When William Davis talks about food and cooking, his smile gets as wide as the muddy Mississippi. Given what’s been going on in his home state of Louisiana in the past weeks'and that one of his relatives is still among the missing'it’s a wonder he’s able to smile at all.
Originally from Baton Rouge, “Chef William” Davis is the owner of JazZeÃ© Cajun CafÃ© on South State Street. He’s precisely what I love about the people of the American South, Louisiana and New Orleans in particular: resiliency, “joie de vivre,” and an amazing ability to persevere in the face of hard odds.
Like so many Americans, I’ve spent the last few weeks bouncing between tears and outrage. And like so many Americans, I carry a special place in my heart for the city and people of New Orleans. Some of my best friends live there, and it’s truly like no other place in America, maybe like no other place on earth. New Orleans is red beans and rice on a Monday night and chicory coffee in the morning.
The food, of course, is renowned in New Orleans and justifiably so. But as New Orleans resident Harry Shearer recently put it, speaking about the sadness and anger surrounding Hurricane Katrina, “When you see a city that, among other things, is known around the world for its cuisine, on its knees begging for food, it’s hard not to feel both.”
No doubt about it, The French Quarter of New Orleans has great restaurants. But my favorite places to dine in NOLA are the funky, no-dÃ©cor restaurants, cafes and “shacks” where most of the locals eat'places like Liuza’s by the Tracks, Mother’s and Uglesich’s. These restaurants aren’t part of a designed-for-tourists Mardi Gras theme park; they’re the real deal. And that’s how I feel about JazZeÃ© Cajun CafÃ©; it’s the real deal. JazZeÃ© is slim on dÃ©cor and bursting with flavor and hospitality.
Walk into JazZeÃ© and you might be greeted by a beaming North Carolinian named Laciana. She is the definition of Southern hospitality. Even when you just stop by JazZeÃ© for some takeout, she’ll offer you water while you wait, talk to you about the difference between North and South Carolina barbecue sauces and ask how many kids you have. Before you leave, she’ll give you a strand of Mardi Gras beads to take home to each of them.
In the Mid-City section of New Orleans, singer Irma Thomas owns and performs at a club called the Lion’s Den. Between musical sets, she serves up free steaming plates of red beans and rice. And until I tasted Davis’ red beans and rice with slices of hot sausage ($5.99), I’d always thought Irma’s was the best. Stop by JazZeÃ© on a Monday night when Davis cooks up a fresh batch of red beans and rice just like they do on Mondays throughout Louisiana.
Davis is a bit disappointed that people in Salt Lake City tend to order the turkey and roast beef po’ boy sandwiches. “They’re the most popular,” says Davis. “But you’ve gotta start somewhere,” he says with his signature smile. “It takes a while to get people here in Utah to try the other stuff.â€
The other stuff is good stuff like alligator nuggets with Cajun fries ($7.99), frog legs Ã¡ la carte, gumbo, seafood Ã©touffÃ©e, fried oysters and the real po’ boy sandwiches: catfish, shrimp and oyster ($6.99). They are each delicious: seafood fried to a crispy perfection and served on a French roll with zippy remoulade-style sauce and fresh condiments.
Given the disaster along the Gulf Coast, Davis is finding it difficult to get Cajun ingredients like alligator tail and fresh crawfish from his normal suppliers. Until they’re back up and running, he’s rolling with the punches and obtaining some of his seafood and other ingredients elsewhere. Still, he says, “You know that crawfish from Louisiana just tastes good!” Frankly, I don’t care where the shrimp and crawfish in JazZeÃ©’s Crawfish & Shrimp Boil ($9.99) came from. It just tastes good.
Since he’s taking it easy on Utah palates, Davis’ food isn’t too spicy. Still, he’s happy to kick it up a notch or two for anyone who wants their Ã©touffÃ©e or gumbo a little more incendiary than normal. A Southern gentlemen, Davis says, “We might put a few more red peppers and spices in there for the men, but the ladies, they don’t like it so hot.” Even so, he’s more than happy to spice things up for any ladies who are also willing.
Speaking of spices'although not hot ones'the spice combination in Davis’ homemade sweet potato pie ($2.49) is absolutely wonderful. In fact, his pie is so good that this year I’m going to order a sweet potato pie from JazZeÃ© for Thanksgiving in place of my traditional pumpkin.
JazZeÃ© Cajun CafÃ© is a small, independently owned operation; I suspect they’re just getting by on a shoestring. Nevertheless, Davis tells me that he’s going to be cooking up some dinners to raise money for Katrina’s victims. “I want to buy them things they need like linens to sleep on and grills to cook with,” he says. As I walk out the door with my purple, green and gold Mardi Gras beads in hand, Davis jumps into his big old white Lincoln. With gas prices these days it must be a nightmare to fill that thing up, I think to myself. But right now, William Davis isn’t concerned with gas prices. He’s off to get supplies. He’s going to need to sell a lot of red beans and rice on Monday night to help buy all those linens and grills.