The conversation went something like this: “Billy and his parents are going snow skiing during spring break,” said my son.
“Susie’s family is going to the beach,” said my daughter. “Where are we going, again?”
“To Breaux Bridge, Louisiana,” I replied.
So began Spring Break 2008, the year my family chose to split from the pack and try something different.
“Not only Breaux Bridge,” I continued, “but we’re going to St. Martinsville, New Iberia, Butte LaRose and Avery Island, too.”
“Avery Island! Do they have beaches there?” said my daughter.
“No, honey, that’s where they make Tabasco sauce.” She looked at me as if I had just offered to take her to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.
I called my friend Liz, a native of New Iberia, my friend, Bill a well-traveled food lover, and my friend John, a New Orleans chef who has spent thousands of hours and hundreds of meals in Cajun country. Armed with the information they gave me, I packed my wife, son, and daughter in the family truckster and headed south.
This was to be the first leg of a sandwiched spring break trip that would begin in Cajun country with crawfish, alligators and Zydeco two-stepping, and end in New Orleans with the aquarium, the zoo, beignets and Easter service at St. Louis Cathedral.
Going against everything in my typical vacation-planning nature, we had no itinerary, no plan and no mission, just hotel reservations in Lafayette.
First stop: Airboat ride through the swamp
As a kid, I watched the television show “Gentle Ben” that starred Ron Howard’s little brother and the guy who played McCloud. It was about a boy and his pet bear in the Florida Everglades. My friends liked the bear. I liked the dad’s airboat.
I always wanted to ride in an airboat. My children had never heard of one.
They loved it. We saw alligators and cypress trees, and old Cajun men fishing, and cypress trees, and egrets, and more cypress trees. It was a blast.
That evening we ate at Randol’s restaurant in Lafayette. I was looking for a Zydeco dance hall. Going against everything in my restaurant-hopping nature, at least on this occasion, food would be secondary to music. Randol’s fit the bill perfectly; the food was forgettable – save the wonderfully rich and spicy crawfish bisque made with a roux darker than the Atchafalaya swamp at midnight – the service was poor, but the music was exceptional.
My 6-year-old son became a dancing machine. Who knew? We couldn’t keep him off the dance floor. When his mother tired of dancing, he dragged his reluctant 10-year-old sister out onto the floor. When she became unwilling, he begged me. The band was great. I danced with my wife, I danced with my daughter and I awkwardly walked around the dance floor with my son.
I have never been a fan of Zydeco music. That changed forever one Saturday night in Lafayette, La., in a dance hall with my wife and two children.
When polling the aforementioned Cajun country experts, they all had several enthusiastic restaurant recommendations. The one restaurant they all had in common was CafŽ Des Amis in Breaux Bridge.
CafŽ Des Ami’s Web site listed a Zydeco breakfast. Armed with a new appreciation of Zydeco music and a passion for breakfast, we made a Sunday morning reservation. Unfortunately the Zydeco breakfast at CafŽ Des Amis is only available on Saturday mornings.
The breakfast started with Oreille de Couchon, which is basically a huge beignet in the shape of a pig’s ear. It was good but not as good as beignets shaped like beignets. The kids loved it. We also ate Couche Couche, a Cajun cereal made from corn meal with milk and syrup, but the highlight of the meal was Eggs Begnaud, which consisted of a split, open-faced biscuit topped with crawfish au gratin and two fried eggs. This dish, alone, was worth the trip.
The trip ended with a tour of the Tabasco factory and lunch at Victor’s Cafeteria in New Iberia, home of a mighty fine stuffed pepper and some of the best fried shrimp my kids have ever eaten.
Dispatches from the Crescent City
Robert St. John is an author, chef, restaurateur and world-class eater. He is the author of seven books including the upcoming “New South Grilling.” He can be reached at www.robertstjohn.com.