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RESTAURANT REVIEW : It’s the Real Cajun Thing at Homey Cafe

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Les Sisters is a po’ boy’s dream. This Chatsworth cafe specializing in Cajun, Creole and soul cuisine advertises itself as a “Southern kitchen and barbecue company,” and justly--it rings with homey authenticity. You’d look excessively formal if you came wearing chaps.

Credit chef and owner Clara Huling for the lack of fuss. She’s the real article, a gentle, soft-spoken Southern woman who learned cooking from her father, himself a chef.

I should tell you that there are no sisters and never were. Huling once had a couple of female partners, but she’s the whole show now, and the place might be more accurately named Mom’s. She prepares the extensive menu practically all by herself, so you’ll forgive her for choosing a name (or at least a French definite article) evocative of the region--Louisiana--to which her cooking pays homage.

Though the name is just for show, it’s immediately evident that this woman doesn’t go in for pretension. There’s the same neon “open” sign in the window that you’d see on a truck stop on a semi-abandoned trunk road, and no further embellishment. Tables and chairs are basic, the former covered with tired-looking blue and white checked vinyl tablecloths and a few empty bottles of Barq’s root beer (no longer available in bottles, incidentally, since the company was bought out by Coca-Cola).

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Even the specials blackboard has a very basic posture. One evening it was bare except for block lettering that read “Gumbo (maybe).”

If you are lucky enough to be around when it is available, Huling will serve you one of the tastiest gumbos this side of Baton Rouge. She’s actually a native of Oklahoma, but her father’s Louisiana roots are evident in this gumbo, a dark, murky version thickened with a light flour roux (that she insists some people find a bit too exotic) and real file--a mixture of powdered sassafras and thyme leaves. It’s slightly piquant and dense with shrimp, sausage, rice and (surprise) mussels.

A friend raved about the sausage, and we all took turns guessing what it was. “I played around with several sausages until I found the one I liked,” Huling later divulged. “Believe it or not, the gumbo is made with Farmer John.”

Start a meal here with a basketful of her wonderful Southern-fried onions, which you douse with a hot pepper sauce called Louisiana Gold (there’s a bottle placed on every table). The onions are cornmeal-dredged and finely shredded, as light as feathers in a pillow. Another great starter is Clara’s cup o’ chowder, a thick ocher-colored soup chock-full of smoky bacon, fresh corn and tiny clams. Soup or salad comes with most dinners, so you can get this one for free.

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But these are just warm-ups for the main attractions. There are the firm, flavorful crab cakes, the crunchy catfish with hush puppies and Huling’s jambalaya.

The jambalaya is the most challenging of the three. Some might find this combination of shrimp, ham, sausage, rice, peppers and spices very much an acquired taste; I find it sheer heaven. I would be hard-pressed to tell you what gives it its unique flavor, though. (Huling bristled when I asked her for the recipe: “That’s mine,” she said.)

Before you get to those Cajun dishes, you might want to detour through the soul food and Southern-style barbecue dishes that are more common to local restaurants. Huling slow-smokes her meats with hickory and slathers them with a dark red, smoky Louisiana-style sauce, which I would describe as sneaky hot. The sauce is a perfect partner for her store-bought hot links and thinly sliced barbecued beef, but I am less impressed with it over chicken.

Chicken lovers should really order their chicken smothered here, anyway. It’s served in the form of two huge, boneless breasts, with a fluffy breading to absorb Huling’s thick brown gravy. Mop it all up with the house cornmeal muffins, the crumbly, buttery sort made with almost no sugar.

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Naturally, there are lots of “fixin’s” to accompany these dishes, although a few of them need some fixing themselves. The hush puppies, dark brown from deep frying, are nearly as hard as jawbreakers. The collard greens have an unpleasantly bitter aftertaste. And the green salad . . . well, you don’t come to a restaurant like this to order a green salad.

But the candied yams are terrific--reddish-black and intense with ginger and molasses, like the world’s richest gingersnap--and the red beans and rice are exemplary. It doesn’t even end there. After all of us were ready to burst, the waitress hit us with the line, “I’ve just had a bite of the best peach cobbler I’ve ever tasted, and it just came out of the oven.”

I tasted it, a sweet version served piping hot that must have been half crust, and I can vouch for that. Like almost everything here, it tastes just like home.

Suggested dishes: Southern fried onions, $2; file gumbo, $5.95; smothered chicken, $9.95; fried catfish, $10.95; Clara’s peach cobbler, $2.75.

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Les Sisters, 21818 Devonshire St., Chatsworth, (818) 998-0755. Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. No alcoholic beverages. Street parking. MasterCard, Visa and Diners Club accepted. Dinner for two, $15-$30.


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