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Louisiana Cookin'

Don's Bayou is a tiny place with huge Cajun flavors

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Geographically and culturally, the bayous of Louisiana and the Sonoran Desert couldn't get much more different. As far as the food goes, the only thing in common is a love of heat.

Don's Bayou Cajun Cookin' brings some of that Louisiana-style heat to Tucson—and for the most part, this desert-dweller thought the eats were pretty darn good.

"Bayou" is in the name, so it's no surprise that there's nothing fancy about the place. Indoors, four tables are placed so close that one is practically forced to chat with the folks at the next table—so if you don't like that kind of vibe, dine on the small patio, or grab your meal to go. On each table is a roll of paper towels, salt and pepper shakers and a portable lantern. The lanterns are decked out with photocopied sketches of bayou life.

The menu is written on a chalkboard and can change daily. Usually, there's crawfish etouffee ($9 and $14), turtle stew ($8 and $14), gumbo (ranging from $6 to $14, depending on the protein) and jambalaya ($7 and $10).

Décor is minimal and down-home; music comes from a small portable tape deck. The night we were there, we enjoyed one of our faves, Leon Redbone. You order at the counter, and sometimes, Don himself serves your meal. Most of the dishes are served on disposable plates or containers. But you don't go to a place like Don's for the décor or uptown service. You go for the food—good, homemade food.

The crawfish boil ($13) sounded too good to pass up. We were told that there would be a good 15-minute wait for the crawfish due to the prep and cooking methods involved. No matter; we'd driven all the way across town and were in no hurry. We also ordered the gator bites ($4.50), red beans and rice ($6 and $10), and the frog-leg dinner ($12). If crawfish doesn't appeal, there's also a shrimp boil ($13).

Eating crawdads is a fun, messy thing, and the meal didn't disappoint. Don gave a demo on the proper method of shelling and eating the crawdads—complete with instructions to suck on the head, in order to get those juices found in the nooks and crannies. The pile of bright-red crustaceans was enormous; some were as small as my pinkie, with others as big as jumbo shrimp. Several red potatoes, a corncob and garlic cloves were laid out as well. The mudbugs were seasoned with a house mix hot enough to leave traces of heat on lips and fingertips. The sweet, tender corn offered a mellow respite.

Word is that everything offered, save the boudin sausage ($4), is housemade, including a wonderful cornmeal coating that appears on plenty of the items. It has a reddish hue and is flecked with all kinds of seasonings. Virtually grease-free, it fried up all crunchy and crispy, with a hot little finish. The gator bites were coated with the stuff—and this is real gator, folks. I'd compare it to lake perch in texture. A ketchup-based hot sauce sits on the plate for dipping. I would definitely order this dish again.

As for the red beans and rice, I had to dig deep through tender red beans, sausage, veggies and spices to get to the fluffy rice. The large size is hearty enough to be a meal—especially with a side of the cornbread ($1).

It's been eons since I've had frog legs, and these didn't disappoint. Under all that coating was sweet, juicy meat that tasted nothing like chicken. Sadly, there were only three legs. They were enormous and very good, but another one or two would've justified the price.

This dish comes with two sides among coleslaw, fries, cornbread and Cajun potato salad. The cornbread was a bit on the dry side, but still full of flavor. The spicy potato salad had tender potatoes mixed with hard-boiled eggs, celery and all sorts of other goodies; it was the best of the four sides. The slaw was heavily dressed with vinegar and a bit wilted. The fries were made from a huge potato that had been sliced paper thin. They were fried golden brown and peppery, but were a tad greasy.

Another dinner that was most enjoyable was something you probably can't get these days: the oyster dinner. (Since our visit, Don has had trouble getting Gulf oysters due to the environmental calamity.) The oysters weren't very large, but the contrast between the crunchy outer coating and the moist oysters was wonderful. It had the same hot sauce that came with the frog legs, but there was considerably more horseradish mixed in.

The only item we sampled that didn't impress was the shrimp po' boy ($10). There could've been more of the sweet shrimp, and the house red sauce seemed a bit out of place.

The only thing missing was a cold beer. Don's liquor license is currently at the mercy of the state; for now, you can bring your own for a "corkage" fee. Eventually, Don's will offer beer, wine and those killer hurricanes, which will go well with the live music on certain weekend nights.

Two desserts ($4.50) sit on the countertop under glass domes. One is a rich tasty pecan pie; it was not too sweet, with a tender crust. It practically screams "homemade." The cherry pecan pie is a single-layer cake with a bright-pink confetti-flecked frosting. The inside is also pink with bits of cherry and pecan throughout. This is a bit sweet, but offers a nice finish after all of the heat found in the entrées.

Admittedly, the food is a bit pricey, but there is promise here. Stop by Don's Bayou for an interesting a dinner or a to-go picnic lunch.

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