For months I've ranted about the shocking, shamelessly phony Cajun food that gets served in Orange County--in my book a scandal that calls for a congressional investigation and a formal protest from the State of Louisiana. I am relieved to report that at last you can taste the real thing at a low-key little place in Seal Beach called Bayou St. John.
Consider: only one thing on the menu gets blackened--no kidding, only one thing, redfish. The gumbo is not a recipe invented out of thin air by somebody who figured we couldn't be trusted to like real gumbo (an idea as silly as thinking we couldn't be charmed by a Southern drawl). And they make their own hot link sausage.
This sausage, a medium-hot model with more beef than pork in it and far meatier than the hot links you find in the supermarket, shows up all over the menu. It's in a sausage poor-boy sandwich with peppery tomato sauce and lettuce and mayonnaise and in the rather good jambalaya--lots of rice cooked in broth with onion and celery, topped with a little sausage and hot tomato sauce. It comes on the side with that beloved New Orleans specialty, red beans and rice--a mound of big red beans, coarsely textured and faintly sweet, cooked with ham and a little garlic and red pepper, to be mixed with a neighboring mound of rice.
You can find this sausage in the gumbo, too. There may be richer gumbos in Louisiana, but this one does have the true flavor, the mysterious, earthy aroma of the bayous of one's dreams. As gumbo is supposed to be, it is a soup with rice ladled in the middle, the broth flavored with browned flour, onions, celery, hot pepper and the aromatic herb file, the dried young leaves of the sassafras tree. (Sometimes on special they serve the other kind of gumbo, the one made with okra, which usually doesn't contain file powder.)
The broth of the regular gumbo also reflects the meats cooked in it: hot links, ham, beef chunks (which might be a little unusual in Louisiana), shrimp and crab. They bring you a crab cracker to help extract the meat, which is odd--at least as I had it, the crab in this soup was a soft-shell and in no need of cracking. Needless to say, there's a soft-shell crab entree on the menu as well with the crabs dredged in corn meal before frying, really a better way to enjoy the delicate flavor of soft-shells than in gumbo.
I couldn't find out whether the blackened redfish was made with real Louisiana redfish, a beast that's been fished nearly to extinction since Paul Prudhomme introduced his way of cooking it in a red-hot pan that sears spices into its flesh. In any case, this blackened redfish is a lesson for the rest of Orange County's blackeners. The spices are exactly as loud as they should be; the fish (filleted a bit thinner than Prudhomme's recommended half-inch, maybe) is permeated with flavor.
They have good oysters here. I heartily recommend the oyster cocktail with its exemplary hot cocktail sauce served on the side rather than on top. The oysters show up fried in the oyster poor-boy sandwich, which is the only one of the four listed poor-boys (one is a catfish model) that doesn't include lettuce and tomato. It seems odd to me because every oyster poor-boy I've had in New Orleans did have lettuce and tomato, and this one seems a little dry by comparison. There must be people in New Orleans who like it this way, though.
Desserts seem to be limited, or at least they were on the one occasion when I felt I had room (if you look forward to desserts, go easy on the huge mound of potato salad early in the meal, or take the green salad with breadstick-width croutons instead). The only dessert available was bread pudding--still hot from the oven, and a very nice one, not as eggy as some but with a nice toasted flavor. It was certainly a risk-taker's bread pudding, one that stood on its own merits without ice cream or sauce to cover any flaw. By the way, they serve French Market coffee here for those who like their coffee flavored with chicory, originally an extender but by now a traditional taste. It's worth trying, at least once in your life.
Altogether, just about anything here would be enough to make me come back, except for the shrimp creole in a hot tomato sauce, a rather one-note dish. Bayou St. John is an unpretentious little place with not much decor beyond a quiet Dixieland sound track, but many a glamorous restaurant I can think of could take lessons from it. The same menu prevails at both lunch and dinner: Sandwiches and seafood cocktails run $4.95 to $5.95, and entrees are $6.95 to $14.95.
BAYOU ST. JOHN 320 Main St., Seal Beach
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner nightly. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.