Block Builder

La Louisiana puts East Cherry back on the map.

Gentrification and mini-mallation have been nibbling away for decades at Seattle's Central District, but what you might call the hard core of the CD, the quadrangle between East Union Street, Jackson Street to 17th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, still has a bad rep with respectable folk of all classes and colors. It takes a pretty powerful attractant to pull a middle-class crowd night after night to a neighborhood where "street life" often means curbside conferences through rolled-down car windows, and the bright lights are usually those on the tops of clustered cop cars. And that, above all, is what makes La Louisiana unique and uniquely important. Sure, the food's gooddarn goodand the prices are remarkably modest. But when you dine at La Louisiana, there's an extra seasoning over and above the fragrant Cajun-Creole medley that pervades the menu. La Louisiana is an oasis in the eroded civic landscape that surrounds it at 25th Avenue and Cherry Street; the whole place embodies a quiet but determined assertion that calm, and decency shall prevail. The restaurant's location smack on one of the CD's legendary "bad blocks" actually gives going there a strange sense of special occasion, which is reinforced as soon as you enter by the welcomingly old-fashioned interior, like a cozy old neighborhood steak house in Chicago or Milwaukee, not at all faux New Orleans-y. You may wait a little in the foyer for your table because the staff takes time to seat each party and see them comfortably settled in. The same goes for taking ordersno artificial briskness, lots of listening and patience unadulterated with suppressed haste. I'm told by habitu鳠of Creole cuisine that Jemil Johnson's menu differs from their ideal. I envy anyone who can afford to be so precisian; for me the food at La Louisiana is utterly convincing, its flavor palette as broad and refined as I can conceive such straightforward homely foods to be capable of. The Creole Combo sampler ($15.95) is hard to resist even after repeated visits just because it so perfectly captures the spectrum of Creole flavors and textures: the subdued luscious heat of the sausage-chicken gumbo, the earthy tang of the moist crawfish etouff饬 the contrasting chewiness of the jambalaya (Louisiana's is frankly and properly a rice dish, not, as often, a high-protein patty bound with a little rice). Red beans and rice complete the combo, maybe a little too amply; but you don't have to eat it all, do you? Even if you think your main dish will sate you, you owe it to yourself at least once to try the crawfish beignets ($7.95): emollient, peppery little bundles of lightly deep-fried dough that are a savory high all by themselves, but reach for Elysium when dipped in the accompanying creamy mustard-yellow sauce. Crab cakes ($11.95) are another notable appetizer, but you have to chooseorder both, or any other appetizer for that matter, and unless there are four or more in your party, you'll be taking most of your main dish home in a doggie box. If you can tear your attention away from the mainline Creole specials, think about ordering the double pork chop (oozing with mushy cornbread stuffing, $15.95), but ask your waitperson to plead with the kitchen not to overcook it; pork this savory should still have a little juice in it. And go with the bitter greens as your choice of side to offset the sweetness of the stuffing. The "Barnyard Pimp" roast chicken, on the other hand (a steal at $9.95), can stand up to a side of yams whipped with OJ. If you're into okra, La Louisiana can fill your order, fried in an appetizer, stewed with seafood trimmings ($4.95), or on the side. Every time I visit La Louisiana, I stare longingly at their po'boy lineup before ordering something elsethere's just too much other good stuff on offer to fill up on a sandwich, however succulent. But a friend whose location and lifestyle allow him to make it there for lunch says he could live very happily on the deep-fried oyster version ($10.95), despite its burger-palace condiment filling of mayo, shredded lettuce, and tomato (tomato? And where's the traditional tangy remoulade?). One thing La Louisiana has lacked is breakfast (except on Sunday); that's due to be remedied in August. Another lack is alcohol in any form, and there's no sign that's going to change anytime soon. And that's a problem, because although there's nothing inherently wrong with water, iced tea, and lemonade, all three have to be pleasanter than what's on offer here to be worth drinking, and canned pop just doesn't strike the right note. I don't need cocktails to help me down my dinner, but the tangier foods on the menu just cry out for cold beer. Please, La Louisiana, don't give up on the Liquor Board without a fight: Your food deserves the complement of beer and wine; your customers deserve them; your bottom line deserves them. You're one of the best things to happen to the CD in decades; make just a little effort to get even better.

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