This swamp should not be deserted

By MARK NIXON

Perhaps there’s stark symbolism in the fact that Jumbeaux lies within eyeshot of vacant fields where Oldsmobile and Fisher Body churned out cars for much of the 20th century. The landscape is empty, as were most of the seats inside Jumbeaux during our three visits.

Shrimp, red beans and rice make a formidable lunch dish.
Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence
And that is a damned shame. If you hanker for the Cajun/Creole cooking of New Orleans and surrounding swamp towns, Jumbeaux is as good as you’ll find in these parts.

Start with a muffaletta ($12.99 for a half-sandwich). The first one I ever ate was where it was born, the Central Grocery in New Orleans’ French Quarter. It’s the best muffaletta I’ve ever had. Others have been crap -- until Jumbeaux came along. Ham, genoa salami and provolone cheese are tucked into halves of a massive French bread bun. The secret is in the “slather” -- a mix of chopped olives and olive oil. It belongs in the Sandwich Hall of Fame, if there is such a thing.

To say Jumbeaux’s muffaletta comes in second to Central Grocery’s is no shame; it’s like winning four Oscars but being edged out for the Best Picture award.

Moving on to the entrees: The Catfish Atchafalaya ($16.99) is a fried fillet of this Southern staple, with bits of crawfish etouffee scattered across the fillet. I’m skeptical of fried catfish because most I’ve tasted barely moved the needle past fish sticks. Judy ordered this entree. Her mouth leapt into a happy dance. I took one bite and together we tangoed.

What makes this dish work is the delicate and delicately spiced crawfish meat. Crawfish etouffee is a staple of New Orleans cuisine. Most etouffees are sautéed in onions, celery, red pepper and spices. While I can’t swear this was the basis of Jumbeaux’s version, the result was as delicious as others I’ve had in Louisiana.

On our final visit on a late Friday afternoon, we were the only diners for much of the time. That gave us time to talk with the chef. (More on that in a moment).

The smothered chicken on rice ($11.99) was a taste of my childhood, when Grandma Kristin killed, plucked and cooked a chicken in time for dinner. Jumbeaux’s chicken bursts with fresh chicken flavor, due largely to homemade gravy and shredded chicken ladled over rice. “True” is the best word to describe the “chicken-ness.”

Likewise, Judy’s chicken and dumplings ($10.99) was a blast from her past. Her family’s French-Canadian heritage has passed down a recipe called Chicken and Sliders, a slider being a mini-dumpling or a bulky pasta -- take your pick. We both reveled in childhood memories.

Chicken and dumplings may not sound like a classic Cajun dish. However, “Cajun” comes from “Acadian,” signifying those who fled parts of Canada’s Maritime Provinces (Acadia) and resettled in Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Chicken sliders-Cajun connection makes sense is a roundabout way.

Jumbeaux is not a solid hit parade; very few restaurants are. The Alligator Bites ($9.99) were a bore, though rescued by a fine remoulade sauce. The house specialty, Jumbeaux ($12.99), melds two classics, gumbo and jambalaya. I thought it came out as a thin gruel sparsely populated with rice and andouille sausage. The saving grace was the amazing taste of file powder, a signature ingredient in gumbo.

The accompanying side dish of red beans and rice was uninspired on our first visit, but the third time was a charm — all ham broth and smokiness embedded in the beans and rice.

Because business was slow, Matt introduced himself as the chef and extolled the virtues of Louisiana cooking. A transplant from Baton Rouge, he speaks enthusiastically and knowledgeably about this regional cuisine — HIS childhood memories, I assume.

Perhaps our three visits were an anomaly, Jumbeaux really rocks, and we just dropped in during down times. Perhaps, as our dining guest Bruce suggests, Jumbeaux needs a liquor license. True, an ice-cold beer would be nice to wash down a satisfying Cajun meal.

Jumbeaux opened in April 2015, inhabiting the space occupied by the much-heralded Fork in the Road, which inexplicably closed in late 2014.

