y personal introduction to Cajun food was a honeymoon in New Orleans. We tacked on a side trip to Lafayette to meet some of my new extended family and sample Louisiana home cooking. It was (unnecessarily) tamed for my delicate Yankee sensibilities, but it opened the door for Cajun cuisine in my life.
Don't assume that all Cajun food will be searingly spicy. That's just not true. There are a lot of components to the flavors, but the goal is not to burn off the first layer of the diner's tongue. If you want to sample a taste of Louisiana for yourself, take a trip to Culpepper's Cajun Kitchen. This is a small and unassuming restaurant with minimal ambiance and excellent food.
Culpepper's sits in a strip mall at the south end of Academy Boulevard. The interior could use a little TLC, but the food shines like moonlight on the bayou. You order at the counter and get your own drinks, and the food will soon be brought to your table. Zydeco and jazz make great background music while you're waiting for your meal.
If you aren't sure what to get, I highly recommend the Louisiana Sampler ($10.99). You get four classic Louisiana dishes, in smaller sizes so you won't feel like you're drowning in too much food. First up is chicken and sausage gumbo, a savory and hearty stew flavored with the holy trinity of onions, bell peppers and celery. The heat level builds slowly on the back of your tongue as you work your way through the bowl.
The red beans and rice were serviceable. The beans were tender and mild without falling apart, but the sausage was a little too soft and bland. The ?ouff? was brimming with perfectly cooked crawfish meat, although I thought the base needed just a little more oomph. The last dish, the maque choux, is like creamed corn on steroids, with just enough sweet heat to keep it interesting. The version at Culpepper's resembles a super thick stew, in which the corn, onions, peppers and bits of bacon mingle together.
Speaking of bacon in the maque choux, you'll also find bits of ham in the mustard greens. While I agree that pork products add a lot of flavor, it means this is not the place to bring your vegetarian friends. But the greens were so tasty, I had to fight my husband for the last bite. He's fast with a fork.
Let's talk about the fried items for just a minute. Whoever works the fryer in Culpepper's kitchen is some kind of magician, and I wish he or she would give lessons. Everything I've sampled has come out crispy and crunchy without a trace of excess grease. The fries, which are standard crinkle cut, aren't anything special, but aren't greasy. The hush puppies blend a proper kick of onion with a cornmeal batter that's savory and not too sweet.
We went further into fryer country with the You Pick 2 special ($12.99). In our case the bed of fries supported juicy and succulent shrimp and two crab balls. These are about the size of a billiard ball and loaded with crab claw meat, because the owner believes the claw meat has more flavor than the glamorous lump crab. These were cooked all the way through without the exterior getting too thick or too tough - no easy feat. The best comparison would probably be to crab cakes, except rounder, crunchier and spicier.
The Voodoo Blackened Catfish ($13.99) is billed as fiery hot, and while you might break a sweat, the heat is just enough to set off the flaky, moist catfish fillet. The spices in the rub harmonize without harshness, so that elements like thyme, red and black pepper and salt work together instead of any single one dominating. The sides are maque choux and fries.
We didn't have any problem finishing off the Shrimp Creole ($10.49), either. The tomato gravy was nice and thick, loaded with onions, peppers and shrimp. I'm not sure I'd call the shrimp "jumbo," but the rice underneath was put to good use soaking up all the sauce. This dish came with the hotly contested mustard greens as well.
I'd like to tell you about the desserts, but I've been too full to try them every time I visited. They include bread pudding with hazelnut sauce ($4.99), beignets ($4.99) and peach cobbler ($4.99).The friendly fellow behind the counter told me he's working on adding Bananas Foster to the menu soon. He said they won't be flamb?d, since he serves in plastic dishes and doesn't want to risk setting anything on fire. Guess I'll have to stop back by and see how he's progressing.
Culpepper's Cajun Kitchen
Restaurant Character: Good, down home Cajun cooking in what looks like a fast food joint. Don't be fooled by the appearance, because the food has been given all the time and attention it deserves.
Rating total: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Food: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Service: 3 out of 5 stars
Value for the money: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Address: 6502 S. Academy Blvd.
Contact: 282-8479, www.culpeppers.net
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Saturday
Credit cards: Yes
Vegetarian options: No
What's online as of Aug. 13, 2013:
- 82 percent of 141 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon
- 4 out of 5 stars based on 30 reviews on Yelp
- Not on Facebook
- Two violations were corrected and no follow-up was required during an April, 2013 inspection by the El Paso County Health Department