Halfway down Boise Avenue, nestled in between apartments and student duplexes, is a lone, street-side eatery. Though it might seem like an odd place for a restaurant—a New Orleans-themed Cajun restaurant for that matter—Chef Roland's seems to be doing all right for itself.
Earlier this year, Chef Roland Joseph, a longtime cook and caterer, took over the building that once housed Gloria's Mexican Restaurant. And other than the kitschy plastic wall adornments of wailing saxophone players and curtains of gold, purple and green Mardi Gras beads, the place hasn't changed much.
My date and I entered the festive spot on a Friday night for an early dinner. Roland's was peppered with a few happy-hour revelers slurping jambalaya and joking against a soundtrack of old blues tunes. We took a table by the window and were approached by a smiling server who took our drink orders. My date chose the Windermere hefeweizen ($3.25), which came out so cloudy and creamy that it looked like a latte. This turned out to be a good thing. I went with one of three by-the-glass wine options, the chardonnay ($4.50). The nameless wine was nothing to rave over, but I was confident that the cool citrus would cut through the fiery Cajun cuisine.
All of the items on Chef Roland's menu come with a choice of gumbo or jambalaya, red beans and rice, and a hushpuppy (a fried ball of sweet cornmeal). Though the menu has soulful staples like fried catfish ($14.99), Cajun barbecue ribs ($13.99) and collard greens ($5), it was surprisingly lacking the most elemental Cajun crustacean: the crawfish.
Sad that we'd be unable to participate in an authentic, eat-with-your-hands-over-a-newspaper-covered-table, brain-sucking crawdad massacre, we opted for the next best thing. My date chose the brisket ($13.99) and a bowl of gumbo, and I decided on the shrimp and crab cakes ($14.99) with a side of potato salad in place of soup. The gumbo was hot and hearty with chunks of sausage, ham, a scoop of undercooked rice and a hushpuppy thrown on top for good measure. With teary eyes, my date paused between spicy bites to proclaim: "The only way to cool your mouth down is to keep eating it."
We were both surprised when our main dishes arrived. My native-Texan heart was shocked to discover that my date had only consumed brisket served roast-style and hadn't anticipated a mound of thinly sliced meat swimming in barbecue sauce. And I thought that the "shrimp and crab cakes" would involve both grilled shrimp and crab cakes. Instead, they turned out to be two deep-fried lumps of breadcrumbs, peppers, ground shrimp and crab meat. After the confusion subsided, we dug into our entrees and were pleasantly surprised. My date noted that the brisket was tender with a tangy, slightly liquid-smoke-heavy sauce. The shrimp-and-crab cakes (as I might suggest the menu phrase it) were rich and filling with large chunks of shrimp. The potato salad was made the way I like it: not too creamy with a hint of mustard and lots of chopped pickles. Though it took us a while to brave our sickly looking sides of rice and beans, we both agreed that we were wrong to judge the well-spiced and garlicky legumes by their covers.
Full and slightly sleepy from the heavy fare, my date and I requested two to-go boxes. As I looked out at the settling sun, then glanced at the electronic wall art, I couldn't help but feel like we had stumbled into the Twilight Zone. Though the residential environment, cheap decorative streamers and multi-colored tablecloths make it seem like the Six Flags version of a Louisiana restaurant, the food was undeniably authentic. My suggestion: ditch the kitsch, bring on the crawfish and I'll be back before you can say etoufee.
—Tara Morgan wants a Tic Tac after that Sazerac.