Is the dead zone a matter of location, location, location? Lack of a beer license? More time needed to cultivate a loyal following? I wish I knew the answer. But I also wish and pray that Jumbeaux will be serving up Southern fixin’s here for years to come.


Jumbeaux is seaux-seaux

By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE

Jumbeaux Balls, a cross between the Hush Puppies of the South and Middle Eastern kibbeh, come with a spicy mayo and tend to disappear quickly.
Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence
Cajun cuisine has slowly made its way into Lansing and there’s no better place to start ranking it than with the original home wrecker, Jumbeaux. Situated at the former site of Fork in the Road (RIP) at 2010 W. Saginaw St. on the doorstep of west Lansing, Jumbeaux occupies space that has been tenanted by many that came before it — which is odd, because the location should be a good one. There is plenty of traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, since it’s located so close to a residential area and my former stomping grounds of J.W. Sexton High School. (Draymond, you wish you were a Big Red.) Nevertheless, this high-traffic spit of median, where a divided highway flows into one stream, has chewed up and spit out a number of tenants, from a coffee shop whose name I just can’t seem to remember to the aforementioned restaurant named after a utensil.

One weekday last month, I was fortunate enough to tear Mr. She Ate away from his usual sandwich-based lunch with takeout from Jumbeaux. His order: a gol-dang sandwich. A Shrimp Po’ Boy, to be exact. What is a Po’ Boy, you ask? It’s 2016. Close Pokemon Go and Google it. He found it to be a serviceable sandwich, although more than once he said it didn’t hold a candle to Dee’s Hangout’s Po’ Boy in Panama City Beach, FL. He’s right by the way, the next time you Spring Breakers hit up PCB and want something more than a Hot-N-Ready, look up Dee’s. You’re welcome.

The shrimp were present and non-rubbery, the bread was fresh and the sauce made the sandwich, but I can’t say much more than that; it was a pretty basic Po’ Boy. My shrimp and grits, on the other hand, was a dud. I’ve had grits before — I rather like them — and I don’t know if the kitchen at Jumbeaux was trying to do something differently, but the thin, soupy goop that I discovered upon opening my to-go container was a disappointment at best.

My Po’ Boy and I recently decided to give Jumbeaux another chance, again for lunch, since dinner rarely takes place before 8 p.m. given my work schedule and his trying with all his might to win a stage of the Tour de France without ever leaving the comfort of Ingham County. We sat down at a booth and were immediately greeted and our drink orders taken. When they arrived, we put in an order of Jumbeaux Balls, which reminded us of a cross between the dietary staples of two very different cultures: hush puppies of the South and kibbeh of the Middle East. These deep-fried balls were stuffed and filled and came with a spicy mayo. We were hungry, so they didn’t last long.

I’m all about the shrimp, ‘bout the shrimp, no fishes (hat tip, Ms Trainor) so I stayed with the little guys, blackened this time, with red beans and rice. A formidable dish indeed, especially for lunch. I found myself taking a third of it home so Mr. SA could find a way to turn it into a sandwich the next day. Speaking of Wally’s master, he had the chicken and sausage gumbo (without added spice) and found it suited his delicate taste buds, unaugmented by the mystery seasoning that accompanied his dish. I sampled it, and I must say, it was quite good with big bits of chicken and sausage with about a half cup of white rice garnished with green onion (or un-yuh, if you’re from the region) and I would have no problem ordering that for myself in the future. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say when it comes to our orders my dishes came in second both times. This will never happen again.

I’ll end with an observation. If something is Cajun, or southern, or however it identifies itself, does it NEED to be all purple all the time? There are other colors, right? Will Smith’s line in the movie “Men in Black” comes to mind when recalling the restaurant’s décor: “…hire a decorator to come in here quick ‘cuz…DAMN.”



Jumbeaux

11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday- Friday;
noon-8 p.m. Saturday;
noon-6 p.m. Sunday
2010 W. Saginaw St., Lansing
(517) 485-1011, jumbeaux.com/home


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