8364
Lest we forget that libations go hand and hand with foodie celebrations, Southwest Louisiana has its own distillery, a newish operation that makes rum from local cane sugar. The largest private-label rum in the US, Bayou Rum comes in satsuma, a citrusy rum liqueur that uses seasonal fruit like clementines; silver (80 proof); spiced; and select dark. All use all-natural unrefined sugar and molasses and are aged and then poured into bottles rinsed with rum to eliminate bacteria and residue. You can tour the Louisiana Spirits distillery as well as sample to your heart’s content. The label’s pretty cool, too. http://bayourum.com/verify.php?return=/distillery/
Back at the Casino
In Lake Charles, the place to rest your boots is L’Auberge Casino and Resort. Here, you’ll not only have the chance to win some money, but you’ll also enjoy another level of fine dining. There’s the mandatory Beaucoup Buffet, of course, although this one’s actually really good and doles out dishes from around the globe. You can flit from the fried chicken station to the sushi bar and prime rib carvery within seconds. And the service is sublime.
But my favorite place to dine is the Ember Grille and Wine Bar, where the casino folks cater to the high rollers with top-notch cuts like Kobe beef, baby lamb chops done up like lollipops, and a 40-ounce ribeye “Tomahawk” steak, carved tableside. Seafood isn’t ignored, and the BBQ pecan-bacon-wrapped shrimp is the restaurant’s callout to shrimp and grits. The wine list is well curated and includes an award-winning selection of reds. If you catch it right, the resort’s outside beach area has a food truck, too, with tacos and other treats. The outdoor lazy river and pool area makes sure you’re fed and refreshed with cool cocktails and snacks. For late night drinks and music, Jack Daniel’s Bar and Grill has it all, in a lively setting right across from the casino floor. https://www.llakecharles.com/ 337-395-7777
New Orleans in Southwest Louisiana
And for something almost not related to food, Lake Charles is the location of the Mardi Gras
Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, where costumes from krewes past fill room after room with elaborate colors and memorabilia. Set inside the Central School Arts and Humanities Center, it’s the largest Mardi Gras museum in the world and it’s also where you can decorate your own King Cake with sugars in the three Mardi Gras colors of purple (justice), gold (power) and green (faith). The King Cake is an integral part of Mardi Gras, baked up and served between Twelfth Night (12 nights after Christ’s birth) and Fat Tuesday. As tradition goes, if you bite into the slice with the baby toy inside, you’ll be the one to host the Mardi Gras party the following year (or you could consider yourself the king or queen of the present one, or just plain lucky!). Why is this museum located here? Lake Charles is the site of the state’s second largest Mardi Gras celebration. 337-430-0043