My next-door neighbor Sue is a fantastic cook. Born and raised in Louisiana, she is my go-to for all things gumbo. Once, when I was doubtfully stirring a party-sized batch of roux, I texted her a photo. "How is it?" I asked. "Dark enough?" In response, she texted me a photo from her worn and tattered Paul Prudhomme cookbook -- a photo of roux color samples -- like paint chips for food nerds. I held the phone up to my saucepot and kept stirring. In other words, I don't underestimate the importance of a good roux.
So I was excited to see an offshoot of the Gumbo House turn up in an unassuming strip mall just south of Dimond. Winter is finally setting in and there is no better weapon against a chill than Cajun flavors and a hot bowl of gumbo.
My daughter and I went for what was supposed to be a quick pre-Christmas-shopping lunch on a recent Sunday. It was an odd hour for lunch, so we were pleasantly surprised to see the restaurant doing brisk business. We were seated and waited on quickly. The room is spare but cheerful, with lime-green walls and souvenir artwork from New Orleans. The menu is limited but covers all your Cajun basics with varieties of gumbo, jambalaya and po' boy sandwiches.
My daughter ordered the Cajun angel hair pasta ($15.99) while I opted for the jambalaya ($16.99).
For starters, the portions are enormous. Our quick lunch turned into a much bigger commitment the moment the brimming bowls hit the table.
Their version of jambalaya took me by surprise. Instead of cooking the rice into the dish, like a paella, steamed white rice was piled on top of a red, tomato-based stew. I don't know if this is an authentic preparation. I do know that it is delicious. Thickly studded with shrimp, slices of andouille and shreds of chicken, this dish is hearty in the extreme.
The Cajun pasta is an exercise in decadence. A heap of angel hair pasta practically swims in a kicky but creamy sauce -- like a vodka sauce on steroids. Again, the shrimp, sausage and chicken were dealt with a generous hand. I got a third of the way into it before asking for a to-go container. Had I eaten much more, I would have had to cancel our shopping trip in lieu of a nap. This is a dish for sharing. Four ways.
Later in the week, I invited friends over to help me work my way through some of the rest of the menu. I ordered chicken gumbo ($11.75), barbecued ribs ($12.75), chicken wings ($9.99), a shrimp po' boy ($12.99) and an order of red beans and rice ($6.49).
The tender but slightly fatty ribs and the plain-Jane chicken wings were both dispatched quickly but were not particularly memorable. They seem like slight misfits on the menu and don't play to the kitchen's strengths. These were the only two weak spots in the meal, however.
The po' boy -- packed with firm, slightly smoky shrimp -- is a simple but beautifully executed sandwich. A crisp stack of iceberg lettuce and a lightly sweet dressing balanced with slices of bright, tangy pickles make each bite a complete palate pleaser. I'm already looking forward to trying the other varieties. Extra points for a side of coleslaw that tastes freshly made and not like an afterthought.
The red beans and rice is a meal all by itself. Rich, aromatic and saucy, the beans have the slightest bit of bite to them -- not underdone, but not too mushy. My daughter often turns her nose up at beans because of the too-soft texture, but these she loved. The bowl was scraped clean and I made a mental note to order two servings next time.
The highly anticipated gumbo didn't let me down. With this dish, it's all about the roux, and someone in the kitchen is clearly coaxing that flour into a dark, complex shade of delicious. It's an elusive flavor -- smoky, earthy, almost chocolatey -- and lends a unique, velvety texture to the stew. Like all of the dishes I tried, the gumbo is served mild -- I was looking for more heat and acid -- but those things can be added at the table. A generous dousing of hot sauce gave a boost to the dish and left me feeling satisfied. It's an honest bowl of gumbo and in future, I'll let the Gumbo House (or my friend Sue) stir the roux.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. every day
Location: 9191 Old Seward Highway
Contact: 344-4014 and gumbohouseanchorage.com