We're way in the outback here, nowhere near the San Fernando Valley's main restaurant hunting grounds. We're in deep Van Nuys, to be precise; so deep, in fact, we're just a couple of blocks from my old grammar school. Let me tell you, never in my wildest dreams as a flag monitor did I imagine that one day there would be a Cajun restaurant in the old neighborhood.
Miraculously, there is one, though this fact is far from being self-evident. The sign in the window reads Gee I Can't Believe It's Fish, which is not only an awkward name (what would you want to call this place for short?) but unfortunately leads a Californian to expect seafood kebab Polynesian served with baked potato and melon slice garnish in some environment rife with brass compasses and phony portholes.
Gee I Can't Believe It's Fish really is Cajun, though, and with no decor to speak of, just a little storefront place run by a brother-and-sister team that does mostly takeout business for clients who often boast of how far they drove to have a taste of the dishes from back home. There's jambalaya. There's red beans and rice. There's gumbo.
Well, there's gumbo until they run out, which tends to be early, and I've never had a shot at it. I can report that the jambalaya is excellent, not too dry, the rice moist with slightly hot and tart tomato and celery sauce, enriched not only with chicken and hot links but eggplant.
Mostly there's fish, boneless, excellently fried in crisp cornmeal breading. Basically it's a repertoire of catfish, snapper, oysters and shrimp. You can get a catfish sandwich or a shrimp or oyster loaf on a French roll (the night I had it, they boasted of having Louisiana oysters). You can also get fish or shrimp dinners, which include red beans and rice and, for a buck extra, they'll blacken anything for you. (Well, probably they won't blacken the shrimp or the oysters.)
One of the byproducts of being a great fish-frying place is that Gee I Can't Believe It's Fish makes great hush puppies. These little balls of cornmeal mixed with onions have a good, grainy texture, and they're addictive (the restaurant knows it too--they have a habit of throwing a couple in front of you while you're waiting for your main course). There are 10 of them in an order, and they go fast, though they're on the dry side; another shrewd move on the restaurant's part, probably. I'll bet the hush puppies are good for soft-drink sales.
The other side dishes are not quite in the same league with the hush puppies. The red beans and rice, a soulful rather than a grand dish, does have very good beans. The coleslaw is simple and fresh. But I find the collards, for instance, pretty dull, and the macaroni and cheese is not as cheesy as its bright yellow color suggests.
One reason why you can't believe that it's fish is that sometimes it isn't. There are broiled ribs and pork chops too. The ribs are the meaty country-style cut, sprinkled with pepper, but I find the Cajun pork chops meatier and sweeter, and more tender too. There's only so much you can do with ribs if you don't have a barbecue pit.
The best of the meat dishes is, unfortunately, available only on Wednesdays and fits more easily into the category of Southern cooking than what we think of as Louisiana. It's the smothered pork chops, in a rich gravy flavored with celery and bell pepper (and a little hot pepper). This comes on rice and wonderful black-eyed peas. You may stagger a little bit rising from the table.
Which may make you glad there's not much in the way of dessert. The sweet potato pie is OK (the crust on the one I had was overdone), the peach cobbler--with nutmeg as well as cinnamon and clove flavoring--a little better.
After I ate at Gee I Can't Believe It's Fish, I took a sentimental journey back to my old grammar school. It had changed. For one thing, all the buildings had somehow gotten smaller.
For another, restaurants had appeared all around it, a Thai restaurant on one corner and a whimsical hot dog stand run by a lawyer on the other. Let me tell you something; when I was flag monitor, we didn't have it this good. The only food you could get around here was a Three Musketeers from the machine at the gas station. And now you don't even have to go half a mile to find blackened fish. Blackened!
Kids have it soft these days.
Recommended dishes: hush puppies, $2.50; jambalaya, $7.50; red snapper, $6.95; smothered pork chops (Wednesday only), $7.95; peach cobbler, $3.50.
Gee I Can't Believe It's Fish, 14066 Vanowen St., Van Nuys. (818) 988-3474. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 1 to 9 p.m. Sundays. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot. No credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $21 to $42.