Savory Nawlins Alligator Cheesecake and the Pursuit of Phò Tàu Bay

So the minutes are counting down. I’m scrambling to squeeze in a couple final hurrah’s in Louisiana before we head out the state Wednesday. I’m pleased to report I got in one item I thought there’d be no way for me to get: Alligator cheesecake.

Enter my beautiful, brilliant wife. She suggested we drive the hour and a half to Gretna for lunch the next day at Phò Tàu Bay. It’d be our last chance to pull it off and complete some unfinished business, as we’d tried unsuccessfully to eat there twice before.

I was stoked. Not only would I get a sexy date with my wife and the best Vietnamese food in Louisiana, but also I could–just maybe–pull off sneaking in the piece of savory cheesecake I’d previously thought impossible.

Though I’ve always loved cheesecake, now that I know there exists more than just dessert cheesecakes, I really love cheesecake. New Orleans is home to variations of shrimp, crawfish, and alligator cheesecakes. These savory cheesecakes are typically lighter than their dessert brethren, being made from Ricotta or Curd cheese rather than Philadelphia cream cheese.  I imagined experiencing a piece of such cakes would give me a good starting point for my own culinary foray into the realm of the savory cheesecake.

This whole endeavor was risky business. My wife doesn’t like seafood. I had a delicate mission. Get the cheesecake without ruining the date or her good favor. I accomplished the former but barely salvaged the latter.

We got down there and, against all odds, our Vietnamese restaurant proved out of our reach once again. It had closed an hour before for a private party. Though we were tempted to try to bribe a member of the party, we moved on to another Vietnamese restaurant in the area. The grilled pork spring-rolls were phenomenal but the chicken in the pho was suspect.

It was fun. The day had been beautiful. We enjoyed the time to talk and smile at each other on the drive. So we got back in the car as the sun was beginning to move lower in the sky, making everything more golden, especially my wife’s beautiful eyes and wavy hair. On our way through New Orleans, I called Jacaque-Imo’s to order a piece of the alligator cheesecake to-go.

We drove along the street cars, under the live oak covered streets, and past the unique old New Orleans architectural homes. Strike one, was piggybacking a quest for anything seafood onto our date. Strike two, was parking the car in a slightly no parking zone. Strike three, was stinking the car up of alligator cheesecake.

My only salvation was that the bartender generously gave me three cornbread muffins with my order. The muffin satisfied her where the pho and our original restaurant had failed. So my savory cheesecake was just that. The cheesecake had a nice light texture  with a rich smoked Gouda and light goat cheese flavor. The alligator added the slight seafoody taste I can’t help but seek in most every meal. It added chewy bites to the cake. Though imagine the alligator could have been more tender, I appreciated the slightly extra time it took to chew. Bits of Andouille added the expected creole flair as did the creamy remoulade-like sauce under the cake. Topped with a couple sprigs of baby mixed lettuce and grated parmesan, it did me right. I enjoyed every last little bite of it and even enjoyed the smell of car the next day.

I was relieved to have gotten my first piece of savory cheese cake, a pretty good cornbread muffin for the misses, and a golden drive back through the cypress trees in early summer. Here’s to inspiration, realized dreams, and a few of the finer things in life.


Louisiana Calls the Empanada Its Own

So in Natchitoches Louisiana they lay claim to the empanada. But they don’t call it an empanada. There, empanada means nothing. In Natchitoches, they are called meat pies.

A meat pie is a half moon filled pastry made with a tasty beef, pork, onion, celery and spice mix. If it has a crawfish étouffée-like filling, it’s technically called a crawfish pie. The meat pie differs from most empanadas in that it is deep fried rather than baked. Additionally, it also lacks the sugar or glazed coating of some South American empanadas.

Now, when it comes to Natchitoches meat pies, there is none other than Lasyone’s. They are made by hand, daily, and they are good. Though the crust is quite thin, a beautiful duality exists in that pastry shell. It somehow manages an outside crunch and a fragile, softer, calzone-like inner softness. Their crawfish filling is rich and tasty. There are a sufficient number of tails, they are good size, and their flavor comes though the sauce. And surprisingly, they’re not a bit spicy. Just delicious.

