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A Fish Fry, Bayou-Style

The two Uncle Darrow's specialize in Louisiana faves, but their heart is in foods fried in cornmeal.

March 29, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are two Uncle Darrow's. The little Uncle Darrow's is a tiny dive in the middle of an obscure residential stretch of Venice Boulevard. Its parking lot boasts space for two whole cars.

The big Uncle Darrow's, which opened in December, is in a newly built and much larger space just north of the corner of Lincoln and Washington boulevards, where it's bringing Louisiana food to street-level Marina del Rey.

Both feature a couple of Louisiana standards (jambalaya, red beans and rice), but the heart of their menus is fried seafood. And Uncle Darrow's really knows its frying. Everything is dredged in a bit of cornmeal, rather than batter, and comes out of the fryer with a delightful crunchy texture and not a bit of grease.

It might be enough to change your mind about fried foods. For that matter, Uncle Darrow's seems to be a little health-foody. There's no red meat here, just shrimp, catfish and poultry.

The Catch With Catfish: It Must Be Fresh

I steer clear of catfish on menus because it has to be absolutely fresh. In a matter of hours, it can develop an unpleasant smell of ammonia, and I've had a lot of bad catfish in restaurants. But every time I've ordered catfish at Uncle Darrow's, it's been faultless. The same goes for the shrimp, which are always fresh and crunchy.

You can get fried catfish or shrimp as a dinner plate, or a combo supper of both. Friday through Sunday (through Saturday in the Venice Boulevard place), there's a Big Easy supper that combines shrimp, catfish and fried oysters.

Or you can get shrimp or catfish in a po' boy sandwich, which involves lettuce, tomato and a grilled submarine-type roll. On the same days as the Big Easy supper you can get an oyster po' boy sandwich filled with perfectly fried oysters, or even an oyster-shrimp po' boy.

If you want some land-based protein, there are sausage po' boys--chicken or turkey sausage, that is. And then there's what the menu calls zeek: shrimp, catfish and a mustardy potato salad, all in one jawbreaker of a huge sandwich (which is lighter than you might expect).

There are a few things here that aren't fried. The first item on the menu is the New Orleans classic red beans and rice, a mouth-filling puree of red beans served on rice. The jambalaya (spelled "jumbalaya" on the menu, which indulges in a bit of Southern corn pone) is relatively plain; it's just rice with a bit of gumbo-like flavor, mixed with chicken and turkey sausage. It improves with a stern dose of hot sauce, and you can also get "bean-balaya," which mixes it with red beans.

Unfortunately, the best thing on the menu is available only on weekends. It's a real Louisiana gumbo, full of the true swampy bayou flavor, made with shrimp, chicken, blue crabs from the gulf and lots of file powder. For a buck and a half more, you can get file gumbo ya-ya, which is the same gumbo on jambalaya instead of plain rice, and this is where the jambalaya really makes sense.

Desserts Are a Pleasant Surprise

Uncle Darrow's makes its own sweets, and they aren't quite what you'd expect. Yes, it makes peach cobbler, and for once it's a real cobbler, not a two-crust peach pie. The peaches have a particularly velvety texture. It also makes "tater" pie, a turnover of very flaky pastry with a sweet-potato filling. This comes wrapped in cellophane, like something you might get from a vending machine, but it's surprisingly good.

So is Uncle Darrow's caramel corn, which has a bit of molasses flavor. And then there's a sort of praline ("Cajun pa-cawn candy"). It's not as sugary as most pralines; you taste butter, caramel and pecans, roughly in that order.

The menus are just about identical at the two Uncle Darrow's, except that the Marina del Rey branch adds two dishes evidently designed for people who aren't quite on the Cajun wavelength. One is a salad topped with broiled chicken, the other's a sandwich of chicken or turkey with a little barbecue sauce--and lettuce and tomato, a clear sign that Uncle Darrow's heart is in po' boys, not barbecue.

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* Uncle Darrow's Cajun Creole Eatery, 5301 W. Venice Blvd., L.A., (323) 938-4293; fax, (323) 938-6505. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Saturday. No alcohol. Lot and street parking. All major credit cards. Lunch for one, food only, $3.50-$10.95.

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* Uncle Darrow's Cajun Creole Eatery, 2560 S. Lincoln Blvd., Marina del Rey. (310) 306-4862 (306-GUMBO). Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Parking lot. All major credit cards. Lunch for one, food only, $3.50-$10.95.

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* What to Get: file gumbo, red beans and rice, fried catfish supper, zeek, oyster po' boy, peachy cobbler, Cajun pa-cawn candy.

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