The Cajun food craze of the ‘80s has begun to fade from memory, but it has left traces in Orange County. Two of the best local places to experience the spicy, soulful cuisine of Louisiana are New Orleans Cafe in Huntington Beach and Cliff’s Ragin’ Cajun in Fountain Valley, which happen to be a study in contrasts. One is a casually upscale restaurant specializing in fresh seafoods. The other is a funky, down-home cafe in a sprawling mall complex.
New Orleans Cafe belongs to Syrian immigrant Adam Chamaa. Yes, there’s a story behind that, but it’s a familiar one. He went to college in Louisiana, married there and, not surprisingly, developed a passion for Cajun cooking. His restaurant is spacious and comfortable, and funky zydeco music plays softly in the background while you dine.
You get a complimentary basket of hot cornmeal hush puppies, but it might be best to eat no more than one or two. In fact, I’d go easy on the appetizers too--most are wickedly filling, and the main courses will test your capacity.
The barbecued-rib appetizer comes with what the menu calls New Orleans barbecue sauce, a mildly spicy tomato-based sauce with a strong flavor of brown sugar. The baby-back ribs are properly moist and soft. Cajun crab cakes (baked, not fried) are mostly pure lump crab meat. New Orleans Cafe makes delicious cabbage rolls with a dense stuffing of rice with beef, shrimp and crab.
A dark, intensely spiced gumbo is made with crayfish, crab, shrimp and Louisiana sausage. It’s thickened with a classic Cajun roux but not flavored with file (sassafras leaf). When the restaurant first opened, it served file gumbo, Chamaa says, but customers didn’t go for it. (The restaurant will bring file powder on the side on request.)
I go for Chamaa’s blackened fish. They come beautifully encrusted with pepper and spice. Yellowtail is probably the best choice, with swordfish a close second. If you like your fish fried in cornmeal batter, the best you can do here is the fried seafood platter, a mammoth plate of shrimp, crab-stuffed shrimp, oysters, crayfish, one stuffed crab shell and a giant catfish filet.
All dinners include salad and a choice of two side dishes, including a fine chicken-and-sausage jambalaya and nicely fresh sauteed spinach. At lunch, there are hearty po'-boy sandwiches with fillings such as crayfish, fried oysters and roasted chicken, served on French rolls with lettuce, tomato and mayo.
There are plenty of good drinks to accompany your meal. I particularly like a frothy lager named Dixie Red Ale and the Hurricane, a huge rum punch made famous at the New Orleans restaurant Brennan’s. The best dessert is the eggy bread pudding, which the restaurant serves warm with a whiskey-laced hard sauce.
New Orleans Cafe is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.95 to $6.95. Specialties are $8.95 to $12.95.
Cliff’s Ragin’ Cajun is simple and basic, but sometimes less is more.
You order at the counter and sit at a cafe-style table draped in red-and-white oilcloth while listening to Mississippi Delta music from chef-owner Cliff Huffstetler’s CD collection. On that oilcloth stands a collection of bottled hot sauces with names such as Devil Drops and Red Rooster. Don’t even think about trying the mouth-blistering Dave’s Insanity unless you’re, well, ragin’ crazy.
Huffstetler, like many good Cajun chefs, learned to cook at home, and his food hasn’t lost that home-cooked taste. My favorite thing here is his boudin, a mild sausage of chicken, pork and rice. Boudin isn’t the spicy kind of Louisiana sausage, but the stuffing is literally bursting from the casing, and the gentle flavors fill your mouth quickly.
Here the gumbo is flavored with file powder, and it’s so thick you can stand a spoon in it. It’s crowded with chicken, sausage, shrimp, crawfish, celery and onions, with a big heap of boiled rice in the center. You’d be amazed at how filling a cupful of the stuff can be.
First-time diners may want to start with the Cajun combo, a terrific plate and a bargain. It features a large anthill of delicious jambalaya, a pile of rice covered with stewed red beans and a generous portion of turkey etouffee, breast meat in a thick sauce flavored with celery, onions and lots of Cajun spice.
Speaking of etouffees, the classic crayfish etouffee is loaded with the flavorful freshwater crustaceans. Cliff’s makes great po'-boy sandwiches too. My favorite is the shrimp po’ boy: butter-grilled French bread stuffed with Southern fried shrimp. All the po’ boys come with “gator tators,” fresh-made French fries dusted with a blend of dried peppers.
Several dishes such as Southern fried chicken and fried catfish, both moist inside their crisp batter crust, might be found in any Southern state.
The only side dish to speak of is hush puppies--golden-brown, golf-ball-sized, deep-fried corn-bread mouthfuls--here laced with jalapenos. The reason I like them so much is the coral-pink remoulade they’re served with.
The desserts are also made on the premises. They include a gooey pecan pie, a nice bread pudding and red velvet cake, a recent addition. Red velvet is your basic chocolate devil’s food sheet cake, only dyed bright red and topped with a thick, impossibly rich cream cheese frosting. No wonder Paul Prudhomme can’t get into his Calvins.
Cliff’s Ragin’ Cajun is inexpensive. Starters are $1.99 to $3.50. Cajun favorites are $4.99 to $7.99. Po’ boys are $4.99 to $5.99.
New Orleans Cafe, 18552 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach. (714) 593-9080. 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.
Cliff’s Ragin’ Cajun, 18609 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. (714) 962-6069. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. MasterCard, Visa, Novus and Discover accepted.