On almost any day of the week, local restaurants are serving up some terrific plate lunches.
If you’ve begun to believe everything you read on Wikipedia, look up “plate lunch” for a reality check.
Well into 2012, Wikipedia defined plate lunch as follows: “The plate lunch … is a syncretic menu item that is a quintessential part of the cuisine of Hawaii, roughly equivalent to a Southern U.S. meat-and-three plate. However, the inclusion of pan-Asian ingredients makes the plate lunch unique to Hawaii. Standard plate lunches consist of two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and a main entrée. Many plate lunch outlets also sell ‘mini-plates,’ which come with the same entrées in smaller portions.”
Apparently, no one who updates Wikipedia lives in Acadiana – maybe because everyone here is too busy eating plate lunches.
In other parts of the country, they may call a plate lunch a “meat-and-three,” but folks in these parts would consider such a moniker outright heresy. A plate lunch features what its devotees consider home-cooking – a meat and two or three sides (that cover the plate from lip to lip and almost always spill to one side or the other). Usually it’s food their mothers or grandmothers made.
We’re talking a lot of smothered meats: pork chops, sausage, chicken. Rice and gravy is a must. Crawfish étouffée. Red beans and rice. Even spaghetti and meatballs can be considered standard plate lunch fare. In many Acadiana establishments, plate lunches are served cafeteria-style. They generally satisfy even the heartiest of appetites.
Several variables play in the equation of determining someone’s favorite plate lunch. The first and most obvious variable: the day of the week. If you throw out the question, “What’s your favorite plate lunch?” chances are the answer will be, “Depends on the day.”
The list of great plate lunch places in Acadiana is long. We’ve picked four highlights to feature here.
Creole Lunch House
713 12th St., Lafayette
Lafayette’s Creole Lunch House is legendary.
It’s as real and as Creole as there is. It is not fancy by any standards. Instead, it’s home-cooking with an emphasis on the portion size.
Merline Herbert, the Creole Lunch House proprietor, is a legend in her own right.
“Miss Merline has been smiling over my lunches for years now,” says Lafayette attorney Matt Jones. “You know a place is good when there is no salt and pepper on the table and you don’t ask for any. Eating at the Creole Lunch House is like being served a delicious lunch by a precious aunt who gives you a big hug.”
Jones’ favorite plate lunch at the Creole Lunch House is the fried pork chop with rice and gravy.
Did we mention that plate lunches aren’t the general fare for those who are serious about keeping their waistlines in check?
“Also, the chicken fricassee is outstanding,” Jones adds.
Jones is not alone in his love and adoration for the Creole Lunch House. Local icon and zydeco expert Herman Fuselier agrees wholeheartedly.
“If scientists ever invent a pill that lets you pig out and not gain weight, I’d move into Creole Lunch House,” Fuselier says. “I’d no longer have to agonize between the Creole stuffed bread, chicken stew, fried catfish, fried shrimp or anything else. I could just have it all and live a long, happy life.”
The simplicity of the Creole Lunch House’s famed stuffed bread belies its deliciousness and is worthy of another story altogether. Basically, stuffed bread is a pistolette – a single serving of French bread – stuffed with a variety of ground meat, onions, peppers and spices.
Greg Walls, co-owner of Johnson’s Boucaniere, offers Creole Lunch House a shout-out. “I love the owners,” he says. “They are saints, in my opinion. Not only do they serve up great food; they soothe your soul.”
Walls’ description of his favorite plate lunch at Creole Lunch House is indicative of the way people have a definite opinion and detailed instructions on how they want their plate lunches: “My personal favorite is chicken fricassee with one scoop of rice and one muffin,” he says.
104 Lamar St., Lafayette
“If it’s Tuesday, it’s definitely Gary’s.” That’s the line you’ll hear over and over again from the plate lunch faithful – especially from men looking to get the most bang for their buck.
“When I lived across the street from Gary’s, I never missed going home for lunch on Tuesday,” says Sloane Lamotte of Lafayette. “They make the best chicken stew in town. The gravy is amazing. The meat is falling off the bones, and the portions are fantastic. Every time I go to Gary’s, it reminds me of my mom’s home Cajun cooking.”
To be clear, Gary’s is not a bona fide restaurant. It’s more of a neighborhood convenience store, very close to the railroad tracks.
