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Adios, Cliff

Rage, rage against the dying of the Cajun

photo by Jeanne RiceThis year has sucked in so many profound ways I'd need a column three times this length just to list them all. So I'll just mention one.

Cliff's Ragin' Cajun closes Nov. 30.

Some mean old landlord is telling Cliff Huffstetler—the best Cajun cook in Orange County—to take his jambalaya pot and go home. For those of us who yearn for Cliff's massive Southern-cum-Cajun feasts, this is overwhelmingly depressing news.

Here's how it's happening:since 1992, Cliff has run Ragin' Cajun out of Plaza des Cafes, a John Wayne Airport-area food court. Now the plaza is closing down. The venerable old place that hosted punk shows in the mid-'80s is being sold to a company that will tear it down to build an extended-stay hotel on the site.

It doesn't matter that the Ragin' Cajun is an immensely successful venture; in a couple of weeks, Cliff's will be gone, and lunch time is suddenly going to be a whole lot less fun. Shit.

If you want to know what real American cooking is, get to the Ragin' Cajun before it closes. Yeah, Cliff is from Louisiana and can cook gumbo, étouffée and jambalaya better than a bishop can spray holy water, but it's his down-home American cooking that makes me all Pavlovian—chicken-fried steak, breaded pork chops, fried catfish, meaty beef ribs, thick gravies and the best mashed potatoes around. And then there's his so very moist and tender roast turkey. Cliff serves turkey a couple of different ways, and it's the most popular stuff on the menu. Cliff claims he goes through 250 birds per day.

The Ragin' Cajun is one of the few restaurants I enjoy returning to again and again. And I'm not the only one. In fact, his lunch line is a lot like Cheers, with the same old faces dropping in to talk with Cliff. A small community of eaters . . . poof! Gone.

"I'm leaving there knowing I was the best," says Cliff. "I met some really neat people there."

What's sad about the Ragin' Cajun closing is the lightening-only-strikes-once nature of the restaurant industry. What works in one place doesn't always work elsewhere. Case in point: Cliff opened a sit-down version of the Ragin' Cajun in Fountain Valley last year. The food was just as sublime, but the strip-mall site never really took off. Burned out from 100-plus-hour weeks running both places, Cliff took the buyout clause in his lease and closed up in September.

It takes a little magic dust to go with the talent and hard work necessary to make a restaurant succeed. Cliff had that going in Plaza des Cafes. There's no guarantee it will happen again.

The future's not exactly dim for old Cliff. He's got an offer to teach at the California Culinary Academy, which is opening an Orange County location next year. And he's been asked to be an executive chef at a couple of local restaurants. The offers are nice, he says, but "they're nothing that sets the woods on fire, know what I mean?"

No, what Cliff wants to do is open a new Ragin' Cajun. The days of the food court are over, he says; companies want to keep their employees in the buildings at lunch. "I want a cafeteria in an office building so much I can taste it," he says.

Hear that? Bren, Koll, whoever: get off your butt, and get Cliff back in the kitchen. Don't let one of OC's greatest culinary resources go to waste.

Cliff's Ragin' Cajun, located (for now) in Plaza des Cafes, 4881 Birch St., Newport Beach, is open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (949) 476-8284. Cash only. In his absence, Cliff recommends: Shelly's Restaurant, 400 W. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-9821; Ruth's Place, 1236 W. Civic Center Dr., Santa Ana, (714) 953-9454; and Mossville, 1327 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 495-3100.
 
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