There are so many benefits of living here that I'd still love the neighborhood even if every last restaurant suddenly disappeared. Of course, the restaurants aren't going anywhere. Without consulting any reference materials or even stepping outside my apartment, I can list 89 of them between Duboce, Guerrero, Cesar Chavez, and Mission streets. They just keep coming and coming. Each time I think we've reached the saturation point I stroll out the door and find a new place like Le Krewe. Those who've followed the Mission food scene will remember the previous tenants at 995 Valencia (longtime fixture Val 21 and the shorter-lived, circus-themed 3 Ring). Now the space is home to a New Orleans-style restaurant that seems an ideal fit for the neighborhood. It's a bit like a Cajun-Creole Cha Cha Cha: The prices are reasonable, the vibe festive, and the food pretty damn good, with enough spirit to stand up to large quantities of alcohol and boisterous conversation, yet enough sophistication to satisfy urban tastes.
Certainly, the space itself made my friends Dan, Elsbeth, and I want to eat, drink, and be merry as we arrived on a fairly busy Monday night. The walls were painted vibrant shades of red, yellow, and green; streetlamps reminiscent of the French Quarter hung from the ceiling; and the small oyster bar was packed with glistening ice. The crowd looked young and, if I had to guess, mostly local, while the music had the bluesy, rollicking quality you'd expect to hear on the radio while driving through Louisiana late at night. As if to reinforce the good-time feel, Mardi Gras beads swung everywhere. We saw beads strung from a funky-looking faux tree in the corner, beads dangling from the lamp above the bar, and beads hanging from hooks near the door -- not to mention the complimentary beads at our table, which soon found their way around our necks.
The people behind Le Krewe (New Orleans-speak for "Mardi Gras posse") are no strangers to Cajun-Creole cooking: Three out of four partners have logged stints at PJ's Oyster Bed. The kitchen did us right from the start with basket after basket of sweet, moist corn bread that we could have consumed by the cubic meter. A moderately large French-California-Italian wine list looked promising, but since Le Krewe's food tends to be spicy, the impressive selection of beers seemed the best way to go. Have a Red Stripe, Dixie, or Blackened Voodoo brew -- or better yet, share a marvelously hoppy, 750-milliliter bottle of 7.5 percent alcohol Belgian Corsendonk.
The menu at Le Krewe spans an interesting range, from classic Southern dishes to a few vegan selections (such as blackened Jamaican jerk tofu) to the occasional bit of fusion. Alligator-stuffed Creole pot stickers fell under the last category: a quartet of pan-fried dumplings filled with a zesty purée of spicy, chicken-tasting meat, served with mildly vinegared zucchini, bell peppers, and cucumber over a pool of tangy dill sauce. For a more down-home nosh, try the fried green tomatoes -- thick, juicy discs deep-fried to a golden brown, accompanied by dabs of basil purée and a lively red bell pepper coulis. The popcorn shrimp in our third appetizer was a bit soggy, but the dish was still my favorite starter. The accompanying pods of deep-fried okra were divinely crunchy, and a pair of creamy, Creole-style dipping sauces exuded a sublime heat that came on slowly, detonated like a time bomb, and stayed with us like a smoldering, blood-red sunset.
Next came the Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo, which sounded a bit cutesy but proved solid from the first spoonful to the last. Again, the spicing was ideal, providing a shimmering backdrop to an eminently edible mélange of shrimp, rice, celery, okra, and smoky andouille sausage. My favorite dish of the night was the tomato and mushroom-based crawfish bisque, a rich, complex blend of fire, tender seafood, and savory roux. Given the price ($5) and the hefty portion, I'd say a bowl of crawfish bisque and as much corn bread as you can eat before your server cuts you off is now one of the Mission's finest affordable meals.
The three entrees we tried didn't quite live up to the starters. Because they lacked the spiciness we'd been enjoying, they seemed tame by comparison. Jambalaya with andouille, chicken, and shrimp exhibited perhaps a quarter of the fiery magic we'd enjoyed in the gumbo, while the "lightning" brisket paired succulent -- if slightly bland -- red wine-braised beef with garlic mashed potatoes, peppery mustard greens, and a ketchup-y "lightning" sauce. Plantation fried chicken was the best choice among the main courses -- tender, juicy chicken coated with batter flecked with herbs and black pepper, accompanied by sweet corn on the cob and mashed potatoes topped with a dollop of superb gravy.
The dessert list, oddly enough, got me thinking about the economy, about how it's hard to talk to anyone these days without hearing about tough times. Perhaps the downturn is a blip on the radar, or maybe it's the beginning of a new era that will see CEOs and bohemians alike reverting to all-burrito diets. Regardless, this seems a good time to seek value when dining out, and we found it in Le Krewe's beignets -- a trio of blissfully cakey deep-fried orbs topped with enough powdered sugar and honey-molasses to satisfy the most voracious sweet tooth. Figure in the scoop of creamy vanilla bean ice cream and you've got some definite bang for six bucks. If you see folks strolling down Valencia wearing Mardi Gras beads this summer, you can assume they've been dining at Le Krewe -- and that they've been dining well.