Not as good as Grandma's, but close enough
By Chris O'Neal 04/10/2014
Rabalais’ Bistro and Bakery
861 E. Main St.
It isn’t often that a dish reminds me of my grandmother. At her home in East Texas, okra grew in her garden and eventually made its way onto my plate. Fried or stewed, I was the kid that loved okra in all of its crunchy, sometimes slimy glory. Nothing’s changed about my palate, and so it was that Rabalais’ Bistro and Bakery in Santa Paula popped up on my radar.
Rabalais’, situated in downtown Santa Paula, where catching an old-timey buggy puttering down the main drag is just as likely as finding a photographer snapping away at the classic architecture, is aptly suited for its surroundings. Cajun meets Southern comfort in modern fashion. A very large dining room divided by a short fence turns the restaurant into two distinct places — one, a bistro with a coffee bar serving Intelligentsia coffee and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, pies and pastries; the other, a formal dining room.
Signature dishes at Rabalais’ are familiar Cajun staples. Shrimp and grits could be dinner, could be breakfast, depending on your mood. Red beans and rice with andouille sausage makes for a hearty meal in and of itself.
But on this particular visit we ordered the crawfish étouffée, lured in by the promise of a crustacean so rarely seen on menus in the county. Served with a ball of rice on top and a slice of French bread, the thick combination of garlic, onions and bell peppers in a roux sauce could have used a bit more seasoning — but the crawfish itself was fresh and brightly scarlet-striped, and there was plenty of it.
Alongside the étouffée came my personally most anticipated dish — the fried okra.
Fried okra should be crisp, it should be deceptively light, but most importantly it should not be marked by the sliminess okra can muster if allowed to sit too long after being sliced. Sliminess (however unappetizing the word) is a sought-after trait of the okra when making gumbo because of its use as a thickening agent, but it’s not so useful when frying. The appetizer served up by Rabalais’ fell somewhere in the middle, with a nice, crisp cornmeal coating that accentuated the okra’s tenderness by giving it a bit of a crunch, but slid off too easily, meaning that more often than not we were munching on the pieces separately.
The remoulade sauce served alongside was a nice accent, but the freshly made potato chips that came in a heaping mound alongside the okra seemed out of place.
For mains, we ordered the fried green tomato po’ boy — a sandwich originally intended, as the name suggests, as a meal for the working class of the early 1900s — and the night’s special, the fried chicken dinner.
Tuesdays at Rabalais’ mean fried chicken. Touted on Facebook with enticing pictures, it’s what originally drew me into the restaurant. Let’s start with the po’ boy. More traditionally stuffed with shrimp, oysters or country ham, the fried green tomato po’ boy wasn’t distinguishable from the okra appetizer we’d had prior. The same cornmeal coating gave the green tomatoes their crunch, but the tomatoes were a bit too thick to prevent sogginess. The remoulade sauce slathered on the sandwich gave it a tangy kick, but the tomatoes themselves, meant to be the highlight, were a bit overshadowed.
We ordered the two-piece fried chicken dinner ($9.95) as well and were pleased with the chicken itself, which was just crunchy enough to seal in the juicy, tender chicken under it, but the star of the show was the biscuit — however odd that sounds. When combined with the chicken and soaked in the juice from the collard greens and black eyed peas, it was lifted to another level of flavor. Topped off with Tabasco, the fried chicken meal made up for the somewhat disappointing starters.
No Southern meal would be complete without a slice of pie, and where Rabalais’ shines is in its desserts. My first visit to Rabalais’ was on a Saturday morning, when I partook of the bistro side of the business with a cup of dark coffee and chicory and three beignets (pillow-like, fried donuts with a coating of powdered sugar). These were memorable and worthy of a second (or third, or fourth) visit, but the key lime pie on special the night of the chicken dinner was the real winner.
Creamy and tangy, the slice of pie we shared was a trip I’ll never forget. The graham cracker crust made for the perfect backdrop to the fresh citrusy custard.
Rabalais’ isn’t my grandmother’s kitchen, but what restaurant is? What Rabalais’ does right is make you feel welcome, offer up a bit of country cooking for the evening and a touch of Southern hospitality in the morning.
There are many other New Orleans’ staples on the menu — including a 10-ounce coulotte steak served with gorgonzola cream sauce — that may be worthy of a return trip; but if I’m returning for any reason, it’s the pie; and I’ll eat anything if it’s served alongside those biscuits.