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Beignet and Muffuletta Orgy!

The Big Easy marches into Tustin at Crescent City

Photo by Tenaya HillsAs you read this, it's likely I am marching through New Orleans, laying waste to a feast of sumptuous muffulettas, orgasmic shrimp po' boys and mind-blowing crawfish etouffee. Nearly every restaurant I visit will be astounding, wonderful, amazing, seeing-God miraculous. I've done this before; I know whereof I speak. But this time, I intend to eat my way to death, and then to be carried along the steaming streets to an aboveground crypt, accompanied toward my final resting place by the sweet toots and thrumming of street musicians whose joyful noise wafts through restaurant doorways and down haunted alleys, harmonizing with a whirlwind of fragrances—spices, veggies, peppers, broths, cooked meats. And, yes, the unforgettable smell of a Hurricane expelled upon the superheated asphalt of the French Quarter.

Jealous? Of course you are. But don't fret, mon baguette—you are near Tustin. Tustin is no New Orleans—it's not even the mini-New Orleans at Legoland—but Crescent City is changing that. A smallish, soon-to-be-largish Houston-based national chain, the company recently opened in the Tustin Marketplace. It's their first California outlet, and more are on the way—15 in Orange County, the company says.

Cajun purists will howl that there are no Crescent City outposts actually inthe Crescent City, so therefore the food cannot possibly pass muster—hell, they don't even got gator!But it's no Disneyfication of the Big Easy, either. Beautiful vintage photographs of locked-in-time French Quarter buildings hang from the walls. Jazz and blues are piped into the eating area so loud that a good dose of Louis Armstrong goes down with your swallows of their strong bouillabaisse. A funky mural—a stylized map of the Quarter—beckons prospective tourists to hop a plane and explore the city in person. All that's missing are the street hustlers trying to bet you five bucks they can tell you where you got your shoes (to which—hot travel tip!—you're supposed to answer: "I got my shoes on my feet in New Orleans, Louisiana").

And Crescent City's cooking, no matter what New Orleans locals might say, is rather grand. The beignets baked here—a kind of French Krispy Kreme as essential to Creole cooking as fluency in français—is a faultless reproduction of what you get at New Orleans' famed Café du Monde, a perfectly puffy, hot, fried dough square smothered in powdered sugar. The cashiers will ask if you'd like any beignets with whatever you order—the Crescent City way of super-sizing—but these things are really for dessert, best for nibbling after your main meal. Or even at home: as at the du Monde, you can buy a box of beignet mix here and make some yourself.

The shrimp Creole, meanwhile, is zesty and rich, though a bit pricey at $8.95 for a small bowl. But the shrimp po' boys are just the way they oughta be: a flaky French bread roll bloated with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, spicy mayo and fried, bite-size prawns. It's messier than a dip into the Mississippi—but it wouldn't be a po' boy if it wasn't. We've also lived through the combo platter, an Atkins-pleasing selection that includes a fine, non-slimy catfish filet completely breaded with cornmeal, fried shrimp and fried crawfish. Two heaping scoops of dirty rice and a pair of hushpuppies segregate the gloriously greasy seafood like a culinary David Duke.

About those hushpuppies: they're pretty much among the evilest things you can put inside your body this side of a Philly cheesesteak—balls of greasy, deep-fried, spiced, peppered and onioned cornbread. Hushpuppies are usually rudimentary outside the bayou; it takes a rare skill to transform grease into a gourmet treat, after all. But the 'pups at Crescent City are just that, toxically addictive and a bargain at $1.95 for the dozen.

Crescent City also slaps together muffulettas, a kind of a New Orleans sandwich with ham, salami and provolone. But we usually opt for the flavorful, less-fattening turkey version because it arrives with a pungent chopped-olive salad. And my dining partners always inhale their coleslaw, a purple-hued concoction made with red cabbage and lemon juice—Crescent City claims it's "famous," and we see no reason to doubt them. I will no doubt survive N'Awlins, but with Crescent City nearby, my tongue will be boogying like a jazz funeral all year long.

Crescent City at the Tustin Marketplace, 2933 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 453-3555; www.crescentcitybeignets.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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