Like a lot of people, I found my drinking sea legs in college. But I had pretty good captains to chart those waters.
I’m not talking Captain Morgan here (although there was certainly a lot of that), but rather two very dear guy friends who purchased, mixed, poured, and – eventually – collected me off the floor for four years.
Fontaine, one half of my dearest duo, now lives in D.C. with his lovely wife (my former dormmate and sorority sister). Nate, the other half, lives in Salt Lake City and decided to finally pay us visit a few weeks ago.
Naturally, it was a liquid weekend. By brunch on Sunday I was so hung-over I could barely keep my head off the table. But these boys? Oh, they were throwing back 32-ounce Hurricanes and guzzling Purple Haze straight from the tap.
I picked The Cajun Experience—a bold, confident name for a restaurant if I’ve ever heard one—because who better to judge a new Cajun spot than a true Louisiana soul? Fontaine was born and raised in Slidell, just outside of New Orleans, and his mom is from Lafayette. Bourbon and beignets run in his blood.
The restaurant is halfway underground (literally a hidden gem, if you will) in the basement of a brownstone a block from Lauriol Plaza. The entire place is pretty small, with a single dining room and a little bar off to the side. Nevertheless, the restaurant apparently packs them in and even hosts big events such as Crawfish boils and happy hours.
When I managed to raise my head from the table, I could see that it’s actually quite lovely inside, with white tablecloths, exposed brick walls, and wooden floors. It looks like it could have been someone’s house but instead they converted it into a cozy restaurant. The walls are covered in Louisiana kitsch: photos of Tiger Stadium, front pages from The Advocate, and framed photos of elected officials from the pelican state. And, of course, the bar lamps are draped with plastic Mardi Gras beads.
Speaking of Mardi Gras, let’s talk about the drinks (can you hear my liver groan even a few weeks later?). For brunch, they offer bottomless mimosas for $15, and—get this—they leave the pitchers on the table. The mimosas are a little heavy on the orange juice, but you can’t really complain when your straw is sucking directly from the plastic pitcher you’re clutching. Also on the brunch menu are the Avery Island Bloody Marys for $7 a piece.
Or you can go for their other cocktails, which get a bit more dangerous. The hurricanes alone get up to 32 ounces. Then there’s a Cajun Grenade, made with rum, Tanqueray, vodka, and Midori. The Bourbon Street Iced Tea is spiked in a mean way, but there’s also the French Quarter martini and the Katrina Dark & Stormy. Or you can be truly brave and go for the Sazerac, made with Jim Bean and absinthe.
Better yet, there is Abita’s Purple Haze on tap, which, according to Fontaine, is pretty unheard of in these parts. The famous wheat beer is favored with raspberry and is easy to suck down by the pint-full. For Fontaine, this was heaven. He swears Purple Haze tastes ten times better on tap (and he grew up 20 miles from the brewery, so he knows). Their strawberry seasonal beer is also available on tap.
The brunch menu is tricky to navigate if you’re not familiar with Cajun food. There are starters (read: fried things), entrees (read: gumbo or jambalaya), or PoBoys (read: sandwiches). And mostly everything comes with the “trinity” in the ingredients list, which is Louisiana-speak for a mixture of onions, peppers and celery.
Fontaine ordered Boudin to start. The “poor man’s sausage” is an acquired taste, he says. Basically it’s good, cheap sausage deep-fried and served with a spicy mustard. We also had two big hushpuppies, which were standard. “Kind of hard to fuck up hushpuppies,” he says.
My favorite appetizer was the fried shrimp bowl. I couldn’t get enough of them. They’re served with a blend of spicy Cajun seasoning and are almost like shrimp poppers—small and addictive.
The entrees offer some Louisiana classics, such as gumbo, jambalaya, and shrimp and grits, but they also give you breakfast dishes with a Cajun kick. The Lafayette Parish Eggs Benedict was poached eggs atop a strip of Southern ham served on a toasted English muffin. But the hollandaise sauce was full of seasoning. All the brunch entrees came with a side of shredded potatoes that were a bit soggy, but well-seasoned and spicy.
Then there are the PoBoys. These epic sandwiches are served on New Orleans’ famous, flakey Leidenheimer bread (and they wouldn’t be proper PoBoys if they weren’t) with spicy chipotle sauce. You can get that bread filled with fried shrimp, blackened shrimp, blackened chicken, or andouille sausage—you can even get a breakfast PoBoy, which is made with scrambled eggs and cheese.
Or, you can go traditional and order the muffalatta, which is smoked ham and turkey with seasoned salami, smothered with a rich olive relish dressing and served with provolone on Italian round bread. Fontaine said the sandwich didn’t taste exactly like the ones he gets at home, but it’s unique and still pretty decent, so he can’t complain.
There are only three dessert options, but they cover all the bases. There’s bread pudding, Southern pecan pie and, of course, beignets. Our server gave us the option to have them chocolate filled, so of course I leapt at that. They were piping hot and delicious. And the chocolate variety melted in your mouth. As good as Café Du Monde, said Fontaine. Which is pretty damn good.
The Bitches say: A. It’s authentic, there’s a great vibe, the service is super friendly, and it’s bottomless and affordable. A hidden gem.
The Cajun Experience
1825 18th St. N.W.