Published in December 2009 in the Post Register.
ROBERTS – Kathleen ate alligator meat.
Bold in many things, Kathleen is an epicurean coward, preferring to stick to what she knows. But inspired by the moss hanging from the trees and the sound of live Zydeco playing in the background, my wife took a bite of deep-fried alligator tail and pronounced that it tasted like chicken.
OK, there’s no moss in the trees in Roberts and there’s no live Zydeco for hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles. But the rest is true – Kathleen overcame her fear and had a taste of reptile. Then she ordered a steak.
I, on the other hand, ordered the Creole-style tomato-and-rice dish featuring crawfish tail meat. My special kind of cowardice was evidenced in my choice of heat – I requested a two on a scale of one to 10.
We are, of course, at BJ’s Bayou, the only place within a day’s drive to get authentic Louisiana-style cuisine created illogically out of a 117-year-old former brothel in a tiny town 15 minutes north of Idaho Falls. BJ Berlin and his wife, Cheril, are our hosts and cooks on a cold late-autumn evening.
They’ve been perfecting Cajun and Creole dishes inspired by Chef Paul Prudhomme since 1998. BJ Berlin moved to Idaho Falls from New Orleans with his family when he was high school and settled in Roberts after he married Cheril. They fell in love with the old two-story building on Roberts’ main drag and eventually made a home out of the top floor while opening a bar and restaurant downstairs.
“We had a kitchen in the bar, and we started serving Po Boys,” says BJ. Po Boys are a New Orleans-style sandwich. “Friday nights were Louisiana night. People started coming from all over the place, so by 1998 we became BJ’s Bayou.”
The Berlins pride themselves on fixing authentic southern Louisiana-style food, but they’ve made one concession – they ask diners the heat level they prefer, on a scale of one to 10. Five, Cheril says, is the average heat level for New Orleans. I’ve ordered the level five before and it exceeded my comfort level. So I asked for a two this time, and it was about right.
“Most of what we do is Creole,” says BJ. “Creole cooking is more sophisticated than Cajun.”
BJ started cooking in the Boy Scouts – “My patrol always won the cook-offs,” he says. He and Cheril will cook you a nice steak and baked potato, but it’s the Creole food that will bring you back. He tells of the story of a nice lady who once asked Cheril for some ketchup with her etouffe.
“Cheril told her she should order something else,” BJ says.
In the kitchen, BJ works on my crawfish tail meat Creole. He starts by sautéing the vegetable trinity of onions, celery and peppers; then comes the crawfish meat and a combination of black, white and cayenne pepper. Finally, he adds his own tomato concoction and simmers it before pouring it over rice.
There’s a fire crackling in the corner wood stove as we chat with the Berlins and their three kids and Cheril brings in some fresh hush puppies. Outside, it’s 12 degrees, but we swear we can see the moss swaying in the trees.