THE BAYOU CAFÉ IS LISTED in the recent METROLAND Dining Guide under Pub Fare. That was a mistake. You can find good pub fare there, but that listing hardly begins to cover the real specialties. “Bayou” and the alligator featured on the menu and throughout the restaurant are the tip-offs: There’s mighty good Cajun cooking going on there.
The place was packed.
In the bar area, folks were playing pool, watching ESPN on the oversized TV or just hanging out and talking. A lot of cigarettes were burning, but we couldn’t smell smoke from where we sat, which I’ll explain in a moment.
Where we were, in the dining area, tables were pushed together to accommodate different-sized parties around us. Lots of families. A fairly aggressive stream of music, with plenty of zydeco in the playlist. One of those odious Quick Draw screens in the corner.
And then we sat for a bit (it’s a seat-yourself room), wondering whether we’d been spotted. And then it all changed. A young man hurried to our table with menus and the complimentary chips and salsa made in the café’s kitchen. A waitress took our drinks order (Newcastle Brown Ale, on tap, for me, water for my nursing-mother wife). We started to relax and feel a little at home.
Then I noticed something interesting. The customers, who ranged all over the map in age and included both bikers and businessmen, all seemed to know one another. A guy at one table would drag a chair over to another and start a catch-up-on-the-news conversation; a party of two, done with dinner, would detour on the way out and end up plunked beside two others.
Servers, too, were buddies with the customers, asking after one another’s moms and kids and such. What made it all the more startling was the food bringing everyone together. It turns out to be the real thing: Cajun and Southwestern, no restraint on the seasoning. It’s not necessarily spicy hot, but you’re going to taste the spices. Received wisdom says such food scares people away, but you’d never know it from the business the Bayou Café does. Steaks and burgers are listed on the menu, but I didn’t see many of them go by
What we have here is a terrific blend of friendly pub (hence that listing) and quality restaurant. No white-linen pretension, but I didn’t find any compromise on the food we sampled. Chef John Rupsis is scion of the family that has run an eponymous tavern for over 50 years; owner Ralph Spillenger ran the Bijou Nightclub in Saratoga Springs. And Ralph is also a musician, which I think is part of the secret. Play a few social-function gigs, and you’ll be amazed how shabbily you can be treated (the only sure way to heaven I know of requires that you feed musicians). I suspect Ralph styles his restaurant’s hospitality to make sure everybody gets treated well. After a few social functions you also learn to hate cigarette smoke, and John has three air filters running in the place.
John, meanwhile, has put in time at such places as the Marriott, where he developed some of the recipes he uses at the Bayou. “The red beans and rice, for example,” he says, “is something my family used for many years.” It’s available as a dinner for $4.95; I got some as a side dish to Jamaican jerk chicken, one of the evening’s specials.
Let me tell you: The beans and rice were superb. Be warned that it’s a meat-laden dish, with ham and spicy sausage worked in and an impressive range of spices. Of course, spices are the key to any jerk dish, which puts the meat in a spicy (it can be fiery) marinade for several hours before slowly roasting it. (Don’t confuse this with jerky, a dried-meat preparation.) John’s preparation had a little heat and a lot of flavor. Great stuff. For heat enhancement, I turned to the bottled hot sauce on the table – Tapatió salsa picante and Trapper’s Indi-Pep.
Susan had jambalaya – or as much as she could consume at a single sitting. The $9.95 dinner, which comes with a soup or salad, is the traditional rice dish with shrimp, chick- en, Andouille sausage and chains. It’s like paella, but seasoned differently: chilies and file figure into it. In fact, the Bayou’s preparation verged on the over-seasoned, so striking were the flavors – but it’s a dish that needs a few hours for the seasonings to blend effectively.
We were stymied in our efforts to finish the meals because we started off with the Ultimate Gator Creator, and we should have known better. Fried mushrooms. Onion rings. Chicken wings. Nachos with cheese and beans and meat. And sauces. If you’re just planning on accompanying some of the Bayou’s excellent draft beer choices with food, it’s your dish. If you’re serious about Cajun, it’s much too distracting.
The menu also includes such entrées as étouffée, gumbo and blackened catfish filet; on the Southwestern side look for fajitas, burritos, quesadillas and a whole lot more. And live music kicks in later in the evening on weekends.
The Bayou Café, 507 Saratoga Rd. (Route 50), Glenville, 384-7226. Serving Mon-Thu 11:30-11, Fri-Sat 11:30-11, Sun 11:30-9. All major credit cards.
– Metroland Magazine, 12 June 1997