The rule of thumb among Tucson's ethnic restaurants: The farther north you go, the more timid the chefs get with the seasonings. There are exceptions, and the rule doesn't work for Indian restaurants, which are scattered along an east-west axis. But I do know people who won't venture more than a mile or so beyond South Tucson for fear that the Mexican restaurants they'll encounter will merely serve bland tourist food. Ditto for the cuisine of other colorful societies.
So it's not surprising that the Bayou Café, up at 5819 N. Oracle Road, plays it safe with spices. But know this: If you want to give your tonsils a scorching, the chef will happily up the spiciness to your specifications. All you have to do is ask.
I didn't realize this when I first entered the café's attractive but unpretentious dining room. The décor does hint at a genteel, basic approach, with framed photos of elegant Southern mansions greatly outnumbering the obligatory bayou paintings. And the place is scandalously quiet at lunch and dinner--as you'll see, it deserves a strong, steady clientele--but at least you can carry on a pleasant conversation during your meal. In terms of atmosphere, the Bayou Café is a brighter counterpart to the late, lamented Nonie, rather than a twin of the rougher working-class vibe at the French Quarter.
The restaurant serves breakfast from 7 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and stays open for lunch until 2 p.m. each of those days. Sometimes it's open for dinner, too, although that's not mentioned on the sign in the window, and no hours at all are posted on the Web site (which as of this writing had been down for several days anyway). After showing up for dinner on one of the regular days of operation--a Tuesday--and discovering that the place was closed (as was, puzzlingly, the Peruvian restaurant in the same strip mall), I broke down and actually asked a human being for information. Turns out that dinner is served until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays.
The first meal I was sure of being able to get was lunch, so I dropped by one day last week with my friend Jeff, who still mourns the loss of Nonie. Well, after a couple of meals at the Bayou Café, Jeff is ready to rip off his black crape and begin a new relationship.
It wasn't quite love at first bite, but it was close. Inspired by the gentle aroma of sausage drifting in from the kitchen, I ordered a bayou devil dog ($7), a grilled andouille sausage plopped atop a nest of melted cheese on a crisp bun and topped with flecks of what I think was cabbage (but looked more like shredded mushroom and didn't taste like anything identifiable). The fried okra on the side was not greasy, and not too heavy on the breading. It was all tasty, but not enough to give a real impression of what the kitchen could produce. A better idea came from the cup of gumbo ($3.79) I ordered as a starter; it was thick, chunky and full of okra, rice and various varieties of land and water flesh. It was served stove-hot and offered just enough spice to leave a mild afterburn around the uvula. I could have taken it hotter, but, surprisingly, there weren't any bottles of Louisiana cayenne pepper sauce on the table. (They're available if you request them.)
Jeff tried the crawfish étouffée ($12.99) a thicker variety of gumbo with the "holy trinity" of onion, green bell pepper and celery mingling with the shellfish and seasonings. "It's made with healthy ingredients, but it tastes like it isn't," Jeff noted approvingly. The dish was like a curry in its complexity, and Jeff pronounced it "almost bowl-licking good," adding, "If this were scorching hot, it would be nirvana."
A chat with the wait staff revealed that it could, indeed, be made scorching hot, or made with spicing less extreme but still fiery. So, on a subsequent visit, Jeff made his demand, with terrific results. He asked for the spicy version of the shredded chicken and andouille étouffée ($10.99) in the dark brown roux; his resulting condition, in his words: "Ears burning, nose running, eyes watering, brow lightly beaded but just at the point where you can only think of spooning more down as soon as possible since the wonderful smoky flavor of both chicken and sausage kept coming through the heat." The chef-owner and his wife came out to check on Jeff during the meal; I don't know if Jeff said it to them, but he told me that this was one of the best things he's eaten in Tucson.
Because of a subsequent scheduling problem, I had to deputize our mutual and trustworthy friend Kelly to dine with Jeff in my place. She's a more cautious eater than either of us, but she was pleased with her choices. The crab bisque ($3.79) was creamy, flavorful (slightly sweet) and full of crab meat. After that came fried catfish with hushpuppies and coleslaw ($12.49; $15.99 for all you cat eat on Fridays and Saturdays). The fish, with its cornmeal breading, was crispy but not greasy. Kelly is not generally enthusiastic about either slaw or hushpuppies ("I mean, what's the point--eating a fried little ball of dough?"), but she found the hushpuppies here to be acceptable, and she even enjoyed the slaw.
Our only culinary disappointment was the gluey peach cobbler ($4.95) that Jeff and I shared. I suspect we would have been better off with the beignets or the bourbon pecan pie. There was one nonculinary disappointment: the midweek emptiness of the dining room, noon and night. Just a couple of other tables were occupied during our lunch, and the only other diners on Jeff and Kelly's visit seemed to be a long tableful of friends of the owners. Too bad, because the Bayou Café deserves to flourish. Get yourself up there, and don't forget to ask for extra heat.