Lunch Houses of Acadiana

Lunch Houses of Acadiana Intro Photo

In the lunch houses of Acadiana, okra is revered, rice with gravy is a given, and almost every dish gets smothered. Here menus change daily, but are the same every week. Here a full day’s caloric allowance can be had for often less than 10 bucks.

With few exceptions, steam tables and buffet lines are the focal point in Acadiana’s lunch houses. The food is almost uniformly smothered and darkened with gravy, for cooks in this part of the state adhere to two fundamental rules: start with the freshest ingredients possible, and brown the heck out of them to achieve the most naturally flavorful gravy possible.

Several of the cooks we interviewed believe so deeply in the superiority of fresh okra that they put up enough vegetables during harvest season to last throughout the year. Merline Herbert at the Creole Lunch House serves her smothered okra with chicken and sausage. Her rice and sugar come from producers up the road. She buys her sausage, tasso, and catfish from local artisans and growers. Ruby’s Café in Eunice, in the heart of Acadiana’s prairie, is comparable. Owners Curt Fontenot and Dwayne Vidrine source their seafood from fishermen, not middlemen.

David Billeaud of T-Coon’s and Dot Vidrine of Ruby’s grew up in families that operated meat markets. Most recall a time when the bulk of every family’s meat supply came from boucheries, the local name for communal hog or cow killings. The boucherie was an all-day event. Families and neighbors worked together to produce andouille, smoked sausage, boudin, tasso, ponce, neckbone stew, salt meat, and cracklings.

The places documented in this project are part diner, part meat-and-three. You might call this soul food, or you might call it country cooking. Here in Acadiana, this style of cooking and eating is called, simply, lunch.

Interviews

Brenda's Place - Brenda Placide - Lunch Houses of Acadiana

Brenda’s Place

On the advice of her mother, who taught her to cook, Brenda Placide opened Brenda’s Dine-In & Take-Out for the love of cooking—rather than for the love of money—and her customers thank her for it every weekday by leaving her with nary a leftover. Like at many of Acadiana’s lunch houses and diners, Brenda’s menu is small and changes daily. Red beans and fried chicken on Mondays, turkey wings and smothered liver on Tuesdays, gumbo on Fridays. Each plate lunch includes the main dish, plus one “vegetable” side (such as corn, baked spaghetti, or mustard greens), a small salad, and dessert (such as bread pudding or peach cobbler).

Creole Lunch House - Merline Herbert - Lunch Houses of Acadiana

Creole Lunch House

Food is rice, and rice is food, or according to Merline, “you can’t eat without no rice.” Since 1983, Merline has been serving her rice with gravy, meatball fricassee, stuffed baked chicken, and barbecued ribs. On Wednesdays in season, fresh okra is smothered and stewed with chicken and sausage. Merline opened the Creole Lunch House after working for over two decades in the public school system; not ready to retire and recognized as a savvy home cook, Merline risked it all on rice and gravy and, in her words, “never looked back.”

Josephine's Creole Restaurant - Josephine Phillips Cormier - Gumbo Trail

Josephine’s Creole Restaurant

While Josephine didn’t even start cooking until after she was married, she appreciated her father’s cookery, and the culinary heritage he bequeathed his family, from a young age. A field worker by profession, he performed boucheries, made his own boudin and tasso, and cooked for funerals and weddings in the community. When he passed away, Josephine made a commitment to carry on her father’s cooking traditions.

Laura's II - Madonna Broussard - Lunch Houses of Acadiana

Laura’s II

Madonna Broussard knows her rice and gravy. A third generation restaurant owner, Madonna is the granddaughter of Laura Broussard, who opened the original Laura’s in her own house on a secluded Northside Lafayette back street. Opened in 1968—making it perhaps the first Plate Lunch House in Lafayette—Laura’s served stuffed turkey wings, fried pork chops, and fried catfish and chicken. Madonna’s mother Dorothy continued the Laura’s legacy, while today her daughter serves many of the same dishes her grandmother did: spicy baked turkey wings (you’re lucky if you get one with crackling on top), enormous crispy pork chops, and just about the darkest, brownest gravy (topping rice and simmering meatballs) around.

Ruby's Café - Dot Vidrine - Lunch Houses of Acadiana

Ruby’s Café

She learned about food—production and preparation—from both of her parents. Her mother, Ada Marcantel, enlisted her four children for help in tending the extensive family vegetable garden, gathering hickory nuts for candy, and even shaking cream into butter. After retiring from mill and factory work, Dot’s father, Tobere Courville, had a small slaughterhouse in Basile where he sold cracklings and meats.

T-Coon's - David Billeaud - Lunch Houses of Acadiana

T-Coon’s

David serves what he’s deemed Zydeco cooking. For breakfast there’s brisket, pork roast, and crawfish omelets; all of the breads are homemade and freshly baked. The Plate Lunch special changes daily: smothered rabbit on Monday, short rib fricassé on Tuesday, Wednesday’s stuffed pork chops and smothered chicken and okra, Thursday’s smothered turkey wings, and catfish courtbouillon to end the workweek. The catfish in the courtbouillon is, in season, hyper-local, caught daily on David’s bamboo lines in the surrounding Vermilion Bay. A virtuoso hunter and fisherman, David lines the walls of T-Coon’s with trophies and photographs (and a stuffed raccoon’s behind) from his and his customers’ adventures in the “Sportman’s Paradise” that is Louisiana.