N’Awlinz Bistro   
3321 C Kimber Drive  
Newbury Park

Many of us from West County drive up the Conejo grade and when we see the Wendy Drive exit at Newbury Park, we know we are about halfway to Los Angeles, or finally within range of the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center, or Cal Lutheran or some other seemingly distant Ventura County location. Now, however, there is a very good reason to exit the freeway at Wendy Drive and proceed just a little over a mile to a nondescript strip mall in Newbury Park. The reason: food. The restaurant: N’Awlinz Bistro, serving Cajun and Creole specialties.

I’m definitely a fan of the cuisine, and have now a become a major aficionado of the restaurant. Co-owner and chef Marcus Webster is creating outstanding food at incredibly reasonable prices, and if the occasional lines at the door are any indication, Newbury Park (at least this restaurant) will soon become a favored dining destination.  A friend who teaches at CLU turned me on to this hidden gem; he eats lunch there several times a week.

My first visit was to sample the oyster po’ boy: lots of creole battered, plump and chewy fried oysters, served on toasted garlic bread smothered in caramelized onions, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and with slightly spicy zydeco slaw (a hint of cayenne, with possibly ginger, sage and a mustardy garlic aioli and doused with paprika), and a glass of sweet tea. I could have been in the French Quarter, the tastes and texture were so authentic and addictive.

Chef Marcus brought a tiny sampler of the gumbo for me to try (a brown liquid-y roux with chicken, andouille sausage, shrimp, crawfish and crab, served over a small amount of rice). OMG, as is said in contemporary usage today. I definitely was coming back for a full serving of that amazing dish!

My next visit was to sample the “hush puppies,” small corn meal globes stuffed with crawfish and crab and a peppery cheese and covered in the zydeco roulade (the yellow aioli-like sauce with hints of sage, mustard, cayenne and thyme). Accompanying this were a couple of slices of jalapeno bacon (chewy, full-flavored thick-sliced bacon that had been marinated in jalapeño juice before being cooked). Well, in a word, wow!  From that moment on, I knew I would be pulling off the 101 at the Wendy Drive exit very frequently. Yum.

Probably the best order for those unfamiliar with New Orleans-style cuisine is the Bistro sampler: three large bite size pieces of creole catfish, four plump spiced shrimp (blackened, baked or fried), an eight-ounce cup of sausage, chicken, crawfish, shrimp and crab gumbo, and an eight-ounce cup of the andouille and chicken jambalaya. On my next visit, I’m going to either try the seafood étoufée or the blackened catfish Dennard. The Dennard seasoning is Creole-influenced with a bit of a cayenne kick, and the catfish are farmed in Mississippi. (Dennard honors Chef Marcus’ home town in Arkansas.)

Recently, I had dinner at N’awlinz Bistro, and Marcus’ business partner George Pero was hosting a large family party and I was kindly offered a fried shrimp wrapped in the jalapeño bacon. It is not on the menu yet, but certainly worth asking for.  Chef Marcus seems very accommodating and generous in offering tastings. I was also offered some blue corn fritters covered in pulled pork. (Marcus smokes all of his meats on a special hickory and pecan smoker.) Another winner of complementary tastes and just the right amount of spice and blend.

Dessert that evening was either bread pudding or rum cake. I chose the former and again, it was one of the best I’ve encountered. Pecans, a chocolate creamy sauce; goodness, it was filling and amazing. If he puts beignets on the menu I may have to consider moving closer! Don’t expect a fancy restaurant. As mentioned, it is located in a strip mall and started last February as a “to go” only location. The small dining room is functional yet comfortable. Slowly, as the business grows and word spreads, no one will be looking at the aesthetics; they will be too busy eating the great N’awlinz food.