It's been oh! so many years since I left New Orleans, and even if my years there, both as a child and as an adult, were not especially happy -- happy enough, all things considered, but not the kind of happy that other people seem to look back on wistfully -- I still get excited at the prospect of N'awlinz cookin'. So when I read a review of this place called Mike's In The Village in the local disreputable throwaway weekly rag, I just had to try it for myself. Even though it's way the hell out in Bulverde. Bulverde! Why, that's in the next county! (Comal, as it happens.)
Can you say, "Worth the drive"? 'Cuz it is, it really is.
I went twice, actually; the first time, following my memory of the directions in the local disreputable throwaway weekly rag, I turned at Bulverde Road where it crosses 281. Turns out that's not where it is, so after going somewhere else for lunch that day, I looked the place up on line. Who knew there are like five Bulverde Roads?
This one's actually in the community of Bulverde, and rates an actual freeway-style exit from 281. It has a number, like F.M. such-and-such, but it takes me years of familiarity with a four-digit highway number before I remember it. (Though once I get it, I never forget it; I still remember 2222 in Austin, and 2252, which becomes Nacogdoches Road; and, of course, 1604, which defines the pale of civilization-lite in this part of Texas, just as the Red River defines it in this part of the U.S.A.)
The building, a former bowling alley of the old-fashioned kind (the waitress's brother used to be a pinsetter there) is behind the Exxon station in "downtown" Bulverde, such as it is. A small sign by the road directs you to a nondescript grey clapboard building, which Mike's In The Village shares with a small antique mall (watch your step going in). The dining room added on in back has large windows that look out onto a scene that, with a little imagination, could pass for bucolic. In any case, it's a comfortable setting. The wine bar fills one wall, and though my friend Rick said he couldn't imagine anyone sitting at the bar, I can: I see aging ranchers in denim jeans with bulging old-man bellies sipping reds and whites with younger, professional-looking men in khakis. A few women, professionals also, complete the imaginary tableau. Late some evenings, when the kitchen has closed down, I imagine Chef Mike relaxing there with his fellow Bulverdianites, talking about ol' times down on the Big Muddy. (When I was a kid, we never called it The Big Easy; that was a reference to the Crescent City's much-cherished sinfulness, which we children weren't to know about until it was too late to enjoy it, having left town.)
Anyway, back to reality. The soup of the day, our waitress told us, was creamy garlic. I said I'd have that, but as soon as I opened the menu I changed my mind. I saw the gumbo listed, and remembered that the review I'd read said something good about it. So I ordered that instead.
It was delicious. The gumbo I recall from my mis-spent youth got its slight heat from a dose of pepper sauce, like Tabasco; this gumbo got its, I think, from the jalapeño sausage. Still, heat is heat, and picante is as good as piquant in my book. This gumbo kind of sneaks up on you; the first taste is salty, but then the piquancy builds and provides the sharp edges around the wonder flavours of chicken, sausage, spices.... I savoured it. I can still taste it in my mind. Excellent, excellent gumbo. Made with a light roux (the kind we called roux blonde in the old days). And no okra. That's a good thing.
Next came the entrées: crawfish étoufée for me, chicken Alfredo for Rick. I told the waitress when I ordered that I wanted her to put half my order in a go-box before I ever saw it -- going to the beach next summer, need to make some effort to avoid embarrassment -- and it's a damn good thing I did. Even the half that was put before me looked like too much food, and it nearly was. (The half that was left over went for the wife's lunch the next day, and for that it was too much food. But then, as an eater, she's kind of a wuss, being all petite and curvaceous and everything.)
Crawfish étoufée is not a N'awlinz dish. You can get good étoufée there now, but it's a Cajun dish, from down the bayou. If I get my love of Creole cooking from a childhood in the big city, I get my love of Cajun food from years in Acadiana, that swampy swath of Louisiana beyond the Big River, within sniffing distance of the Gulf. And Cajun food, or the promise of it, is one of the few things that will prompt me to pass on good Creole food, the style I remember from New Orleans. Well, okay, I'll sometimes pick Italian food over Creole, but only if I know it's better than I can make at home.
But I digress.
Crawfish are in season now, thank God, and Chef Mike has gotten hold of some really fresh ones just for me. Okay, not just for me, but it might as well have been. Crawfish étoufée is perhaps the finest dish In The Whole World, if it's not pizza or ice cream or a really good lasagna. Well, even a mediocre crawfish étoufée is better than the best courtbouillon, which in turn puts your grandmother's enchiladas to shame. And this crawfish étoufée is far, far better than mediocre. It is, possibly, the best I've ever had. It has been, I admit, a very long time since I tucked into a plate of crawfish étoufée in its native land, so I may be imagining things; but it's good enough, anyway, to fool me into believing that. (Maybe I should go spend some time down the bayou myself.... Road trip!)
Rick, as I said, went for chicken Alfredo. This Mike guy may have learned his craft somewhere between Esplanade and Carrollton Avenues (I'm just guessing; probably closer to Esplanade), but he's no chauvinist when it comes to cooking styles. Among the other non-Cajun, non-Creole dishes on offer are "stuffed chili relleno," which, yes, is redundant, but I'm betting it's twice as good as a plain ol' chili relleno. Like a twice-baked potato, maybe. Anyway, too many places have an Alfredo sauce that relies heavily on glue and some gelatinous substance; not here. The sauce is almost invisible, hiding among the rigatoni, bite-sized pieces of chicken breast, and a sprinkle of romano cheese, but the taste is powerful and transcendent. And the portion of this dish, too, is excessive, requiring a second go-box. (This, however, did not stop my companion from also ordering a crème brulé for dessert, and thoroughly, even excessively, enjoying it. I was seriously tempted by the thought of cheesecake with oreo crust, but thoughts of whales beached on white sand stopped me.)
The service at Mike's was very good, although it took an awfully long time to get our entrées. While we waited we entertained ourselves with speculation about what that guy two tables over was eating; whatever it was, he sure seemed to be enjoying it. (Turned out to be portabella fries with ancho chili mayonnaise, apparently something of a house specialty.) And the view. So maybe the kitchen's a little slow; I don't know. The place wasn't crowded; it was well past the apex of the lunch rush. Maybe they were exhausted back there. But though it took a little while, it proved worth waiting for.