Want a little “lagniappe,” an extra treat, a little freebie like the 13th donut in a baker’s dozen? Say “Lan-yop,” as Louisiana’s French-accented Creoles and Cajuns do, and you’ll be right in the spirit of Carnival, the month-long time of fun, festivity and wretched excess in Latin countries — and, of course, in old New Orleans and the Cajun bayous.
Carnival rules from Twelfth Night, the 12th day of Christmas, until Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” slams the door on deliciously sinful fun as the gloomy and repentant Lenten season begins.
If all this sounds a little bit like Derby time in Louisville, that’s more than coincidental, right down to the 24-hour party that ends the festivities with a bang.
In New Orleans, and throughout the watery arc of bayou country that extends south and west of the city past Baton Rouge to Lafayette, Carnival is an endless round of parties, costumes and fun, with noisy parades that wind through streets filled with people doing a fair impression of the Derby Infield scene. Revelers on floats are armed with trinkets and colorful beads in the Mardi Gras colors of green, gold and purple, called “throws” because they’re tossed out in response to the traditional cry, “Th’o me somethin’, Mista!” Now, that’s lagniappe.
We don’t get much of that in Louisville, especially in bleak January and February. But there’s at least a hint of Carnival flavor as close as your nearest Cajun-style eatery. This year, with Mardi Gras coming up on Tuesday, let’s take a look at J. Gumbo’s, the restaurant formerly known as Gumbo A Go-Go.
First, though, a harsh but important distinction needs to be made: There is J. Gumbo’s, and then there is J. Gumbo’s. There’s the original location in Clifton, and then there are about a half-dozen other properties in a growing local chain.
They’re not the same.
At the original location, where I’m a fairly regular customer, there’s a down-home, neighborly feeling that results from having the proprietor (the affable Billy Fox Jr., Louisiana-bred Cajun cook and jockey) on the premises, slinging skillets around. The food appears to be made to your order on premises.
It consistently comes up hot and fresh, generously portioned and fast, fast, fast. I can’t think of another place in town where you can come in, place your order, pay your cash, grab your drink from the fountain and head back to your table … and find that the server got there before you and your dinner is waiting.
Food and service at the other J. Gumbo’s properties, to put it as kindly as I can, tends to be more … variable. Run by franchisees under the ultimate control of background investors, they serve food prepared in a central commissary to be re-heated on premises. Quality and quantity are sporadic, but the luck of the random draw has usually dealt me small, bland portions made without roux or soul, showing little acquaintance with spices beyond a ritual shake of the hot-sauce jar.
Nope. It’s the Clifton original for me, and as long as Fox and his staff are on hand, I know I can count on a hearty, spicy meal at a price that’s almost laughable: $5.99 for an oversize bowl of a dozen selections, served with steaming white rice and garlic bread; or $3 for a half-size child’s portion available to all ages. Wash it down with strong Luzianne iced tea, a soft drink or a cold Louisiana beer, and I can hardly think of a better way to celebrate Mardi Gras in Louisville.
On a recent visit, gumbo was just as it should be, dark-brown and spicy, redolent of the controlled burn of a classic Cajun roux, full of chunks of tender chicken and thick-sliced andouille-style sausage with plenty of green pepper and onions. Jambalaya, a personal favorite, was a rib-sticking mound of rice infused with flavor from long simmering with sausage, onions and peppers. Chicken etouffée dolloped a thick, creamy and delicately spicy pale-tan sauce over big, tender bites of chicken in a generous bowl of rice.
All this came to $17 for two, with the change from a $20 dropped in the tip jar. And if you want a little lagniappe, they’re tossing out traditional Mardi Gras “throws” at the front counter this week.
2109 Frankfort Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 85 points
Tongue-Thai’ed at City Wok
I wish the rest of today’s dissertation could be as happy, but I’ve got to say it: Sala Thai in Jeffersontown may be one of the three best Thai restaurants in Louisville (the other top contenders being Thai Taste in Clifton and Mai’s Thai in Jeffersonville); but the new Sala Thai’s City Wok downtown is lackluster at best.
Sala Thai’s arrival on West Main Street last autumn apparently came as a shock to the old Chinese-American City Wok’s regulars, prompting new management to post a stern warning on the front door: “Sala Thai’s City Wok ONLY serves Thai cuisine. We do no offer Chinese cuisine!”
Unfortunately, serious fanciers of Thai cuisine won’t be much happier than the chop-suey-deprived customers of the old City Wok. I’ve tried Sala Thai again and again, making repeated visits on different days of the week in hope that new management will hit its stride, but I’ve pretty much given up hope: If you come downtown expecting an experience even remotely resembling the “real” Sala Thai, you’re going to be profoundly disappointed.
The buffets offer a fair selection of Thai dishes, including about a dozen main courses and a fair mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian selections. Upon closer examination, though, they are almost always variations on two themes: chicken for the meat eaters and tofu for the vegetarians. They vary more in color than in flavor: A few are slightly spicy; the rest are bland. Nothing comes close to 5-pepper heat level or even 4. (You can dish up hot sauces to dose your dish, but the flavors just don’t pop out at you as Thai food should.)
A few dishes have stood a bit above the pack: Crisp iceberg lettuce salad with ginger dressing is usually good, although it speaks volumes that one of the best dishes on a Thai buffet is a Japanese-steakhouse salad.
One day’s chicken and coconut-milk soup was warming and delicious, but another day’s tom yum gai chicken soup was funky and weird. Mee grob rice noodles stuck together in a sticky-sweet haystack. Vegetarian spring rolls were greasy; chicken-stuffed won ton triangles were greasier. A fried corn cake was leathery; and pretty much everything in the main-dish pans infrequently refilled, mushy in texture, lacking the sharp, defined flavor that I expect from really good Thai fare. Like, well, the original Sala Thai.
Asian food is really best prepared to your order, stir-fried over a searing flame and quickly plated and rushed sizzling to the table. Nevertheless, it’s entirely possible to build an excellent Asian buffet. It simply takes commitment and caring, and a concerted effort to keep the buffet pans filled and fresh. Thai Taste does it, and so do Sari Sari Filipino and Maido Essential Japanese. But I don’t see it at Sala Thai’s City Wok.
In fairness, some of my friends are more forgiving; and some might argue that lackluster Thai is better than no Thai. I’m not so sure.
Sala Thai City Wok
526 W. Main St.
Robin Garr’s rating: 68 points
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