The Boston Phoenix
March 12 - 19, 1998

[Dining Out]

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Zydeco Grille

Alligators in Southie? This ain't no urban myth.

Dining Out by Robert Nadeau

77-79 Dorchester Street, South Boston; (617) 464-2500
Open Tues-Fri, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 4-11 p.m.;
Sat and Sun, 4 p.m.-midnight
Beer and wine
AE, Di, MC, Visa
Sidewalk-level access

As with an alligator playing the accordion, the charm of the Zydeco Grille is not in how well the thing is done, but in the fact that it is done at all. For almost a year, this Cajun-themed restaurant has been one of the liveliest pubs in South Boston. The food is good (if not entirely accurate), the decorative scheme is lively and fun (if not entirely accurate), and our excellent Irish waitress was into it.

On the minus side, zydeco is black Cajun music, and Southie is, well, Southie. Although live Cajun bands have played here, the background tape our night had no zydeco, nor even white Cajun fiddle music, neo-NOLA rock, or Dixieland jazz. We munched along to quite a lot of '70s disco, '60s soul (better), and a few Chicago blues numbers (getting close), and kept looking at the rub-boards and horns on the wall and wishing for some of that sound. (By the way, cher, those keyboard accordions on the wall should be push-button accordions, and the menu explanation of zydeco is somewhat frazzled. The term comes from a French-Cajun fiddle tune, "Les haricots [son pas salé]," transcribed into Afro-French as zydeco or zodico.) Anyway, somebody at least buy these guys some Beausoleil CDs so they can connect with the Celtic-roots side of this thing, and I'll discuss where they need to connect with the French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, and Choctaw aspects of the food.

Things begin authentically, with a basket of big cornbread squares and plenty of butter. The cornbread is yellow, which most Southerners disdain, but not too sweet, which is to Southern taste. (Cajuns, ironically, are an island of sweet-cornbread eaters.)

Yes, they do serve gator nuggets here ($6.95), and yes, they do taste like chicken. Specifically, they tasted like oversalted chicken nuggets with some pepper; there's more red pepper in the dipping mayonnaise. For more actual flavor, I'd suggest the "Zydeco popcorn" ($6.95), which is fried crawfish tails, not quite so oversalted as the alligator and more peppery, with some actual seafood flavor. "Cajun taters" (big bucket $3.95; half-bucket $1.95) are rather disappointing -- mildly seasoned wedge fries that didn't, our night, have the crispness of the fried seafood, or even of the sweet-potato fries ($1.50 alone; also included as a side dish on most dinners). "Bourbon Street onion rings" ($2.95) brought only eight rings, each the diameter of an oversize bagel. They were so effectively dry-fried that they tasted primarily of raw batter. For some reason, fried onion rings almost never have any onion flavor, so in this case, more grease may actually be necessary for better taste.

Much of the dinner menu focuses on permutations of about six kinds of barbecue ($8.95 to $17.95). We had a "Fifty-fifty" ($15.95), combining slabs of Memphis baby backs and St. Louis spare ribs, and a "Lonestar cookout" ($16.95), combining half a wood-grilled chicken, Texas beef brisket, and Texas smoked sausage. Nobody goes home protein-deprived from this restaurant.

I had always thought Calvin Trillin had the last word on white barbecue: "Eating barbecue made by white people isn't wrong on the face of it, but like going to a Gentile internist, it shows poor attention to the percentages." I recently noticed, however, the same idea in a 1913 book by die-hard Southerner Martha McCulloch Williams, in which she looks back to her antebellum childhood: "Then, as now, there were free barbecuers, mostly white -- but somehow their handiwork lacked a little of perfection."

The kind of chef she preferred is hard to find these days, and so is truly slow-cooked barbecue. Zydeco Grille's barbecue had reddish rings of color, typical of smoked meats, and also had the grill marks you get from finishing them on wire; there was little smoke flavor, though, and some pieces were powdery-dry -- usually the sign of pre-poaching. A positive point was the lack of burnt sauce, showing that the sauce is going on after the heat is applied, in the Nadeau-approved manner.

The ribs were the best of what I tasted, with only a touch of dryness and a good relationship to the sweet tomato-based sauce (available in three levels of hotness, none unbearable). The brisket, likewise, is perfectly good without smoke, as millions of Yankee pot roasts will attest, but it is also potentially one of the juiciest, most satisfying pieces of Texas smoked barbecue. My half chicken was the driest item. The sausage, which is the most peppery thing on the menu, was still greasy -- here poaching or longer smoking would be appropriate. Of the side dishes, dirty rice ($1.50 à la carte) will appeal only to determined chicken-liver lovers. Collards are excellent. Succotash ($1.50) uses black beans for an intriguing Latin touch.

Seafood jambalaya ($11.95) does not overcook the seafood -- shrimp, scallops, and crawfish -- but the dish we had was watery and overly dominated by the red pepper of the Texas sausage. If the dish had been cooked longer, the seafood would have suffered, but the pepper-water would have gone into the rice and made the dish more like jambalaya. A special on fried crab cakes ($10.95) featured two cakes as big as saucers, but laden with too much starch, too much grease, or both.

The wine list has a few selections that would go with the milder dishes, but the beer list is more important. It has excellent local drafts, and a far-flung draft of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($3.25), which I can personally endorse. Desserts currently number three, of which the bread pudding ($1.95) is the one to have -- a nice custard of white bread with the perfect touch of cinnamon. Too much nutmeg marred our sweet-potato pecan pie ($2.95) -- it is possible that these two ideas cannot be fused in any case, as sweet-potato pie does not strike me as a fit base for nuts. "Chocolate insanity" ($3.95) was unfortunately in remission -- ordinary chocolate cake with syrup and whipped-cream decorations. So not only are all three desserts cheap, but the cheapest is the best.

Our waitress, from the South Side of Dublin, was an excellent guide to the menu, and a charming conversationalist on a slow night. If you've seen or read The Commitments, you'll know why she seemed more Cajun than much of the food. Of course, the ultimate irony is that New England has had a steady migration of French Catholics, many settling as close as the Fenway or North Cambridge. If we had listened to them more, and hooked them up with the right people, the right seasonings, and a steady supply of alligator, Boston could have had Cajun food a long time ago.

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