Everyone who sat at the counter in front of the steam kettles had questions. "How does it work?" "How much did it cost to install?" Chef Ritter (and that's what he goes by—no other name), partner of his namesake restaurant, is more than happy to answer. He tells me a big boiler in the back pumps the steam through a network of pipes. The metal tubing eventually ends up here, heating up the row of 12 stainless-steel kettles and what looks like exposed plumbing. Ritter then reveals to the couple sitting next to me that the units cost $3,000 each. Is it really that efficient? Is it really that much better than cooking on a regular stove? Ritter says so.
And I'm apt to believe him. The way he cooks, six orders at a time, sure looks efficient. There's no wasted movement, no waiting for the pans to heat up, no chance for his sleeves to catch fire. I was mesmerized. As though a priest blessing his congregants with holy water, he flicks minced garlic into each kettle with tongs, then squirts in some oil. He deposits a premeasured amount of raw seafood into one, chicken in another, sautéing them. Next, he ladles in prepared simmering sauces from a big container. Seconds later, the stews begin to bubble, the whole thing roiling, sputtering as if a witch's brew. The smells are intoxicating. After a few minutes, a clean bowl is set underneath, and with a quick pull of a lever, the whole thing pivots, pouring out the orders of jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo and seafood pasta. Ritter plops a scoop of rice on top of a bowl of etouffee before he hands it off to a server.
The first set of orders done, he turns on the water from a long-necked spigot and scrubs each kettle clean with a wad of steel wool. Soon, he's ready to cook the next round. The setup, I realize, is essentially a stove and a sink put together, and it isn't the first time a cooking method has headlined a restaurant in OC. Yeah, Noah Blom over at ARC Restaurant cooks everything on a wood fire as if he's Daniel Boone. At Ritter's, it's as though Emeril went steampunk.
Ritter's Steam Kettle Cooking, 1421 W. MacArthur Blvd., Ste. G, Santa Ana, (714) 850-1380; rittersskc.com. Open Mon.-Thurs. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only.
No matter how novel the steam-heated kettles are, this restaurant wouldn't work if Ritter didn't already know his way around New Orleans cuisine. He honed his craft at a little-known Vegas restaurant called Oyster Bar at Palace Station. The same kettles have been a fixture there for years, and the menu at Ritter's is almost a word-for-word copy of the Sin City restaurant's. The price points are also similar—around $20 for a large bowl that can easily feed two.
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The most popular dish is the pan roast, a big bowl of a glorious, orange-tinted gravy cooked with shrimp, crab, clams and lobster. Akin to tikka masala, it's just as creamy, just as tangy of tomatoes, the silken stew meant for consumption with plenty of rice. But then so is just about everything else. The etouffee, a simpler—but by no means lesser—dish, is full-bodied, thickened by dark roux, the spicing and flavors that come from the so-called "holy trinity" (the Cajun/Creole mirepoix of bell peppers, onion and celery) wholly melded and working as one. I asked for a mild spice level, but the couple next to me opted for a level 10, which seemed masochistic.
That there are excellent dishes coming out of the kitchen that do not involve the steam kettles is further proof the restaurant is better than its gimmick. The catfish po' boy is delicate, wonderfully light, the shimmer of its pan-fried cornmeal crust just thin enough it breaks into shards the minute I sink my teeth into the sandwich. Also on offer: shrimp, chicken and oyster po' boys, some blackened, but all served with Cajun spice-dusted fries that hit my nostrils before they touched my lips.
Oysters can also be procured raw on the half-shell over ice or baked as a Rockefeller or, better yet, smothered in a spicy house-made peanut butter sauce embellished with bacon and scallions. Also wonderful: an appetizer of bacon-wrapped shrimp I could eat by the dozen, each giant prawn tightly swaddled inside a perfectly deep-fried bacon cocoon and served with a mustard sauce that's as essential as the other two ingredients. But perhaps the most convincing evidence I found that Ritter's is already the best Cajun restaurant in OC? The red beans and rice: a substantial $3 side dish with bits of andouille and cooked, no doubt, in a cheap aluminum stock pot hidden somewhere in the back, unseen and unsung.