But to me, the most curious hole in our culinary fabric has been Cajun/Creole food, which can't seem to get a foothold. Over the years, we've had some contenders: the late, great Floogie's and the Baton Rouge Cajun Roadhouse, both of which flashed white-hot, then fizzled out, perhaps because locals prefer food with a few more temperature settings than Hair-on-Fire. Places that have had more staying power -- notably PJ's Oyster Bed and Elite Cafe -- may owe their longevity to menus that straddle the fence between Cajun and regional cooking.
So when Glenn "Gator" Thompson opened the strictly Creole Alcatraces (4042 24th St., 401-7668) a year and a half ago, I adopted a "wait and see" attitude on writing about it, in case it didn't make it. Thompson's reputation preceded him: The Prudhomme-size chef trained under Paul Bertolli at Oliveto, then briefly manned the kitchens at the Storyville jazz club and at the short-lived Jessie's, a Creole/Cajun/Caribbean restaurant in SOMA. The notices were good, with reviewers citing the food's authenticity -- ironic given that the closest Thompson has ever gotten to the Bayou swamps is the Emeryville mud flats. But maybe that's the key. An Oakland native, Thompson bases all his dishes on classic Creole recipes, interpreted with an instinctive understanding for the lighter Northern California palate.
"It's all about seasoning and flavor," says Thompson. "Not about heavy fat and gallons of cream. People are always surprised when I tell them I've never been to New Orleans, but it's not about what's on the paper, it's what's on the plate. I cook from instinct and from the heart."
If Thompson lacks Southern street cred, you'd never know it from his menu, which covers all the classics -- jambalaya to gumbo, smothered chicken Baton Rouge to po' boys, alligator sausage to fried catfish.
Deciding which dish enchanted me most was no easy task. On the first visit it was the crawfish bisque, until I got a whiff of the sweet-potato catfish. A brunch visit had me frothing at the mouth (and bulging at the hips) over the Bourbon Street French toast. But in the end it was the crawfish étouffée that got my recall vote. In Thompson's version, celery, onion, and bell pepper (the "holy trinity") are simmered in crawfish stock, sherry, and "Gator" spice -- a blend of seasonings that includes some expected ingredients (chili powder, garlic, paprika, thyme, onion) and some unexpected ones (curry, nutmeg). Tender curlicues of crawfish meat and a modest amount of cream are tossed in with a light roux, and the whole thing is served in a deep plate with a scoop of saffron rice in the middle.
The result is a mélange of vibrant and distinctive flavors and textures, none of which overpowers any other. The sherry adds tanginess; Gator spice gives it heat, but not to the point where you need a hanky to mop up the sweat; and the roux gives it enough heft to elevate it from soup to light stew.
Things may indeed be looking up for the South: Alcatraces' popularity translates next year into the much larger Gator's Swamp City Cafe, and S.F. diners will be able to add "neo-soul food" to their culinary lexicon.