EDITOR'S NOTE: Drop-In Dining is a restaurant dining report where reporters drop in unannounced and sample the food, on TNT's dime, then report what the scene and the food were like. Have a suggestion for a Drop-In Dining feature? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Where: 10716 A St. S., Tacoma
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Price range: $ (entrees under $30)
By Sue Kidd
Blandon Dillon grew up learning how to cook in his mother's kitchens in Maryland, Germany and Tacoma.
It didn't matter where the family was traveling for his father's Army assignments, two things remained constant: The cooking teacher was his mother and the food prepared always Louisianan.
His mother taught Dillon to appreciate and craft classic Louisiana-style food from scratch, using as many native ingredients as they could import from his mother's hometown of New Orleans. Those ingredients and cooking techniques are what Dillon brings to Creole Café – the Tacoma restaurant that he and his mother have operated solo or jointly in various forms since 1994.
Pictured here: Clockwise form left is fried catfish and hushpuppies; crawfish and crawfish etouffe. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune.
Creole Café got its start in Puyallup's South Hill in 1994, then moved to its current location off Pacific Avenue and 108th Street South around 1999 after a fire at the original location.
Dillon's mother, Perceal Dillon, retired from the business last year, handing off the New Orleans Creole Café to Dillon. He closed for a few months before reopening in October and renaming the restaurant Creole Café. The restaurant got a cosmetic makeover, but the menu and the food remains the same – all recipes tested and approved by the restaurant's matriarch, Perceal Dillon, and Dillon's grandmother, Cloteal Belletty, who at age 83 still shows up to bake Southern-style cakes at the restaurant a few days a week.
The scene: A relaxed cafe decorated in vibrant shades of green and blue exudes a New Orleans feel. This is a restaurant where lounging is expected and encouraged.
The food: Classic Louisiana eats – gumbo, étouffée, po' boy sandwiches, crawfish chowder, hush puppies, and fried and blackened Cajun catfish. Even the beer is from a Louisiana brewery – Abita.
Dishes sampled: A meal at Creole Café is best started with crawfish chowder, jambalaya or seafood gumbo (all $4.99). The crawfish chowder is the mildest spiced (maybe too mild) of the three starters I sampled. It was creamy rich and laden with fresh crawfish that Dillon flies in a few times a week straight from Louisiana. The jambalaya is a rice-heavy concoction with a tomato-based spicy sauce.
The gumbo is my top pick of the three starters sampled – the soup base is a slowly cooked flour-and-oil roux that Dillon meticulously tends. As Creole chefs say, "The darker the roux, the richer the gumbo," and it's a fine shade between nutty tasting and burned when it comes to roux. Dillon gets it just right – the gumbo base is a rich shade of chocolate, and he builds the flavor with the Creole "holy trinity" – chopped celery, onions and green peppers– and Creole seasonings, and finishes the soup with chunks of crawfish and shrimp, and hunks of spicy sausage.
The shrimp étouffée ($12.99) hooked me with the rich, fragrant flavor of the tomato-based stew with a bright lemon bite, served over a bed of white rice. Shrimp peppered the plate, but were a bit overdone. I'd order the crawfish étouffée on a return visit. The potato salad was a memorable accompaniment that I'm still craving – skins-on red potatoes, eggs, green onions and a creamy mayo-based dressing.
The blackened catfish ($12.99) was unfortunately more sautéed than blackened, resulting in a soggy texture and taste, and the accompanying green salad appeared straight out of a bag. Instead of the garden salad, stick with the house-made potato salad or pick one of these sides: crispy, sweet and thinly cut sweet potato fries or the crunchy savory hush puppies that are made from a mix, but doctored with the addition of chopped green onions. The small balls of cornmeal-based dough are fried a perfect golden brown and served with a small dish of honey for dipping.
For all-around variety, the Cajun combo plate ($15.99) is a nice sampling of deep-fried catfish, shrimp and oysters. Our oysters, unfortunately, were missing from the plate and no apology was offered for their absence (nor a discount given on the check), but the shrimp and catfish were perfectly breaded and crisply fried. The accompanying creole rice was a touch too salty, but heady from smoky-tasting Creole spices.
Po' boys are the most popular lunch item, Dillon said. I can see why. The shrimp po' boy ($7.99) was plump with fresh, battered and fried shrimp that were just the right side of opaque (I do dislike overdone shrimp), and topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles and a smear of mayo.
To wash it all down: Southern-style sweet tea ($2) is housemade. For beer drinkers, a few varieties of Abita beer are served (along with others). The Abita Purple Haze raspberry wheat beer ($2.99) is a crisp pairing for spicy Creole food.Oh, the cake:
Coconut, rum and caramel cakes are all made by Dillon's grandmother, Cloteal Belletty, who lives in Puyallup. The coconut cake ($4) was a superbly crafted example of a Southern cake – a massive slice of densely rich, sweet white cake generously covered with coconut frosting. The interior was sticky sweet and filled with pineapple preserves. Enough for two, but you'll want to be greedy and eat it solo.
Service: Aside from missteps (such as the missing oysters), the service is solid, with a hospitable Southern vibe. A dirty table was apologized for profusely (crumbs on several tables were persistent on both visits), but drinks remained filled and sincere apologies were given for long food waits. And the food did come with long waits, but as Dillon puts it, "It takes time to cook from scratch." Diners can expect Dillon to appear at the end of the meal to deliver purple, green and yellow beads with the bill. He gets the New Orleans beads with every order of live crawfish, which he has flown in a few times a week from Louisiana. The traditional ritual for acquiring New Orleans beads is not required at Creole Café – that activity is saved for the gentlemen's club a few doors down from the restaurant.
Diamond in the rough: The interior of the restaurant is bright and engaging, but unfinished touches translate into a restaurant that looks a bit rough around the edges. A few of the booths teeter and bare wood around the windows could use some stain or paint.