Years ago, before a certain intrepid Scene reporter departed for an embed in the Middle East, I made him a solemn vow, the likes of which women in movies are always making to men headed into harm's way. "Never," I swore, with the gravitas of a Crawley daughter of Downton Abbey, "never shall I pen a review of Papa Boudreaux's Cajun Café and Catering Company."
It was, you see, his desire to keep Papa Boudreaux's for himself, free from the long lines and interminable waits that afflict hidden culinary gems when they are inevitably uncovered. On the eve of his departure, it seemed the honorable thing to do, so I made the career-compromising promise to overlook a culinary landmark. But time passes, memory fades, and last time I checked, that erstwhile Scene reporter was tweeting safely stateside. So when I recently found myself at one of the 30 coveted seats inside Papa Boudreaux's cinderblock hideaway in Santa Fe, Tenn., I thought, what the hell? He didn't really think I was serious, did he?
That said, I seriously understand why someone would want to keep Papa Boudreaux's on the down-low. It's small, and if you get there when it's crowded, you're going to be waiting in the parking lot, probably complaining about how it's so popular no one ever goes there anymore. But if you pack the car with a group of friends and ample BYOB provisions, you can settle at a picnic table and start a memorable Bayou-flavored adventure before you even step inside.
For readers who navigate in terms of dining destinations, Papa Boudreaux's is about a half-hour past Loveless Cafe, four-and-a-half miles off the Natchez Trace Parkway. You'll know you're there when you come upon a glowing one-story structure painted yellow and purple, swagged with bare bulbs and flanked by picnic tables. Greeting you at the door, dressed in immaculate chef's whites, that's C.J. Bader, aka Papa Boudreaux.
The restaurant — festooned with Mardi Gras beads, French Quarter souvenirs and Louisiana sports memorabilia — is the unintended offshoot of his plan to build a center for holistic living in the quiet environs of Santa Fe and Fly, Tenn. When Bader embarked on the original enterprise, he needed to generate cash flow, so he bought a defunct cafe and started churning out recipes he learned in Louisiana and honed in Europe. Before he knew it, he had metamorphosed into Papa Boudreaux, a gregarious, larger-than-life, drawling son of N'Awlins, and folks started making the pilgrimage for his étouffée, gumbo and "Gospel" Creole.
(Bader later founded Papa Boudreaux's in Franklin, but his sons now own and operate that enterprise.)
According to Papa, Gospel Creole, one of the two spicy-hot dishes on the menu, is a variation on tomato-based shrimp Creole that earned its name because it contains so many green chiles and spices that you taste it and say, "Oh, Jesus Christ!"
The other hot offering is what Papa calls barbecue shrimp, though he and his servers are quick to explain it's not what you might think. There's no grill involved. The so-called au poive preparation (a bastardization of the French au poivre style, meaning "with pepper") starts with olive oil, butter and black pepper. "I mean a lot of pepper," Papa says. Finely ground pepper breaks down in the hot oils, in the same way flour breaks down in a traditional roux. Papa adds wine, green onions, andouille and shrimp, then finishes with a hint of heavy cream to make it "fluffy." The result is velvety gravy with a fierce sting, perfect for sopping with crusty French bread.
The rest of the menu is less fiery, more comforting and fit for a family. (That said, an array of heat, including Slap Ya Mama seasoning and Louisiana hot sauce, is available on the table.)
For large groups, family style is the way to go. On our Saturday night visit, our group of 14 arrived at the same time as another large group, so the servers consolidated their efforts and made one announcement from the center of the room. Here was the gist: You can all order off the menu if you want, but just remember, Mama is just one woman back there, and it's going to take her a while to make all that food.
OK, it's not actually Mama Boudreaux or Mrs. Bader back in the kitchen. That's executive chef Jeanine Smith. In any case, she and Papa deliver a remarkable feast with impressive efficiency. No sooner had we cracked open our wine bottles and begun pouring into red Solo cups than servers began to deliver platters of plump fried oysters and glistening bronze boudin balls. What are boudin? Ask your server and she'll explain in a loud voice across the dining room, "They're about this tall and really hard to catch!" She might even make a sympathetic snipping gesture with her fingers. (Actually, boudin balls are castration-free globes of creamy rice and breakfast sausage deep-fried to resemble hush puppies.)
Don't fill up on Cajun mac-and-cheese — pasta shells bobbing in a creamy bath with hunks of andouille, kielbasa, crawfish and green onions — because there are more splendid delicacies to come. When the platter of deep-fried catfish and redfish fillets arrives, throw some elbows and go for the redfish, whose buttery, flaky texture is more decadent and succulent than its companion.
Leaning back in our chairs and breathing hard, we wished we had more stamina to sample the rest of the menu — which includes gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, pastas with cream sauce, and soft-shell crabs, when available. Who could possibly eat another thing, we thought. And that's when the pièce de résistance arrived: three-foot platters of étouffée. Groans rose from the sated table, followed by quiet moaning, as we dug into rice smothered with light roux and teeming with large plump shrimp and tender crawfish. Compared to the more-rustic seafood stews based on the holy trinity of green peppers, onions and celery, this labor-intensive Louisiana staple is a traditional delicacy of the upper-class table, Papa explains. Not too upper-class, apparently, because when you're finished, he'll ask you to lick your fork clean and hang onto it for dessert.
Hold onto to your fork and your hat, because dessert is something to behold. Bananas Foster French Toast. How did we never think of this before? Sweet fluffy slices of cinnamon-swirl bread with a texture akin to challah, dipped in egg and fried, then served under a slathering of bananas, caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream.
We can't stop talking about it. My apologies to the reporter who wanted to keep Papa Boudreaux's to himself. But what fun are secrets if you can't share them?
Papa Boudreaux's Cajun Café and Catering Company serves dinner Friday through Monday. Reservations recommended. Family-style prices range from $16.95 to $22.95, depending on menu selections.