Tourist-Friendly Opelousas And Washington Offer Incredible Cajun History, Food And Culture
Story By Brad Goins
Photos By Nydia Neveu
Opelousas bills itself as both the spice and the zydeco capital of Louisiana. And there are some who say it has the best Cajun cooking … period.
It’s been around for 300 years, and structures from four different centuries are scattered around the large area over which Opelousas spreads. A ride down any major street is an experience in time travel.
Of course there’s the usual complement of CVS and Wal-Mart and McDonald’s and so forth. There are even instances of abandoned franchises that haven’t been in business for decades (but are still fondly remembered by people of a certain age).
Opelousas is a place that’s too big to be a town, but is free of the endless sprawl of the large city. It’s big, but not limitless. There are just a few major roads in the city. It’s an easy place to get around in.
The Palace Cafe
Right across the street from the city’s majestic old courthouse, located on a far right corner on West Landry Street, is the Palace Cafe, a traditional diner that’s been operated by the same family in the same location since 1927.
When I go to a diner, I order a cheddar cheese omelet and hash browns. There’s not much you can say about a diner omelet unless it’s poorly prepared. This one I was served at The Palace Cafe was a perfect three-egg creation made of almost paper-thin layers of egg skillfully folded in on each other. The cheese was just as it should be: not too much, not too little.
While Nydia was admiring the lunch buffet, she spotted an unusual dish: shrimp and eggplant stuffing. A kind server brought over a large helping for her to taste. Nydia pronounced that this lagniappe was the perfect side dish for any Cajun meal.
The eatery describes its cuisine as both “down home” and “true Cajun.” The place likes to have some fun with breakfast; menu items include:
— “Breakfast Scrambled All Together” (including grits or hash browns, toast or biscuit, three eggs, and such add-ons as ham, hamburger and vegetable medley);
— “Breakfast Club Sandwich Triple Decker” (with bacon, a sausage patty, American and Swiss cheese and dressing on two eggs); and the
— “Palace Barn Yard Burger” (a hamburger patty, cheese, bacon and egg on a hamburger bun with all the fixings).
Cajun plate lunches are served Monday through Friday. Entrees include smothered smoked sausage, smothered beef tips and crawfish stew with eggs. Saturday is always fried chicken day. On Sundays, there’s a brunch; sometimes it includes brisket.
Historical photos on one wall show the diner in its original, smaller configuration. Furniture has been kept up-to-date and comfortable. But the restaurant still retains that old-fashioned diner feel.
Java Square Cafe
The Palace Cafe is at one end of the block; at the other end is an entirely modern affair — the Java Square Cafe coffeeshop. The clean, streamlined look is spacious and simple. Stylish dark wooden coffeeshop chairs are a striking motif.
Coffee drinkers can, if they like, make a private little enclave for themselves in an open, preserved bank vault. (The shop is housed in a former bank.) This recessed bench probably offers couples a good place not to be overheard.
Unfortunately, I was too full of Palace Cafe food to sample the generous selection of scones and other pastries at Java Square. But I did have a cup of the dark brew and can affirm it was real coffee — flavorful and strong.
Spotted Cat Antiques And Flea Market
Spotted Cat Antiques and Flea Market (637 Creswell Lane) is located in a big strip mall. Don’t let that put you off. This one is the real deal. Look for the long green awning.
The place is ginormous. It’s a bit more oriented to the flea market and vintage than the antique. Of course, with 125 dealers, you’ll see lots of different things, many of which you will remember from your childhood. (Nydia snagged me a 1962 edition of a Sad Sack comic book as a gift.) She also chose for herself a large handmade boho-style cloth bag.
Of all the many antique spots in Opelousas, I chose Spotted Cat in particular because it has a restaurant (The Milk Bowl Cafe) on the premises. Any kind of eatery or coffee shop in a huge antiques or flea market place is always a plus. If you get tired of looking, you just take a seat and rest.
The Milk Bowl Cafe is simple and spacious. Even though it’s just a few months old, it’s already developed some fancy desserts. One is the chocolate peanut butter cake. To me, this tasted like a pound cake with a subtle peanut taste. It was topped with huge chunks of rich milk chocolate.
Full Cajun meals, sandwiches and a variety of drinks are also available at the spot. Cat motifs decorate the room. For more info, visit spottedcatantiques.com or the store’s Facebook page.
Le Vieux Village
(The Old Village)
If it’s tourist attractions you favor, I don’t believe you’ll be able to beat Le Vieux Village (The Old Village), located right in central Opelousas at Academy and Landry Streets.
The Venus house is a “mud house.” Its walls are filled in with a mix of mud and moss or hair and others materials. (You can see some of this old 18th century mud filling under glass in a display case in the house.) As you travel through this part of the country, you’ll find people who still refer to “mud houses” and live in them.
As you might expect with a building of this age, much structural integrity has been lost. In quite a few cases, walls have separated from floors or other walls. There are places where large boards have been nailed across walls to restore structural strength.
To some degree, the natural deterioration of the building has made it easy for the visitor to observe the original construction techniques. Some are quite different from ours — for instance, the use of diagonal supports in the walls. In some cases, a diagonal support actually transects a vertical support.
