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Photo by Jeanne RiceProductivity managers in the Irvine area must have heaved a sigh of relief when Cliff's Ragin' Cajun closed its doors a couple of years ago. I've seen offices try to function after a lunch run to Cliff's, and it's like watching bloated alligators wading through molasses. A stuffed, relaxed, contented, happy workforce is not what you want.
If you are a member of that workforce, though, hie thee to Cliff's and rejoice, for the Big Easy has descended upon us again. After his beloved airport-area food court location made way for a hotel project in 1999, Cliff Huffstetler himself walked the dark corridors of the corporate world for a spell, working for Sodexho Marriott. Now he's back, and judging by the food he's serving, it's with a missionary zeal to provide his lunch-time diners a culinary escape from their tediously hectic jobs.
Good Cajun/Creole cuisine has always been a rare commodity in the county (the recently reviewed Bayou in Santa Ana is one of the very few out there), and Cliff's fare was rarer still: topnotch Cajun meals served at fast-food speed and prices. That is unchanged at his new location, a food court at Jamboree and Dupont in Irvine, where his wife, Kathy, and even his old staff are back at the ladles.
The slow-cooked tri-tip is different from any I've had elsewhere, moist and flaky and with a bit of the sweetness you'd expect from smoked ham. The crawfish etouffee is as good as I've had outside Louisiana: thick, rich, spicy as sin and redolent with succulent, tender crawfish. I sometimes hesitate to eat our fellow animals, but not crawfish: they are despicable, mean-spirited little things—sort of like if the cast members of Survivorhad claws—that find redemption only on your tongue. And if Cliff's turkey and sausage gumbo had been the primordial soup in which life began, this would be a better world today.
You recall that one of my minor complaints about the Bayou was that its jambalaya was a little too wet? If anything, Cliff's jambalaya errs on the dry side, but that's easily remedied by getting them to slather a bit of the gumbo sauce on top. They are very good at slathering at Cliff's.
The jambalaya—both the seafood and the turkey-and-sausage variety—is simple, hearty fare, as is the red beans and rice, available with or without sausage. The only meal that doesn't quite satisfy is the fried catfish strips, which are a little dry and contain nearly more cornmeal than fish. You might as well forgo the fish and just have the yummy hush puppies instead. I just said "yummy." Please forgive me.
I've heard Cliff makes great po' boy sandwiches—the $7.99 shrimp po' boy is the most expensive item in the place—but I've yet to make it that far down the menu. Along with the aforementioned items, he's always got something good going on his specials board. This recently included a very respectable chicken cordon bleu made with pepper cheese.
Despite all the grand Cajun fare Cliff offers, my favorite is the turkey dinner. He roasts several fresh turkeys each day, perhaps just a little spicier than your mom does them, and they're perfect. You can get a traditional side dish of mashed potatoes and gravy, but I usually opt for the slathered jambalaya. It also comes with al dente veggies, and you can get an easy two meals out of it—for $5.95. For those who don't want a to-go bag, the $3.59 fresh turkey bowl is the way to go.
Though Cliff's has been back barely a month, the place is already up to 80 percent of the business Cliff did at his old location. "The only problem is my mouth hurts from smiling," he said. "People are coming in all the time and saying how much they missed us. One guy told us he was eating lunch in another place when someone told him we were back. He paid his bill, left his lunch sitting there and came straight here to eat."Cliff's Ragin' Cajun, located at 2626 Dupont, Irvine, is open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (949) 476-8284; www.cliffsragincajun.com. No bar. Lunch or dinner for two, $8-$20, food only. Cash or check only.