Our need for quality Louisiana eats hasn't exactly been slaked by Downtown Disney's tenants, but there is a new beacon of spicy, delicious hope in Santa Ana called the Bayou.
Will it survive? The restaurant business is tough, with something like an 85 percent failure rate. The Bayou is run by a family with no previous restaurant experience. Though they opened in November, they are still waiting on their make-or-break beer-and-wine license. And according to chef Byron Shipp—one of 10 siblings involved in the restaurant—the location has seen 18 tenants come and go during the past decade.
"But we're here for good," he insists. Their food has enough substance to just about make you believe that. Though his family is originally from Florida and Georgia, they have homed in marvelously well on Louisiana cuisine (the menu was developed by brother Daniel Shipp, with help from friend Catherine Smith), as well as excelling in other Southern fare. The Shipps have been in Santa Ana since 1964 (the siblings' mother, Helen Shipp, is the founder of the Orange County Black History Commission), and as other black families who lived in the county then have told me, tenacity was a requisite quality.
The Bayou's gumbo is a complex and generously portioned concoction, with a deep, earthy roux (essentially a gravy of flour fried in fat that tastes so much better than it sounds) and lots of chicken, shellfish and sausage suspended in it. Like many places, they leave out the okra. (Some people can't stand the slimy consistency, but I love the stuff, and "gumbo" is the Yoruba word for okra, so it's sort of like leaving the chicken out of a chicken pot pie, if you ask me. Embrace the slime, folks!) The Shipps, however, do top their gumbo with the filé (ground sassafras leaves) that others often omit.
The crawfish etouffee is packed with the tasty little crustaceans, while the red beans and rice showcase the greatness of simplicity. The jambalaya, to my taste, had too much of a tomato base and was altogether too wet but was nonetheless good—and plentifully stocked.
All the above items are available singly in huge portions or in smaller quantities on a combination Creole platter that offers more than enough food to immobilize you.
While even some of the best barbecue joints can't seem to serve a decent chicken, the Bayou's barbecue chicken is a big, juicy bird cooked just right and slathered with a dark, sweet sauce that could maybe use just a touch more authority. The smothered pork chops were buried in a splendid sauce so thick and chunky with celery, onions and peppers it was almost like dressing. The chops themselves were a little on the tough side, though.
Among the items that went unsampled were the shrimp creole, frog legs, oyster po' boy, catfish po' boy, hot link sandwich, roast brisket, boudin sausage, a fried crawfish salad and a host of other items begging a return trip. Do not—in any event—miss the superrich, spicy crab bisque. Each entrée comes with two of 10 sides, which include collard greens, sweet yams, creole beans and a refreshing apple-cabbage slaw.
On the dessert side, it's hard to pass up the sweet-potato pie, but you might want to detour sometime to the rum-raisin pie special. It's bread pudding masquerading under another name—a necessary subterfuge, since the English have so ruined the concept of bread pudding that you otherwise might not order this surprisingly light but deliciously besotted confection.
Byron says he's only just hit the zone on that recipe, and that is one of the Bayou's more appealing qualities; the sense that, like the jazz music playing on the dining-room speakers, this cuisine is a living, evolving thing. Go help it grow.
The Bayou, located at 2421 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, is open for lunch, Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat., noon-4 p.m.; and Sun., noon-6 p.m.; and for dinner, Tues.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri., 5-10 p.m.; Sat., 4-10 p.m. (714) 479-1334. No bar as yet. Dinner for two, $16-$45, food only. All major credit cards accepted.