Back Among Hungry Friends

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Fred Burrell and Cliff Huffstettler may not make the short list of Orange County's best chefs, but they enjoy something few of them have: passionately loyal customers. Burrell makes barbecue, Huffstettler cooks Cajun, and a lot of folks who love this kind of cooking will swear they're both the best around. The highest praise you can give Southern cooking is to say "It's good eatin'," and their restaurants, Burrell's and Cliff's Ragin' Cajun, certainly serve food deserving that honor.

Not that they've had an easy time of it. Burrell's opened a brick-colored storefront barbecue hut in a blue-collar downtown Santa Ana neighborhood some 20 years ago. Customers ordered at a front counter and ate off paper plates at picnic tables in an adjacent yard. Burrell quickly gained the reputation as Orange County's king of barbecue. His meaty ribs, tasty side dishes and tempting desserts drew hungry diners from all over Southern California.

With success came expansion, and Burrell closed his Santa Ana site in the early '90s to open branches in Old Town Irvine and the Balboa Peninsula. In short, they both served fine barbecue, but the great ambience that defined the original was missing, and in the end, both failed.

This is not surprising, according to those who keep track at Fessel International, a Costa Mesa-based restaurant consulting company. Industry statistics show that 60% to 70% of independent restaurants fail. And as for starting new locations, independent restaurants are rarely able to conduct sophisticated demographic surveys that could help determine whether a new site would be as successful as the original. Chain restaurants are much more successful, with only a 5% failure rate.

When Burrell reopened his original site a few years ago, I was one of the excited many. I mean, nothing beats spending a lazy summer evening in Burrell's well-landscaped yard noshing on messy ribs and collard greens. While the accouterments are hardly first-class, the food still stands up to the standard I remember from more than a decade ago.

Little about the place has changed. Burrell's still serves barbecued beef and pork ribs, chicken, country ham, hot links and sliced beef. Choosing isn't easy. If you come in a group of three or four, I recommend the Potluck, which features a choice of five meats, four regular side orders, two cornbreads and two thick slices of pie. It's a big pile of food, packed into two plastic containers.

Burrell's cooks ribs the old Southern way, slathered with a tangy sauce and cooked slowly in a wood-pit barbecue until the meat is falling-off-the-bone tender. My preferences are the thick spare ribs and the spicy hot links, both of which, as an amateur barbecue cook, fill me with envy. You can get extra barbecue sauce on request. This is nothing like gooey Texas-style sauce, though. It's much thinner and more vinegary, better suited as moppin' sauce.

Save room for Burrell's side dishes and desserts. The candied yams are sweet and syrupy, and the black-eyed peas get their slightly smoky and salty flavor from bits of bacon. You cannot leave Burrell's without trying the excellent sweet potato pie or banana pudding when it's available.

Burrell's also makes an authentic Carolina-style barbecue pork shoulder sandwich, with pickles and cole slaw on a soft French bun.

Cliff's Ragin' Cajun doesn't serve barbecue, but Huffstettler has earned his loyal following among office workers in the John Wayne Airport area for heaping portions of Louisiana-style cooking. Huffstettler opened his Ragin' Cajun in 1993, and it quickly became the most popular spot in Plaza de Cafes, a lunchtime food court a block from the airport. Folks waited in line for up to 20 minutes for a taste of Huffstettler's authentic gumbos, etoufees, jambalayas, roasted turkey and slabs of fresh-baked French bread.

In 1998, Huffstettler opened a sit-down version of the Ragin' Cajun in Fountain Valley, but it lasted only a year. Still, his Plaza de Cafes site raged on until the food court closed in 1999, and Huffstettler landed a job as a corporate chef in the Marriott chain.

But Huffstettler wasn't long for corporate life. With financial backing from a longtime customer, a Newport Beach attorney, he reopened his Ragin' Cajun last month at the Jamboree Promenade, not far from his old site. And the same long lunch lines quickly formed. As with Burrell's, little about the place has changed. Like the original, this one is decorated with Mardi Gras beads and alligator heads, and Cajun music still plays. The food's about the same, too, but with a larger kitchen, Huffstettler has added salads and po' boy sandwiches to the menu. In addition, he's now open until 7 p.m. and on Saturdays.

Ragin' Cajun serves the basics of Louisiana-style cooking with down-home authenticity. Huffstettler pan-cooks his jambalaya so the rice can absorb the spices and juices from andouille sausage and turkey. He also makes a crawfish-rich seafood jambalaya. And his gumbos based on a rich, heady roux are chockfull of turkey and sausage or seafood.

Some of Huffstettler's most popular dishes don't necessarily come from his native Louisiana. He serves moist roast turkey with a side of buttery mashed potatoes and creamy gravy, but it's also offered as the aptly named turkey bowl. This simple dish features cubed turkey breast stuffed into a hallowed-out portion of rice or mashed potatoes and drenched with gravy.

Seasoned Ragin' Cajun customers usually pass on the standing menu in favor of the daily specials. Depending on the day, Huffstettler cooks up chicken Cordon Bleu, Alaskan king crab, frog legs, baked sea bass, salmon, rib eye, pork chops covered in barbecue sauce or whatever else comes to mind. I'm not particularly fond of his seafood dishes, but the steaks, chops and especially the chicken Cordon Bleu certainly rise above other food court fare.

Both Huffstettler and Burrell may have had a tough go of it in recent years, but it's good news for their old customers that they're back in familiar surroundings and that good eatin' abounds.

Burrell's is affordable, with prices ranging from $6.75 to $11.95 for barbecue plates and $24.95 for the Potluck. Cliff's Ragin' Cajun is also affordable, with salads ranging from $2.50 to $5.99, po' boy sandwiches from $4.99 to $7.99 and Cajun dishes and house specials from $3.59 to $7.99.

* Burrell's, 305 N. Hesperian St., Santa Ana. (714) 547-7441. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Sundays. Catering is available. Cash only. Cliff's Ragin' Cajun, 2626 Dupont Drive, Irvine. (949) 476-8284. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Closed Sundays. Catering is available. Cash only.

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