With my meat pie gone faster than I would have liked, I was tempted to double back for another but instead I enjoyed waking along Cane River Lake enjoying the old  French Quarter style buildings along Natchitoches’s historic Front St. It being Memorial Day Weekend, I was able to enjoy the avenue lined to one side with the swaying of bright American flags and to the other with beautiful, pure Magnolias in bloom. What luck.

Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant on Urbanspoon

A Drive Up Through Cane Country

So I got out of work this week absolutely exhausted. Ending things proved more difficult and stressful than I’d imagined it would be. Wednesday night we had a rainstorm and put down sheets of water and took the power out for the evening. I took nature’s heed and went to bed for the night. I needed it. Waking up the next morning, I felt my body had gained some ground toward being repaired.

Come yesterday morning, I was ready to hit the road. Last May, I drove the 15 hours to Dallas and back to pick up a fish tank off Craigslist and see some discus fish. This May, I felt I needed another drive for sanity. I thought I’d take a scenic route through the Louisiana cane fields of Pointe Coupee and go the back way up to my favorite little town of Natchitoches, pronounced NACK-a-dish.

Last weekend, my wife and I went up to visit my grandmother’s sisters who live in northern Louisiana, and while there, my great Aunt mentioned the pies and ham of Lecompte, Louisiana and asked if we’d ever had them. We hadn’t. She said what everyone seems to say: They’re good, but they’re expensive.

While I was on my drive though the cane, in a tiny bout of serendipity, I came upon the little town of Lecompte, pronounced luh-COUNT, and Lea’s Lunchroom. Skeptical it was the best place to get pie in the town, I drove around until I found an older couple sitting on their porch who I asked where the best place to get pie was in the town. The said that outside of their own kitchen, I’d have to try Lea’s. So I did.

A handmade neon orange sign on the door proudly announced in teen calligraphy the presence of dewberry pie. I didn’t know what it was but if they were that excited about it, so was I. I was impressed at the quantity of pies they seemed to produce and sell. My little piece was good. The crust was more gooey than flakey which was perfectly fine by me. The berries whole, rich and firm. Best of all there was almost no crust. To me crust is the purgatory of pie. Usually I’m too preoccupied with how to ethically dispose of the crust to even enjoy the pie. Here that was not a problem. Just one enjoyable 10 am snack.

Back on the road, I made it up to Natchitoches. Though I sometimes lament that anywhere America is beginning to look like everywhere America, void of local variation,  Louisiana’s still got it. On a main drag in Natchitoches, where strip malls and fast food chains otherwise dominate, a giant crawfish stands atop a seasonal crawfish eatery in proud testament to local flavor. To the outsider, the universal and unwavering local pride shared by Louisianians is as amazing as it is perplexing. Though the outsider can’t quite fully adjust to the ubiquitous use of the fleur-de-lis or seeing grown men dress in purple and gold without thinking a second thought about it, one comes to value how Louisiana is preserving a vibrant and unique identity in the face of ever greater pressure toward homogenization.

I didn’t get any crawfish at the Crawfish Hole, both because it was closed and because I’d just eaten a crawfish meat pie. I stopped to get a stainless steel roux spoon for later home cooking, and then started back home.

When I first drove through cane fields a few years ago, I couldn’t identify what I was seeing. I thought I’d recognize a cane field if I saw it, but I didn’t. In the field, the cane is covered in so many long grassy leaves, it looks like rows of grass and not the long thick bamboo-like stalks I envisioned.

I passed steel grey field buildings who’s sharp angels and perfect proportions contoured aesthetically with the horizon and melded into the pastel greens of the cane.

Another appeared other-worldly. The overhang wrapped around the entire barn, undoubtedly to keep the inside cooler by keeping the sun off the sides of the building.