This house is the oldest dwelling of its type that still exists in the lower Mississippi Valley. It was inhabited in the 1700s by Marie Francois Venus, a free Creole woman of color. (It was originally located in Grand Prairie.)
The building is full of furniture and kitchen ware of the type Venus would have used (though perhaps not the exact pieces she did use). Although the house is dark and must have been ferociously hot in the summer, it looks as if it would have been quite comfortable.
Another restored building in the village, the early 20th century (1908) doctor’s office of Ertemon Lafleur, captures the environment of an old-fashioned one-size-fits-all rural doctor. You’ll notice that nothing in this small building has the sterile, minimalist look of present-day health care facilities. Examination chairs and chaise lounges for women who were waiting to see the doctor are crammed into the same rooms as medicines, surgical instruments and medical books. Everything that was done — including the pulling of teeth — was done by one person in one of three cramped rooms.
The Union Pacific Depot, built around 1900, today houses the Orphan Train Museum. This was the site where trains loaded with orphans from New York City arrived in hopes of being adopted by Louisiana parents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Mary Jane Steam Engine (built in 1904) still stands beside the depot. This mechanically complex iron monster traveled at a top speed of 25 mph.
Also included in The Old Village is a French house of the 1840s (with an upstairs “garconniere” where the family’s boys slept); an 1880s general store; a 1911 schoolhouse; and the 1948 St. Joseph Methodist Church for Colored People, originally located in the village of Palmetto.
A “pigeonnier” (pigeon house) is one of the few historical replicas built from scratch for the village. Authentic features of the grounds include two enormous metal vats once used to boil sugar cane down into sugar. Today, water lilies float in the vats.
One prominent feature of this complex is the Jim Bowie display. Alamo hero Bowie once lived in Opelousas and worked there as a blacksmith. (The site of his shop is now commemorated; it sits next to The Palace Cafe mentioned earlier. Part of the site is a 300-year-old live oak with a circumference of 18 feet. There’s seating for those who want to linger in the quiet, picturesque spot.)
In the Jim Bowie display, one sees a huge amount of memorabilia. Most impressive (to me) was a large selection of Bowie knives. It’s easy to see why these instruments made a strong impression on both man and beast. They are formidable. As intimidating as they are, their designs are things of beauty.
The Old Village is a sight-seer’s dream come true. A person who knew more about construction or architectural history than I do could spend a great deal of time here. The attraction is well-staffed and there are shaded picnic tables for those who want to dine on the site. Be sure to talk with Patrice, who (like the other volunteers there) can explain the history of the buildings in both English and French.
For more info on the Old Village, call 1-800-424-5442.
Other big sightseeing spots in the historically rich Opelousas (which was founded in 1720) include the Opelousas Museum, (315 North Main St.) with its Civil War room and Geraldine Smith Welch Doll collection, which includes more than 400 dolls from many areas. Also of interest is the Creole Heritage Folklife Center (which includes a gift shop). It’s located at 113 West Vine St.; call 337-945-5064.
Crawfish House & Grill
There’s lively debate in Opelousas as to who serves the best Cajun food. We only had time for one Cajun dinner in the city. We polled as many locals as we could and finally decided on the Crawfish House & Grill, at 1214 South Union St.
We arrived at 6 pm on a Saturday and there was already a 10-minute wait. The place is, apparently, phenomenally popular.
When we ordered. I went with the Garlic Shrimp Scampi. The thick, juicy shrimp in this dish were six or seven times the size of what I’m used to getting, and there were lots of them. It was difficult to stick my fork in the generous bed of noodles without spearing a shrimp.
The garlic and olive oil sauce wasn’t creamy (which was a plus for me) and it didn’t overpower the flavors of shrimp and pasta; rather, it complemented them. This dish is a find for garlic lovers.
Nydia enjoyed a seafood gumbo (with very dark roux) and fried green tomatoes topped with crab and crawfish in an Alfredo sauce.
I finished with traditional bread pudding, which was topped with a generous amount of thick, creamy, rich, sugary caramel sauce. The combination was a splendid success.
House Cajun specialties include Smoked Duck and Andouille soup; Eggplant Sauvage (with fried eggplant, grilled crab cake, sauteed shrimp and lump crab meat); and Oysters Ponchartrain. Of course this place has a seafood platter; but you might prefer to try the Swamp Platter, with its frog legs, fried alligator and “crawfish A-2-Fay.”
Finally, I’ll note that the plate lunch special for Wednesdays is chicken fried steak — with a side of biscuits and gravy, no less.
If you need to know more, give these Cajun food wizards a call at 337-948-0049.
Six miles due north of Opelousas is the attractive, comfortable rural town of Washington — another Louisiana settlement founded in 1720.
Opelousas and Washington are two very different places. Opelousas is large and spread out; its history is clearly one of business and industry. You can find plenty of interesting antiques shops and eateries there. But you may have to look for them a little bit.
