Among the great regional cuisines of the United States, the epic culinary tradition of the area in and around Louisiana is perhaps the easiest to stereotype. Indeed, for a still-too-broad swath of the population, it remains defined by little more than gumbo, spice heat, frying and a heavy reliance on garlic. (Bam!)
Of course, that’s inaccurate and reductive reasoning by any measure, no better or more true than assuming that, say, all pasta in Italy is sauced with cooked tomatoes, or that every last piece of sushi in Japan requires a massive slick of wasabi…neither of which, of course, is anywhere near right.
Lucky for us, ambitious chefs like Paul Martin, a Louisiana native himself, are fighting the good fight, cooking up dishes that both remain true to their roots and implicitly point out the fallacy of so much of the perception of the food of his upbringing. So while much of the menu at Mamou reads as familiar, the details of each often lift the individual dishes above what you might have had in the past. His goal here, he told me during a follow-up telephone interview, is to refocus on the cuisine’s French roots.
Fried oysters were technically perfect, the nutty cornmeal and flour crust jutting out in crispy tentacles of fried goodness, which served to highlight the decadent, buttermilk-soaked East Coast oyster at the heart. The sauce was even more remarkable, a Pernod cream generously studded with cubed tasso ham, all of it topped with a tomato-y vierge, like a French salsa, as Martin put it.
On the even homier side of things was the sour cream and onion dip, which stayed true to the soul of the classic but, of course, was much better than that. (The one I grew up on, made with a packet of Campbell’s onion soup mix, sour cream, and a bit of cream cheese, will always hold a special place in my plaque-lined heart, but Martin’s riff is better.) His is streaked with the subtle heat of fresh horseradish and scooped up with impeccable house-fried potato chips. I just wish that, instead of topping the dip with crispy pork grattons, he had instead included pork rinds with those chips, the better to take fuller advantage of the delicious combination of fried pig and dip: There just weren’t enough of those cubes of fried skin.
And I could have done without the grilled boudin altogether: I love tender sausage, but these verged on mushy, so soft that the natural casing lacked any perceptible snap whatsoever, each one—a plate with five thumbs of sausage marching all in a row—falling apart under pressure from the knife. I did, however, enjoy the creole mustard they’re served with, as well as the accompanying hot pepper jelly, but neither could compensate for the textural shortcomings of the dish’s centerpiece.
Fortunately, that sort of misstep was rare. Catfish po’boy, an impeccably fried slab of fish nesting inside a Leidenheimer roll with lettuce, tomato and a homemade remoulade, embodied all the straightforward charms of what makes the sandwich so beloved. Mushroom salad was much more than it read on the menu, a heaping serving with cremini, enoki and pickled shiitake, given crunch from peanuts and shredded mirliton, a bright kick from the generous use of parsley, tarragon and chives, and posture from a zippy mushroom vinaigrette. As far as vegetarian options go, this one was a winner.
Coulotte steak—a rich top sirloin cap—was grilled up and arrived sliced into perfect pink-centered medallions, all of them reposing atop a remarkable maque choux of confident sweet and spicy notes and beneath mudrica, a combination of bread crumbs, herbs, and currants, as well as excellent homemade steak sauce.
But it’s the shrimp boil that I’ll be back for first: At $18, it’s both a fabulous bargain and, as long as you’re not a linebacker, enough for two people to share, assuming you order a side with it. (Which you should: The cheese-y grits are especially decadent.) An order comes with a generous helping of remarkably plump shrimp, each one coated with excellent creole spice: As you peel them, the perfect amount transfers from your fingertips to the shrimp itself, heating up every bite. Golf-ball-sized potatoes and diminutive cuts of corn on the cob round it all out, making for a dish of both great flavor and a whole lot of fun.
It’s also food that I’d lean in the direction of beer or cocktails for; the selection of both has been done with an eye toward pairing well with the food. Unfortunately, an opportunity seems to have been missed with the wines by the glass, which are perfectly fine but not terribly exciting. I was glad to see Tempranillo offered by the glass, for example, but the one I tasted was tired, lacking enough vivacity to fully work alongside the food.
But that can be remedied, and, honestly, it’s not why you go to a place like Mamou. Rather, you show up there for a chance to experience this cuisine in a new but never-too-unfamiliar light, enjoy a cold beer or a well-crafted cocktail, and to tuck into dishes of exuberant flavor and technical prowess. Martin is providing just that, and maybe even changing a few minds about his home state’s food in the process.
102 S. 13th St. 215.735.7500.
Hours: Dinner: Daily, 4pm-midnight. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11am-3pm.
Price range: $25 and under.
Atmosphere: Pleasant and quietly sophisticated.
Food: Generally hits its mark.
Service: Well-versed in the menu and very helpful.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014