Louisiana is its own planet.
Many people go to New Orleans. It’s a cultural force all its own and an amazing city: probably one of the greatest cities in the world. It’s bustling tourism and convention business sustain a steady flow of travelers, and its fairly long list of educational institutions provide the city with “second home” status to a large number of former students, who eternally return for a taste of the good stuff.
My friend Jon, who lives in a wonderful little neighborhood called the Treme, is a truly great New Orleans resource. He’s plugged in with locals, relishes new experiences and has little tolerance for those whe are faking the funk. With him, we’ve discovered some amazing New Orleans restaurants, most of which are not anywhere near the tourist districts. For those who want to know, the best restaurant in New Orleans is Jacque-Imo’s, run by the frenetic Jack Leonardi
But Louisiana is a lot more than New Orleans. Probably the single-most talked-about component of New Olreans is its food, which can be spectacular. Generally speaking, New Olreans has its own cuisine, distinct from the rest of the state—a wonderful blend of French, Spanish, Carribean, Soul Food and other cuisines into its own special concoction. This is usually called “Creole.” People often go to New Orleans, sample some tourist food and then declare that they love Cajun Food. I say this because I was guilty of the same offense before I became a frequent Louisiana visitor: Cajuns don’t live in New Orleans. Sure, there are exceptions, but true Cajun lands spread out in Southwest Louisiana, west of the Atchafalaya River from New Orleans. It is only there, that you will find “true” Cajun food. What’s more, there are just about as many kinds of Cajun dishes as there are Cajun cooks. Probably the best food to be had is only served in homes. Despite that, Cajun country has thousands of local restaurants, and in the vast world of Cajun cookery, few places on Earth can match Boudin King of Jennings, Louisiana for sheer authenticity and quality of food.
Boudin King wins the boudin competition hands down, in my and my wife’s opinion. Others pull for various other places. Most people in my wife’s family claim the superiority of the boudin from Strohe’s Meat Market. But before I get into the debates about the best boudin, let me first tell those who do not know, what it is.
Boudin is a luscious sausage made from the pork and the various innards of pigs, rice and, according to the maker, various herbs and spices all cased in rinsed and cooked pig intestine. Usually a purveyor of boudin will offer a mild and a spicy variety. Additionally, they will likely offer many other nuggets of boudin-y goodnes such as fried boudin balls. Many boudin restaurants have a drive-up window, and boudin is often eaten with your fingers: simply bite off one end and squeeze bite-fulls of the stuff into your mouth at will. The casing is either eaten or discarded; there’s no correct way to do that. And most importantly, it is pronounced: “boo-dan.”
Just about everybody eats it. We saw a prom-bound boy in a tuxedo picking up boudin to go. One sees teenagers standing roadside with a gray sausage in their fist, gesticulating wildly to one another—no doubt extolling the virtues of such a perfect food.
Cajun food is not fancy food. But when done right, it is all about local ingredients and pragmatic technique. A recent New Yorker article about some New Yorkers cruising around Southwest Louisiana looking for the perfect Boudin with their buddy from Southwest Louisiana was amazing to see, but their search was meager and their friend had no taste, as is evidenced by this little tale:
Their friend, who visits NYC with a suitcase full of boudin and other ingredients with which to cook up giant Cajun feasts for his city-slicker pals, put cream of mushroom soup in his Etouffe. While this may be done on a “down and dirty” basis, or even as a quick supper, this is NOT the way real Etouffe is made and just proves that their verdict from the Boudin Search had no legitimacy. That, and the fact that they failed to even visit Boudin King or Strohe’s.
As to who has the best, I can’t claim a lot of authority. I didn’t grow up eating the stuff, and I’ve only had a hand full of the various purveyors’s offerings. But I can pronounce a couple of judgments. First, I’ve never had good boudin outside of Louisiana. Some boudin that I got in Seattle was not even boudin at all, and the Cajun restaurant boudin I’ve eaten all over the country is always bad. Second, I’ve never had good boudin outside of Cajun country. New Orleans doesn’t even have it, so why would the rest of the world?
To get good boudin, you’ve got to be in Cajun country. Of all of the Cajun Country boudin I’ve sampled, two of the best come from around Lake Arthur, Louisiana.
First up, is Strohe’s Meat Market in Welsh, Louisiana. This is very much the real deal. The market is attached to the sties in which the hogs are kept. One can bring your own livestock to this place and have it made into special treats of your design. It’s so authentically great in all respects. Strohe’s Boudin seems to be a bit more Germanic in its inspirations. It’s meaty, thick, and just loose enough to be pulled out of the casing with your teeth. Its flavor is mild, even when ordered spicy, and it’s more about the quality of the meat than most other varieties. Strohe’s doesn’t move a lot of boudin. It’s only a secondary product for them among many other wonderful products. Hillary swears by the hog’s head cheese, but I’ve yet to sample it.
Second, and far more popular regionally, is Boudin King, founded by the late Ellis Cormier. Boudin King became so popular that Jennings, Louisiana was officially declared “Boudin Capital of the Universe” by the State of Louisiana. The reasons for the popularity are overwhelmingly justified. First, the authenticity of this product is evident. The restaurant is a small, low-slung, dive-type operation, compete with Mister Cormier’s hunting and fishing trophies and a special parking space, which reads “reserved for the Queen’s Carriage,” in which only Ellis Cormier’s wife can park. The steady streams of customers are of all classes, genders, sizes and colors. All are united in their love for boudin. The drive-up window is always occupied, and the sheer amount of boudin coming out of this place is astonishing. The greatest justification is, however, the boudin itself.
Boudin King’s boudin is more rice-oriented, like a rice dressing stuffed inside of a sausage casing. The spices and herbs are kicked up a notch (though not hot), and the flavors are more unified. The extra rice makes this one a bit more fun to eat for those uninitiated into the wonders of pork innards.
Boudin King is so popular that the brand has spread to other cities. Don’t be fooled. The real deal is in Jennings. Just pay a visit to these friendly folks and enjoy:
You’ll see various modifications and derivative works in the boudin world, from crawfish boudin (delicious, but not really boudin) to the unbelievable (in the true sense of the word), deep fried, seafood boudin po boy that Jon took us to witness in Metarie. For those who didn’t catch that, let me explain. It’s a piece of French bread that has been hollowed out and then stuffed with seafood boudin (probably ground pork, shrimp and rice). The whole thing is then dipped in batter, deep fried, and then served with a special remoulade and fries.
Yup, Louisiana is another planet.