Airline Highway at US 51, Laplace
The border between the lands of Creole cooking and Cajun cooking crosses the Mississippi River at the Bonnet Carre Spillway. The first significant town west of there, Laplace, the World Capital of Andouille, is clearly dominated by Cajun cooking.
The best evidence of that for decades was Roussel’s, an old roadhouse so excellent that there was no argument as to whether it was worth the drive to dine there. The only question was whether you had the time. Because if you went to Roussel’s, you had to take Airline Highway instead of the much faster. You could, I suppose, route yourself up the relatively new I-10 instead of the old highway the Huey Long built from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. But it just didn’t seem right, somehow.
Roussel’s was next door to another, flashier restaurant called Airline Motors. With its glass bricks, neon, and chrome, the Airline Motors restaurant got most of the attention from people looking for relics of an earlier time. Its food was similar to what they served at Roussel’s, but never as quite as good.
Roussel’s was also a cool-looking place. Curved corners and round windows gave an Art Deco look. A big neon sign animated the image of a coffee pot pouring its electric brew over the door. The coffee was important. If you were traveling from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Laplace was the first logical stop for a cuppa, a snack, a meal, or a bathroom.
But the food was a better reason to stop. Or to make a special trip in the first place.
Let’s start with the gumbo. Or gumbos–they had two. One was a fine seafood gumbo. But the other one was not only better but unique: oyster and andouille gumbo. It started with a dark roux, but wound up as a lighter broth than today’s vogue. The oysters went in right before the soup was served, nice and plump. The andouille was. . . well, it needs a paragraph of its own.
I’m not sure where Roussel’s got its andouille sausage. Probably Jacobs’. Whatever the source, this andouille was definitive. It had a dark red-brown skin, thicker than on most sausages. Inside, the pork was in chunks, not all ground up. In between were just the right number and size of fat islands. Garlic and red pepper, too. It was just magnificent. The flavor was along the lines of a chicken gumbo, because of the smokiness of the sausage, and you added file at the table. It remains in my mental bank of eating experiences among the finest of all my gumbos.
When crawfish were in season, Roussel’s made much of them, but what you prayed for was that they’d made crawfish bisque. Those of us who live in New Orleans, where crawfish bisque is relatively rare (it’s a Cajun thing, really), would shed tears if served Roussel’s version. It was everything crawfish bisque should be: dark roux again, lots of bits of crawfish, thick, with stuffed crawfish heads. I am no fan of the process of either stuffing or unstuffing crawfish heads, but I love that flavor.
The rest of the menu was a curious mix of Cajun and Creole. They always had a roast duck on Sundays, with dirty rice and sweet potatoes. (My mother, who was such a great cook that she was difficult to impress, devoured this with great enthusiasm.) A roast chicken, too. (In a review I wrote in 1979, I see that the menu price for the half chicken as a complete dinner was $3.50.)
Oysters and brochette and trout Marguery? No, not like Galatoire’s, but there they were, and not bad. Fried chicken, fried catfish. Hamburger steak, poor boys, and spaghetti and meatballs for the truck drivers. Big menu.
You finished off with a good bread pudding with lots of raisins and a custard sauce. I wonder how there was any bread left over to make this. For some reason, the butter here was so good that you wound up eating an unbelievable amount of bread.
What killed Roussel’s was the aging of its proprietors and the departure of the main stream of traffic from Airline Highway. Also, it was in the oldest part of Laplace, and development had moved west. But for as long as it lasted, this first outpost of Cajun cooking always beckoned devoted eaters to take the old highway and stop for a meal the likes of which could not be had just twenty miles east.