THE BEST CAJUN RESTAURANT IN THE TEXAS HILL COUNTRY - AND THE STORY BEHIND IT
by Andrew Chalk
I first ate at the Real New Orleans Style Restaurant on a final desperate plunge in the search for a Saturday night meal while on a trip to the Hill Country. I just scraped in under the 9pm deadline. I had no review or recommendation, creole or cajun food just sounded appetizing.
What a find. Ignore the weatherbeaten downtroddenness of the outside of the building (a former Mexican restaurant). Inside, the welcome is guaranteed to be as warm and rich as the spices in the gumbo and the étouffée. These totally unprepossessing premises are home to a friendly, committed staff serving superior crab cakes, addictive mac and crawfish, and étouffée that may be the best in central Texas.
The menu is broader at dinner than lunch. Lunch does sport the real home style gumbo and crawfish étouffée, but the other mains are more mainstream country cooking (e.g. fried fish, country fried steak). The New Orleans heart of lunch is the selection of five po-boys, iconic Louisiana sandwiches of crusty bread stuffed to the gills (no pun intended) with crawfish, oyster, shrimp, or catfish.
Dinner takes the Louisiana dishes of lunch and adds more. ‘Claudette’s’ crab cakes are big and filling, oyster brochettes are oysters wrapped in bacon and fried (a bayou variant of angels on horseback), fried crawfish tails are like mini lobster tails, served with a rosette sauce according to the menu, but I would bet that it is a rosetta sauce (a tartar variant with tomato paste). Shrimp creole was particularly good.
Sides are mainstream country cooking (macaroni & cheese, red beans and rice, french fries, etc.) except for the jambalaya. Many sides go with the barbecue platter (sausage and chicken) as well.
There is a fairly plain selection of salads. A crowd-pleaser kids menu, and desserts are home made. Look for things like bread pudding and lemon meringue pie.
One idiosyncrasy is that no alcohol is served or allowed in. A disappointment to a wino like me, and with a nod to the centrality of the wine industry in the Texas Hill Country. But I can live with it, given the unimpeachable authenticity of the food. Soft drinks are offered.
The Real New Orleans Style Restaurant seems like a slice of Louisiana lifted by the scruff of the neck and plonked down in a part of the Texas Hill Country. That is figuratively close to what actually happened. Proceeds from the restaurant go to the Christian ministry that owns it, and its story is the reason that the food is so authentic.
The Smoking For Jesus Ministry (the name comes from a biblical reference) was founded in 1996 by a charismatic and energetic minister, Willie L. Monnet on Chef Menteur Hwy. in New Orleans’ 9th Ward. It eventually ran the church (a storefront premises), a restaurant named The Smokehouse, a beauty salon, car wash, administration offices, and two houses. Next door to the church was an empty block that the ministry bought and planned to use for their future new church. All this was in a rough neighborhood plagued with a high murder rate, ubiquitous drug dealing, and other street crime.
In 2005 Hurricane Katrina utterly devastated it all. In short order, fifty families evacuated in a convoy with just three days’ supply of clothes. After a grueling 12-hour drive they reached the Church Alive Ministry in Lumberton, near Beaumont, Texas. They intended to return to New Orleans but established that their buildings had been destroyed and there were no schools left for the 60 plus children. Hurricane Rita, a month after Katrina, sealed their fate and they headed northwest, further into Texas. A chance meeting between a member of the congregation and a local resident in Marble Falls made them aware that a 56 acre ranch that had been a Buckner Boys Home was for sale. It even already had a church on it, in a building far better than the one they had left. In contrast to the violence of the ninth ward, the ranch was calm and bucolic, set on the banks of the Colorado River.
Smokehouse Restaurant reopened as The Real New Orleans Style Restaurant in 2009. As the only Cajun/Creole restaurant in Marble Falls it garnered an immediate mixture of support and curiosity. The mainstream press pretty much bypasses the Marble Falls dining scene (the local paper’s dining column consists of a list of restaurant names) but online review sites have been overwhelmingly positive.
The ministry now has 120 members. The congregation regards Texas as their home and the ranch is dotted with newly built neat brick and wooden houses.
Pastor Monnet interprets these events through the prism of his Christian faith, but they can also be understood in universal human terms. A tight knit group of people, attempting to build a better future for themselves and their families, see their work destroyed by cataclysmic exogenous events. Their response is to pick themselves up and start again, building something even better than before. It is a restaurant story indeed.