Here’s Tim Landry’s take on Gary’s: “My favorite day is definitely Tuesday, which is chicken stew day.”
But he doesn’t limit his Gary’s visits to Tuesdays. “There’s just so much flavor in all their dishes.”
Nor does he limit his Gary’s fare to the plate lunches. “In the rare instance I don’t want chicken stew, I will go with the Big G Burger, one of the finest in Lafayette,” he says. “Get it with an egg if you enjoy being happy.”
3607 Legion St., Lake Charles
In the small kitchen in a Shell station on Legion Street in Lake Charles, Chad Jackson is trying to do something amazing.
Jackson had been living in California for several years when his grandfather passed away, and he decided to come back to Lake Charles to help his dad. He had trained with the California Culinary Academy and worked at the Crescent Hotel in San Francisco, and when he returned to Acadiana, he took a chef position at the L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles. He didn’t wait long until he decided he was ready to try something on his own.
“I like Lake Charles – the vibe and the spirit of the city,” he says. “I saw the opportunity to do food that was different. I took the spot I could get and ended up in a gas station. It was the only place that made sense to work.”
So he opened Jackson Deli in September 2010.
There was one issue. Jackson didn’t want to rely on the traditional fried-food-based plate lunches. He wanted to revisit his California roots and lean toward locally produced and organic food.
So in a former Exxon station – now a Shell station – he and one assistant are creating food that surprises and delights the customers.
“I call it Californian/Lake Charles food,” Jackson says. “We’re trying to do what we can to help create more awareness about what we eat. People want the food fast, but fast doesn’t have to be fried. People don’t want to be fat anymore. They’re tired of everything fried. We’re doing what we can to help.”
Greg Wise of Lake Charles recently enjoyed a Jackson Deli plate lunch and noticed the difference. “The food was fresh, made from scratch and well-seasoned,” Wise says. “It’s not what you usually find around here.”
Chris Shearman says Jackson Deli can be summed up with one word: “soul.”
Shearman says: “Everything is made from hand with fresh ingredients. The pride of preparation is clear. The finished plate shows the true concern of the owner who clearly gets the bigger picture.”
Shearman adds that the ambiance de gas station works in this rare circumstance because of the devoted clientele from companies, production facilities and schools within a close radius of Jackson Deli.
“I cook what I feel – what’s the most available and makes the most sense – and try to be fair to people,” Jackson says. “It’s about fast and good and fair. … We make our food fresh every day – corn bread, hamburgers, everything. That’s how you make food good. You find the best available product for the best price and [make it] fresh every day.”
As word spreads of the little gas station lunch counter that’s doing up plate lunches in a way folks aren’t used to, the people are coming.
Rita Mae’s Kitchen
711 Federal Ave., Morgan City
Rita Mae’s Kitchen is just the kind of place that could be featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. In fact, if you find yourself driving toward New Orleans on Highway 90 and don’t time your trip to make a pit stop at Rita Mae’s, you’ve done yourself a disservice.
The décor is simple, and by the most basic standards, it’s not necessarily attractive. The colors clash. It’s an old house, and the floorboards creak. Don’t let any of that deter you. In fact, in this case, the lack of emphasis on the humble abode-turned-restaurant serves as even further proof that Rita Noel and the rest of her kitchen staff know exactly how to serve up a memorable and delicious meal.
Noel is the manager of Rita Mae’s and is proud of the genuine home-style meals prepared in her kitchen by cooks with more than 57 years experience among them.
The experience and know-how are clear.
“Rita Mae’s is excellent,” says Brad Kemp. “It’s very Louisiana – a homey place in a converted house that doesn’t seat a whole lot of people but serves really great food.”
On one day or the other, Rita Mae’s serves all the Louisiana staples: crawfish étouffée, fried catfish, shrimp-and-okra gumbo, red beans and rice, white beans, sweet potato pie. The food, service and surroundings are down-home, and people generally leave feeling good.
“If I’m [going] to New Orleans on Highway 90, I’ll make an effort to stop and eat lunch at Rita Mae’s,” Kemp says.
Gretchen Donham of Lafayette says she had Rita Mae’s legendary crab cake sandwich when she was there a couple of years ago.
“The crab cake sandwich was as large as my plate,” she says. “It was seriously the best I’ve ever eaten. My mouth still waters when I think about it. The food took awhile to arrive at our table, which I assumed was because everything is made to order.”