I crossed a bridge over the Atchafalaya River, pronounced a-Cha-fa-Lie-ah, back into Pointe Coupee, stopped at a bait shop for a pack of frozen alligator to try my hand at blackening latter this week, and crossed more cane to get back to my baby.

So she got her day at home in peace, able to enjoy reading without hassle, and I got my drive. My chance to go and to see. Days alone like this are a blessing. We’re able to do what we enjoy and then we’re ready to appreciate being back together. And appreciate being back together, we do.

We Concurred on a Blackmouth Cur

So my wife and I have been looking for the right dog since we met. Getting a dog represents more than it should for us as we’ve had our ‘the right dog’ moments not work out in the past. Us not having a dog symbolized so much about the economy and our seemingly slow motion progress toward realizing our dreams in adulthood. We were starting to get a little paranoid. We can get married but we can’t get great jobs, we aren’t ready for kids, and crap, we can’t even have a dog.

Now that we’re at a crossroads again we’ve made the decision to force our fate in a new direction. We’re committing to a dog first and are trusting the rest to work itself out.

We’ve been looking for the right dog and were thinking everything from a boxer to a havaneese to an australian shepherd mix, but are confident we found it in a 40lb blackmouth cur. She’s a year old and super-sweet. Happy to flip her belly to a complete stranger. From what we’ve been told and can tell, she loves to play, loves children and other dogs, is smart, and doesn’t shed a whole lot. She’s watches everything, is goofy, and surprising.

Other dogs were playing, she got really excited, jumped up on her hind legs–effectively hugging me. I didn’t quite share her excitement and was puzzled by her action. I was entertained in spite of myself. I take it, she may have a little boxer in her.

I find her droopy jowls, gentle nature, and the way she melts into you when you pet her, reminiscent of both a female boxer and a manatee. We will enjoy some boxer in a smaller, blackmouth cur package. And I must mention, she’s got a beautiful coat and an even more beautiful snout.

So she won us over. We met her last weekend and committed to taking her today. We’ll visit her at her foster home on Wednesday and then officially pick her up for our move back to Illinois right after Memorial Day weekend. We’re excited. Our feelings of frustration are over. We are making progress. We have a mile marker. We have our blackmouth. We met our right dog and this one we’re not losing. No regrets. We’ll be taking care of her, as I’m sure, she will us.

Update: In a sad for us turn of events, we weren’t able to adopt her because my wife’s asthma and allergies reacted terribly. She would have been the perfect dog for us in every other way. Her foster mom is incredible and will definitely find her a great home.



Stendker Discus Now

So it’s May. I’ve had the discus since January when I got them at a little over two and a half inches each, except for the larger single fish I’d already had for a couple months. My fish are a domestic strain of discus bred by Hahnz Stendker out of Germany.  They are getting bigger and starting to show some color. They’re fun to watch but it’s easy to see that this isn’t what most expect in a fish tank. Not everyone can overcome the bare tank.

It may also be a little surprising but discus enthusiasts exist around the world obsessing, breeding, and showing these fish. Just like dog shows, they groom their specimens and pioneer new breeds.

Now the goal of many a serious discus keeper is to help their very sensitive fish grow out to the fish’s full potential. A nice adult discus should be nearly completely round as opposed to spade shaped. The face shouldn’t come to a point and the distance from the top of the head through the eye to the bottom of the head should equal seven and a half times the height of the eye itself. If the eye appears too big or small in proportion to the fish, it is again subpar.

This is nerve racking in slow motion. Discus don’t round out for a year and a half to two years. In the meantime your worried you’ll have an ace of spades and not a frisbee. I’m in the middle of month four which make them over six months old and a potential year and a half to go to see if I end up with nice shaped, colored, and well proportioned discus.

So far I’m pretty happy. They are growing. Fast. And although it is supposed to take them up to two years to get their full adult coloring, they are beginning to color up pretty nice also. The reds are still a little orange in the red turquoise discus and the blue is still a little orange in the blue snakeskin but they are coming along. They are about four and a half inches now. Three and a half or four more to go. If I’m lucky.