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Spice of Life

Real Gulf Coast food abhors a sterile, brand-new place

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Twenty years ago, Capriccio seemed really special--it was an elegant Italian restaurant in a town with few sophisticated places to eat--and we'd schlep up First Avenue to River Road once in a while for a big night. It was all crisp white linen and older, career waiters who took their jobs seriously. Actually, through the mists of memory, it looks a little like Vivace--not as good, maybe, but in that style.

Then I lost track of the place. Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, when my friend Emil Franzi convened a lunch there. (Emil knows where to eat in this town.) I was shocked at how run-down it had gotten. The building had always been a man-made cave, but you don't notice that at night, and back in the day I'd only been there for dinner. These days it's really a cave--dark, with stained black carpet, no tablecloths, mismatched chairs and a lingering tang of old cigarette smoke. The menu was still mostly Italian, but there were some interesting curiosities--like the habanero duck sausage that Emil basically dared me to order. It was swell, and I think I impressed him by finishing it. It was a good meal and a good time, but I wondered exactly what was going on.

It turns out that while I hadn't been looking Capriccio had changed hands. Veteran restaurateurs Marty and Tom Brunner, whose hearts belong to the great cuisine of the Deep South, bought it in 1995. They kept the Italian thing going but added a few telltale specialties--that incendiary duck sausage, for example--to the menu. Finally, last fall, Capriccio finished its metamorphosis, threw off the Italian drag and stood revealed as Brundog's Zy-de-que, a full-fledged barbecue and Cajun joint, and a terrific one.

As such, of course, the slight funkiness of the place is fitting, even reassuring: An old friend who grew up in New Orleans once told me that the best meal he'd ever had--and the boy cared about his food--was at a locally famous shack that was half of a working gas station. There's something about Gulf Coast food that hates a sterile, brand-new place. (Remember Smokin'? The McMahon barbecue spots that folded almost as soon as they opened? I rest my case.) Nice people, devotion and sincerity in the kitchen and lack of pretense are life itself to top-notch Southern food, and that's Brundog's to a T.

I first went for lunch on a Monday when the parking lot was so empty that I wondered if the place was closed. Nope. Just quiet--I was the only customer for a while. The lack of business didn't seem to bother the affable guy who greeted me and told me to sit wherever. Did I want sugar for my iced tea? No. I'm not that big on Southern tradition.

Making a difficult choice, I went for the hickory smoked pulled pork sandwich ("Rubbed with Brundog's Pork rub and slow smoked over hickory. Pulled and slathered with Brundog's BBQ Sauce. Served with onions and pickles on a soft bun." $6.50). It was lovely--a huge heap of lusciously moist, flavorful shredded pork topped off with exactly the right amount of superb house sauce down the center. I didn't bother with the bun but still couldn't finish the pork--and I wanted to.

When I came back for dinner with Ed, we split a bowl of profound gumbo to start ($6.50). "But can a soup be profound?" you ask. No, but this was gumbo--and a great one, with layers of balanced flavors and textures: chewy bits of hot sausage, luscious slime of okra, soft, slightly resistant grains of fat white rice, flecks of what the menu describes as "the Holy Trinity of green bell peppers, onions and celery"--I could go on. I could eat it twice a day and be happy. There was that much happening in the bowl.

On to echt-Cajun étouffée ($16) and a BBQ combo platter ($17)--a mound of succulent pulled pork, slices of hickory-smoked brisket, baby back ribs and sides of greens, cole slaw and honest mashed potatoes (with peppery gravy, naturally; Brunner--who's the chef--never holds back on the black pepper). Brunner rightly brags on his ribs, but the beef and pork were just as good. The sides were scrumptious.

We got the étouffée with grilled chicken (moist and done to a turn)--it's the same price with shrimp. I loved it, although Ed thought it was bland compared to the gumbo and ribs. I have to say that he was spice-addled and, for once, plain wrong. It's just a subtler dish than the others. The rice, vegetables, stock and spices worked beautifully together, but, correctly, it was the warm, deep-bottomed flavor of the roux that dominated, and in my book, there's nothing that beats the fragrance of browned fat and flour. It's like Louisiana-bred writer Mary Carr says about roux in her hilarious memoir, The Liar's Club: This is the stuff you need to live.

We happily took home enough for another meal.

Next time: more gumbo and an oyster po'boy. Yowza.

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