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Cajun Style: Life in the Bayou Area - By pkane - April 12, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Cajun Style: Life in the Bayou Area

Frog legs (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

“An alligator wearing sunglasses? Now I’ve seen everything!”

So exclaims Marge Simpson upon entering the once-dingy Moe’s Tavern, newly reformatted to become Uncle Moe’s Country Feedbag, a ’90s-era family restaurant “with a whole lot of crazy crap on the walls.” Twenty years ago, or even 10, that type of kitsch might have felt firmly in the T.G.I. Friday’s idiom, but at Bayou on 17th Street just west of Valencia, it feels right at home. In other words, it’s not an artificial construct. There is a there there, and it’s indisputably down-home. From the still-life of a crab feed complete with gingham tablecloth and Dixie beer — as gaudy as an Instagram pic with the saturation setting at maximum — to the basket of Zapp’s Voodoo Chips at $2 each, just being in Bayou made me smile. And for the record, the wall-mounted gator may not be wearing sunglasses, but he is chilling in Mardi Gras beads, letting les bon temps rouler.

The second of two Cajun/Creole spots to open in the same neighborhood in the past few months, Bayou will surely get stacked up against Alba Ray’s, the much-larger restaurant over on Mission Street. The comparison is inevitable, but the two places have different ideas in mind. Yes, they both have mirliton slaw, shrimp and grits, and dirty rice on the menu — and Alba Ray’s window reads “Good Times,” while a sign in Bayou’s says “New Orleans, proud to call it home” — but the former imports a level of formality seldom seen in the Mission, while the latter errs on the side of casual at all times.

And sometimes it does err. But Chef Arthur Wall — formerly the executive chef at Garçon and at Farallon before that — hits most of his marks. Housed in the former Korean spot Young’s Barbecue, Bayou is a pretty small restaurant, with half a dozen tables and a counter that’s probably a better fit for lunch than dinner. There’s no full bar, for one. Also, the counter seating faces a window to the kitchen that’s typically stacked high with plates and even a commercial-sized roll of plastic wrap.

But on to the food. I applaud the presence of frog legs ($14), seldom seen in S.F. outside of French bistros and the occasional Vietnamese place (or Boxing Room, which also serves gator). Onions, celery, and bell peppers already comprise the Holy Trinity of Louisiana cooking, but if there were a Sacred Pentacle, its five components would be the five things these froggies are swimming in: brown butter, lemon, garlic, parsley, and Tabasco. They’re plentiful, fatty, and just plain fun to eat.

Other small bites vary. Chicken-and-andouille gumbo ($7/$10) nailed the earthy quality one expects, with a smoky brownness evident in every spoonful — and if you’re okra-averse, it happens to be absent. But a plate of broiled oysters gratinée ($15) cried out for lemon or vinegar to brighten up the caramelized onions. Not that you expect much in the way of briny creaminess or a cucumber finish with Gulf oysters, but these were utterly smothered, mere vehicles for butter and breadcrumbs. Still, the shrimp in the shrimp remoulade sauce atop the cornmeal coating the fried green tomatoes ($9) was readily apparent.

Being a rotisserie, chicken and ribs are big at Bayou, although the chicken can also be hit-or-miss. You can get it quartered, halved, or whole, served alone or as a supper with two classic sides such as rotisserie potatoes (A+ every time) or fries (which cry out for Crystal hot sauce). On one visit, the white meat was regrettably dry, but on another, it was plenty juicy. At $18 for the half-chicken supper, it’s a respectable dinner for two (and Bayou, being small, already partners with UberEATS, DoorDash, and GrubHub, with Postmates and ChowNow in the works).

Of all the entrees I had, shrimp and grits ($19) was the prettiest and the best. Nice and garlicky, with the grits pressed into patties that absorb the sauce, they’re exploding with spinach and tasso ham — which go together like peas and carrots. Put that one in the “must” column. A crawfish étouffée ($17) had a fine base flavor but no discernible identity beyond that, although it was the crawfish-and-shrimp fettuccine (with green onions, tomato, spinach, and brandy cream sauce, $19) that was the real flop. With the stipulation that my biggest grumble about Alba Ray’s was over a similar dish — the absinthe-drenched seafood linguini — I’m dinging this one more on execution than concept because the pasta was overcooked, and the tomatoes, visibly pale through the wan cream sauce, appeared to have been harvested from Safeway’s bin of lamentations. Let it be said, though, that’s it’s fixable without altering the intended character of the dish. Let it also be said that every side dish, from the mirliton to the dirty rice to the potatoes to the sweet potato puree, was very solid — although for dessert, the pecan pie was a skippable, $6 slice of tarte.

Heading back for lunch a few more times, I gravitated toward po’ boys and other sandwiches. A $12 muffaletta was just OK. The flavor’s certainly there, but the unforgivable mistake it commits is its bread, which is a tasteless, almost textureless sesame-seed sponge whose halves are exactly as thick as the layers of olive tapenade and the combined meats. It not only adds nothing; it subtracts a lot by putting a pillowy membrane between your teeth and the salami and ham. If you’re not going to shoot for the stars by adding mozzarella to the provolone — the way you find it at Brenda’s French Soul Food, my favorite muffaletta in this time zone — then at least toast the bread. But the blackened catfish sandwich ($12) was perfection. It’s buttery but not too buttery, it’s well-proportioned, and the combination of remoulade with intense pickles and a generous dash of Crystal made the whole thing pop. Another one for the “must” side of the ledger.

Casual though its laminated placemat-menus are, Bayou has some elegant touches. Order a glass of a Dogfish IPA and a glass of Consilience Pinot Noir, and they’ll both arrive with a wineglass, half the beer being poured at the table. So don’t think of it as a takeout place. In the final analysis, if you judge it by its laggards, it may come up wanting — but if you get hip-deep in this bayou, you might be as smiley as the gator on the wall.

Bayou, 3412 17th St., 415-913-7766 or bayousf.com