Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Best Eatery Ever

My favorite food authors, Jane & Michael Stern, rate each of their finds, not by the absolute wonderfulness of the restaurant, but how it compares to what it tries to be. So Shady Glen in Manchester rates at the top, not because the food is better than Cavey's, but because it is the perfect 1950s ice cream shop. Few are perfect, except perhaps The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou in Pinellas Park, just south of my place.

Pinellas County is laid out on a grid, with main drags running predictably north-south and east-west. The resulting squares are filled with mobile home parks and billboards. Once in a while, a square contains a park or some natural wonder, like a swamp, a Burger King or a government building. On extraordinary occasions, a creek or even a bayou wanders through the grid. (
Plug 8133 Park Blvd, Pinellas Park, Fl into Google Earth.) Drive down Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park, amidst the car washes and strip malls, and turn into a ramshackle driveway at the ramshackle sign reading The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou. Drive over the alarmingly ramshackle pavement and notice that the frenzied pitch of Park Boulevard fades and soon disappears. Welcome to the Cafe. See

The Cafe is a shack, but not a ramshackle shack. Real-McCoy plank siding must date back to earliest Florida history - maybe 1955. Inside are plain booths, but the rear deck is a destination rivaling Clearwater Beach itself. The deck overhangs the bayou and virtually nothing else. The dark, brackish water meanders north or south with the tide and swirls with catfish and the occasional alligator. Mangrove and cypress line the shore as far north as you can see. The tin roof sings in the rain - jeezus what rain! - but the picnic tables on the deck position you barely out of the deluge. Gentle and unfailing breezes keep away any little biting critters. Cajun music of all colors plays not too far in the background.

The Cafe has Cajun food for the ages. Gumbo and jambalaya and etouffees and po'boys and oysters and catfish creole. Boiled crawfish in 2- or 5-lb batches. Red beans and rice. Dirty rice. Pork bouidin and crawfish boudin and sausage-stuffed Cajun meatloaf.
Cafe's crawfish cornbread is succulent and satisfying beyond description.

Care for a beer? Keep in mind that beer served in Florida rarely strays far from the Bud Light rut. It's a hops wasteland, a barbarian, scum-swilling land of pantywaist buzz-chasers that wouldn't know a decent brew if they fell into a mash tun. So it was a shock of epic magnificence to see a sign in front of the Cafe claiming to serve
80 craft beers, 15 of them on tap. Local brews like Dunedin Pale Ale and Jai Alai IPA, Belgians ales, stouts, wheat beers and Hercules Double IPA. Brews from Colorado and Oregon and California and the Carolinas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Louisiana. Texas, Massachusetts and Virginia. And those are only the ones I have tasted, so far. The Cafe would be beer heaven if it served nothing but hot dogs.

One might think, mightn't one, that an eatery of this intensity would serve some wonderful desserts. The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou serves one dessert, and one only. One is all is needed because everyone knows, or quickly learns, that it is the best of all possible desserts: bread pudding with whiskey cream sauce.

If I were stranded on a desert isle for the rest of time and could bring only one thing with me, it would be The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou.

I could be wrong, but I don't think so.


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