While as a university student in Memphis, TN, my friends would coral a gang of fellow students and we would make a 6-hour drive to New Orleans, LA, as a day getaway from college. We would fall into the tourist trap of walking around the French Quarter and stopping by some watering hole, or a fellow in the group would walk into one of those seedy strip bars shamelessly luring the curious onlooker. However, I was more interested in the Jazz music, the architecture and ultimately the Creole and Cajun cuisine that I had heard so much about as a newcomer to the country. And did I get my hands on the regional classics which I savored with much contentment and gastronomic curiosity.
Well, I have not been back to New Orleans since my last trip there more than 10 years ago. When I got wind that a new establishment serving such fare had opened up in the city, I knew that this was going to be my first blog on regional American cuisine, which is noticebly lacking from this blog page. Chasin’ Tails is located in Falls Church/Arlington, VA, just off the busy Route 66, and it is owned by the sons of Vietnamese immigrants who called New Orleans their new home when they landed here. With the family relocating to the DMV area, the younger ones opened up the restaurant serving the popular Creole and Cajun fare that they mastered while back in the South. With online coupons in hand, I paid it a couple of visits for this review.
On my first visit, I ordered the Fried Green Tomatoes which are rarely found in this Mid-Atlantic region. The basket arrived with the slices breaded, deep-fried, and lightly slathered with the quintessential Creole sauce, Remoulade, and some mayo-based sauce. The vegetable was still a bit firm, coated with a well-seasoned breadcrumb batter, and perfectly cooked with little trace of oil. I enjoyed the tanginess exuded by the unripen tomato which was compounded by the same quality found in the sauces, balanced out by some of their sweet notes. These opening bites were so tempting that I managed to finished the whole order before my mains arrived. Good tasty start.
For another visit, my opener was Gator Bites. Usually it comes with fries to complete it as meal, but my waiter told that I could order it sans frites and it was cheaper (yay!). The basket arrived with bite-size pieces, flour-battered and deep-fried, accompanied by some Remoulade sauce on the side. Again the kitchen knows something good about battered foods and frying them since each bite was well-seasoned and flawlessly fried. But what got my wheels going was the taste and texture of alligator. Contrary to popular saying that it tastes like chicken, it was more like catfish without the muddiness associated with it, and its slight bouncy texture was more akin to soft calamari. I must say that I quite enjoyed these reptilian bites despite the imagery of that water predator flashing in my mind with each chew.
My dining companion decided to go for something lighter and atypical – Salad with Fried Calamari. The salad looked decent but I took a couple of stabs only at the seafood. Biting into it, I immediately sensed that fresh pieces were hand-battered judging by the irregularities of the coating and the slightly bouncy feel in the mouth. Again, the kitchen flawless batter-deep-fry technique is evident here. But why order this dish which is served in most places? Save it for another place and just go for the real regional offerings here.
This house is known for its Boiled Seafood, and I honed in on a pound of Crawfish while perusing the menu. The cooked pieces arrived in a plastic bag sitting in a metal pail which was to be dumped on the brown paper covered table. Although there are options of Lemon-Pepper and Garlic Butter seasoning in the boiling liquid, I decided to stick to something more authentic: Original Cajun. My selection was the right choice for me with its herbal bay leaf and celery seed flavors boosted by a good hint of cayenne pepper that left its presence on me evidenced by a front bucal zing. I enjoyed sucking the sauce on the critters, twisting their heads off and sucking more juice there, and eventually working the tiny tails out – a waitress’ t-shirt said it all: “Suck my head and pinch my tail.” The crawfish was not at its prime on this day but it was decent, and finishing the mound reminded me of buying a bucketful from the French Market and working on it overlooking the Mississippi river; its earthy flavors did not belie its nickname of “mud bug”. The sides of boiled corn and potato were barely sufficient but tasty.
Still on my ”mud bug” kick, I ordered Crawfish Etoufée on the second visit. The bowl arrived with a pool of thick greenish stew with an island of white rice in the middle with a whole crawfish perched on top. The stew’s grayish color was a bit off-putting, but one spoonful in this mouth made me fall in love with it instantly. The stew was made aromatic by a chokeful of the Holy Trinity (celery, green pepper, and onion), rich by a seafood stock, and made even richer by the buerre manie thickener, a butter and flour mixture. Under the surface lied pieces of perfectly cooked crawfish tails finished off by the perfectly boiled spicy crawfish as the garnish. This place knows how to prepare this dish right, and I finished off this bowlful despite the other courses I had already placed.
Another Creole classic that I could not forego was Jambalaya. The mound of rice was not exactly very telling by its first appearance. But digging into it with a fork revealed its true nature. In addition to being perfectly cooked, the rice was perfectly seasoned, replete with the typical Holy Trinity, tasting slightly sweet from the pieces of tomato, and aromatic with bay leaf flavor. The pieces of chicken strips and shrimp made this a complete dish in addition to the pieces of Andouille sausage that exuded its spiciness and porcine unctiousness to every rice morsel. This was a dish that I enjoyed immensely equally both in the restaurant and as leftovers at home.
The final Creole classic is the regional favorite stew, Seafood and Sausage Gumbo. Again, appearance is deceiving. Beyond the murky looks was a well-made stew consisting of the Holy Trinity aromatics, a rich stock, and a flavor produced by the de rigueur dark roux that added a depth of flavor that is necessary for this quintessential dish. The pieces of seafood, chicken and Andouille sausage made this bowlful richer, and the slices of okra have been cooked long enough to a point of bare presence. The menu states that the above classic dishes are made from scratch and cooked for hours to bring out its bold flavors “that would make Louisiana natives homesick.” Well, I may not be from there, but this version definitely evoked beautiful thoughts of the Bayou, Spanish Moss, and Mint Julep. I guess I would feel homesick if I were from the South and enjoying this wonderful bowl.
Usually not one for desserts, I could not miss the opportunity to order some Beignets on my second visit. Large pillows of fried dough arrived covered by a mound of powdered sugar. One bite into it revealed a fried exterior covering an airy and spongy inside, with a slight hint of yeastiness from the levening process. The powdery sugar was a bit excessive but easily remedied. The side of strawberry “jam” was the perfect accompaniment since it was not too sweet and it was a looser coulis consistency packed with strawberry pulp and seeds. This definitely brought back memories of sitting at Café Du Monde by the Mississippi river and enjoying these fried dough bites along with some chickory-roasted café au lait (also served here). Ah, sweet memories.
Finally I have found an establishment that serves my favorite American regional cuisine without any form of pretension or hype. All you get here is well-cooked and well-seasoned Creole and Cajun dishes, from the well-seasoned boiled seafood, to the interesting alligator bites, to the soul-stirring Jamabalaya, Gumbo and Etouffée dishes, and to the sweet finish of Beignets perfectly matched with the in-house strawberry coulis. This is a popular and well-visited establishment, and I can understand why especially after savoring their tasty offerings. So when I am in the mood for some Creole/Cajun cuisine, I know where I will heading to take care of this Nawlins fix.