Parkland is an unlikely neighborhood for bayou eating. Nevertheless, for close to a decade, it was our version of the best Louisiana parish for etouffee, gumbo and po' boy sandwiches.
For nearly a decade, From The Bayou, which operated steps from Pacific Lutheran University, was the restaurant with a cachet in authentic Louisiana cooking. But in 2007, owner Kevin Roy closed his quirky Garfield Street Cajun restaurant with the whimsical décor and flavor-thumped Louisiana dishes. The location briefly became another Louisiana-focused restaurant called Jambalaya, but it closed, too.
Blandon Dillon opened his Creole Cafe in 1999, but his unexpected death in 2010 put an unfortunate end to creations based on his family's recipes at the restaurant just off Pacific Avenue and state Route 512, close to PLU. (It's now home to Bruno's European Restaurant.)
But bayou food is back in Parkland. Madea's Cajun Cafe quietly opened in July at 417 Garfield St. The small, homey cafe fills a void in a region notoriously short on Southern food, dim sum, Ethiopian restaurants and Jewish delis. (Not to sound like a bitter broken record or anything, but would someone please open a creperie?)
Madea's joins good company on Garfield Street: newcomer 208 Garfield, a sophisticated small bites restaurant now open a year; the new cupcake shop Yummers; and the neighborhood's longtime anchor restaurant, Marzano.
The cafe is owned by Keitha Okafor, a native of Oakdale, La. The small town is in the Allen Parish about 70 miles from Lafayette. Her family was military and moved often, but she spent much of her childhood in southern Louisiana and Texas. Her move here also came via the military. She followed her sister Mary Williams, whose husband was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
In the South, "Madea" is a common nickname for a grandmother. Okafor's "Madea" taught her to cook gumbo and sweet potato fries, banana pudding and pecan pralines. Her grandmother died a few years ago and the sisters thought it fitting to name the restaurant after their Madea.
Think of Madea's as a simpler, casual lunch-counter version of the more polished, full-service From the Bayou and Creole Cafe. The cafe is small and comfortable, cute and friendly - just a handful of tables in a cramped dining room. Food is served in plastic baskets or on paper plates with plastic forks and paper napkins. Okafor cooks and Williams waits tables. Another friend occasionally helps. I'd describe the food as rustic, earnest and casual, with an authentic whiff of Louisiana home cooking.
Gumbo, jambalaya and etouffee are available on select days (see box), Po' Boy sandwiches are available anytime. Okafor considers fried chicken dinners her specialty. The cafe also serves its nearby college clientele with fast food-style burgers, fish sticks, hot dogs and sandwiches.
From the starters menu, Cajun boudin links ($2.95 each) were an unusual find: a sausage stuffed with ground pork liver and rice, sort of like meaty, dirty rice translated into sausage. It's flavorful but not as spicy as I was warned. Leftovers fit tidily inside a hoagie with a swipe of stone-ground mustard for a quick lunch.
Fried pickles ($5.95) were crunchy, breaded and thin-sliced dill chips that tasted puckery but were burdened with too much salt in the breading and pickle. Still, they have an interesting texture.
A shrimp po' boy sandwich ($8.95) was the tastiest interpretation I've enjoyed. Sweet breaded shrimp - and plenty of it - came tucked into a baguette that had a surface so crunchy it practically shattered and a pleasing chewy interior - the perfect crusty bread for a po' boy. Shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a smear of mayo mixed with mustard and Cajun sauce finished the sandwich. Shrimp etouffee over rice ($8.95, served Tuesdays, with a side salad and a roll) needed something. It had the taste of a slow-simmered stew and was redolent with shrimp and the South's famous holy trinity (peppers, onions and celery), but the flavor was briny. I wanted it to taste more deeply of the sea. I'll be back for the seafood gumbo, served only Fridays and Saturdays.
Madea's Cajun CafeWhere: 417 Garfield St., TacomaCall: 253-536-7060Hours: 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and SaturdayLimited menu: Gumbo available Friday and Saturday, etouffee on Tuesday and jambalaya on Wednesday