It's a Sunday morning, and on the sidewalk on Santa Barbara's De la Vina Street, across from McConnell's Ice Cream and just down from Mission Street, a crowd is gathered outside a small restaurant. Some people are sitting on a bench drinking coffee. A few others are reading the Sunday papers. All are waiting for a table inside or, even on an overcast day like this, for one on the small patio facing the street.
What they're waiting for is a chance to dig into what may be the best "down-home" breakfast between Rincon Point and Gaviota Pass. At Cajun Kitchen, that's what you get. And it's not just on Sundays. Over the years, this has become a busy breakfast and lunch place seven days a week.
When Betty Jordan and her kids started in this hole in the wall 11 years ago, there was some skepticism. This was, after all, just before Cajun cooking became big, and the word blackened usually meant the undesired results of a barbecue-turned-inferno.
The location was, and still is, on a busy one-way street with only moderate street parking available. Jordan and the kids, though, toughed it out. When Richard Jimenez bought it from them seven years ago, he didn't need to make too many changes. Jimenez added a few blackened items to the menu and a gumbo, but much remained the same. Specifically, the "constancy," as he calls it, of the food, and certainly the reasonable prices.
Just about everything is homemade at Cajun Kitchen. One popular favorite is corned beef hash. It's not as good, perhaps, as that great hash at the Lucky Cafe in Sacramento, but it's crisp, the potatoes are firm and the seasonings pull it all together very well.
Scrambled eggs are a big item on the menu, and at least one of the scrambled egg dishes, Jim's Special, crammed with cream cheese and green onions, is a big seller. But you've got to remind them to take it easy on cooking the eggs.
Moving into real Cajun country, there's the Creole jambalaya, a rice dish full of shrimp, spicy sausage, ham and chicken--although they can be a bit stingy with the seafood. Which is certainly not the case with the Cajun country steak. This, very accurately, is described on the menu as a "lean chopped steak." It's mixed with Cajun spices, bell peppers and onions and it comes with rice, gravy and coleslaw. It's probably my favorite. The meat is crisp and spicy, and the chopped green bell peppers and onions give it great texture.
The blackened catfish is done perfectly--juicy and drippingly moist.
A couple of the side dishes are outstanding; a couple are not. I don't have great praise for the just so-so biscuits, but the corn bread, even at mid-afternoon just before they close, always tastes as if it were made moments ago, sweet and fresh. And the home fries, done with the skin on, are firm, not mealy and crumbly as so many are, and are served extra-crisp. A pork chop I tried as a side dish one morning was suffering from that all-too-common pork chop malady--dryness.
The blackboard special is usually something tasty. On a recent day, it was a zucchini, cheese and scrambled egg dish. (I told you they were big on scrambled eggs here.) The Cheddar cheese in the eggs, and the not-overcooked zucchini, melted together for some savory mouthfuls.
Cajun Kitchen has its share of sandwiches--if you absolutely must have a real lunch. But don't forget this is a breakfast-all-day place. I've got to confess that I've never tried the Cajun cheeseburger or the blackened chicken breast sandwich, which I understand is a big seller.
I have tried the homemade apple turnovers--the kitchen's only dessert (one that is not on the menu but usually sitting up there on the counter). It's an outstanding turnover, but if that doesn't satisfy your sweet tooth, there is always McConnell's across the street.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Cajun Kitchen, 1924 De la Vina St., Santa Barbara, 969-2245. Open daily 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. No credit cards; no reservations. Beer and wine. Breakfast or lunch for two, food only $10-$15. Recommended dishes: Homemade corned beef hash and eggs, $4.85; Cajun country steak, $5.60.