Washington is whole different deal. As soon as you drive into the center of town, you’ll see an antique shop on every block, and more than one on many. This town has been designed specifically to attract the tourist trade. And the design has been successful.
The Old Schoolhouse Antique Mall
The Old Schoolhouse Antique Mall is housed in a 1930s, two-story school and its enormous 1950s gymnasium. More than 40,000 square feet are devoted to the display of goods.
If you find that many places that promote themselves as antique stores don’t have many real antiques, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the contents of the schoolhouse. Several rooms are full of nothing but large pieces of furniture, all of which are clearly more than a century old. Some furniture and artifacts were obviously handmade long ago by farm dwellers who didn’t have professional training in carpentry.
The mall’s list of its specialties includes primitives, sterling silver, tools, architectural items, Depression glass and jewelry.
Of course, there are many rooms and booths dedicated mainly to vintage or flea market items. One room crammed with memorabilia included not only items from occupied Japan, but also numerous tie-ins for old Japanese and U.S. TV shows and movies.
Fortunately, there’s not a great deal in the way of really recent culture (such as McDonald’s Disney toys, or what have you). You won’t have to look through the sort of thing you see at every garage sale in town.
At the Schoolhouse, there’s a fair amount of old, historic or vintage Catholic memorabilia.
And then there’s my favorite place in this part of Louisiana — the $1 book room. I spent most of my time in here. One big advantage of the book room is that I don’t have to deal with other people. This time around, someone came in the room about 15 minutes before I left — and she actually stayed in the room. She was, apparently, shopping for books. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Although the number of readers in the antique mall may vary from day to day, there are, perhaps, 20 rooms that have some number of books in them. The front of the gym is a prime spot for book shopping.
In the main building, one room holds two large collections: one of Civil War books and one of books about Louisiana. These collections are superlative (although not complete, of course). Another vendor has a fair number of old Catholic books, pamphlets and paper. And throughout the building, there are many displays of cookbooks from all eras.
The mall’s fine diner-style restaurant — The Old Schoolhouse Cafe — is meant to emulate a 1950s diner. Nydia and I sat in the Marilyn Monroe booth this time around. There are also Elvis booths, and so forth. People are allowed to write on the walls (and write they do).
I can vouch for both the burgers and the hot fudge sundaes here. The booths are well-padded; there’s plenty of retro decorations to look at. It’s a place where resting can be a real pleasure.
Outside the restaurant lies the affectionate orange cat who’s the gym’s mascot. No one knows his name. But this is his place. If he decides he wants to sit in the road, cars will have to go around him. Honking at him has no effect at all.
If you need more info about the Schoolhouse, call 826-3580 or visit oldschoolhouseantiquemall.com. To locate this Louisiana wonder, take Exit 25 off I-49 north of Opelousas. Locals will be glad to give you directions. The enterprise opens at 9 am, but only on Fridays through Sundays.
Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant
Washington developed as a steamboat town, and long-time residents like to boast that the town was once the largest inland port between New Orleans and St. Louis.
In those days, there were seven warehouses on what was called, at the time, the Opelousas River. Today, only one is intact.
It’s a sprawling, mainly wooden, structure that’s been around since 1823. In the last 40 years, it’s been the home of the highly regarded Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant.
For an appetizer, we chose the escargots. We received eight escargot in a delicious garlic sauce. I found myself eating large chunks of baked garlic with my escargot. A conspicuous garlic flavor seems to be a characteristic of Opelousas-area cooking, and as far as I’m concerned, it works like a charm.
The escargots were large (for escargots), tender, tasty and smooth in texture. There were small pieces of bread for soaking up the sauce that remained after the escargots were eaten; this combination of sauce and bread was even tastier than the escargots.
For an entree, I chose a signature dish — Catfish Diane. In all parts of this dish, I tasted a thorough blend of catfish, crab and shrimp at all times. It was a unique and entirely effective flavor combination; I hadn’t experienced anything like it before.
About halfway into the dish, I hit a real concentration of the seafood sauce. This was a thick cream sauce, subtly spiced, which only made the dish tastier. There was neither too much nor too little. This was the sort of dish it takes a chef to make.
Nydia ordered an eight-ounce filet mignon. The meat was ordered rare and it arrived rare, with excellent flash grilling on all sides. The chefs and cooks here know how to prepare steaks. The meat (of the “Sterling Silver” line) tasted delicious, with a fine ratio of char to red meat.
I finished with traditional bread pudding in a light, white sauce with just a hint of rum.
You will not taste much better food than this in Louisiana.
The building still looks like an old warehouse, and I suspect that most of the wood is original. One sees huge beams and joists — all of them exposed. Fortunately, there’s been little visible effort to give the main dining area a modern look.
There’s a platform that overlooks the river — now Bayou Courtableu. The fast-moving waters are the color of chocolate milk.
Plantation owners once came to this spot to buy window panes, British cloth, silk, French guns, Cuban cigars and New Orleans coffee and whiskey. Once the Opelousas rail line was completed, that way of life ended, and the warehouse building went on to serve other purposes.
If you want to know what it’s doing today, call 826-7227 or visit steamboatwarehouse.com.