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3538 Columbia Pkwy
Eclectic pub grub is a real treat. Most pubs stick to the wings & cheese
sticks type menu, most often they get their product in bulk,
boxed and frozen and simply drop the fryer basket with each order.
When you sit down in front of a beer and get a menu that has regional favorites from a far off region you have to be surprised.
Allyn’s Cafe has gone to great lengths to make sure you are well aware that their pub grub is “outside the box”. Big signs on the building boast of “authentic Cajun and Mexican food”. The menu is a collection of the most popular offerings from each of these categories with the addition of Italian dishes. I guess you could call it “italimexijun”.
I’ve been wearing out Cajun cookbooks for years, I even have a signed copy by Paul Prudhomme, the greatest authority and practitioner of that amazing alchemy... Cajun cooking. I absolutely love Cajun cuisine. I cook it regularly and have inspired many others to do the same. Needless to say, I don’t need convincing to eat at a restaurant who claims to serve the real deal. I usually expect to see the traditional favorites, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, poor boys, muffuletas as well as the blackened dishes. Really good Cajun restaurants have shrimp, crawfish, etouffee and paneed entrees. The great ones even have dishes like Cochon De Lait, Boodin Blanc sausage Chicken Pontalba, Maque Choux, Meuenlere and Piquantes just to name a few. Allyn’s Cafe sticks to the bare basics. Offering only red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo and blackened meats. They also offer several “poor boys” but I do not include them due to the fact that they are just regular sandwiches like burgers, fish, chicken, tuna and phillies that Allyns calls poor boys. In fact, an authentic poor boy is a very specific recipe consisting of tough cuts of beef, slow cooked four to five hours to create a rich gravy ( the gravy is the most important part), fresh warm french bread cut lengthwise with a generous slather of mayo on the bottom slice, then shredded lettuce, topped with the beef slices and finally smothered in the gravy. It is a New Orleans institution and New Orleanians will protest loudly at any thing other than the real thing.
After seeing the faux Cajun sandwiches I wondered if in fact, Allyns knew Cajun at all. I put my frustration with the “poor boys” faux pas aside and decided to sample the red beans and rice and the jambalaya. Just to be on the safe side I also ordered wings in a spicy tequila sauce to be certain I had something I liked. My companion ordered her favorite Tucson treat the chimichanga.
Louie Armstrong signed his letters “red beans and ricely yours” which expressed exactly how New Orleanians feel about this favorite dish. This particular dish is commonly called “Monday red beans”. This is a traditional Monday supper in New
Orleans. Monday was always wash day in days of old. This dish was popular because the beans could simmer all day with little attention. When the laundry was done so were the beans. It is still custom to this day to serve red beans on Monday, even for people that don’t take Monday off to do laundry in a woodfired kettle by hand.
Traditional red beans and rice must be made with dried beans and cooked slow with a ham bone. The marrow creates a rich natural gravy and that distinct smokey flavor. The rice is usually cooked separately and added at the finish (due to the long cooking time of the beans the rice would disintegrate if it were added to soon). Usually this dish has Tasso ham or Andouille sausage added towards the end.
Allyns has an entirely different twist on Monday red beans. The beans lacked the natural gravy and the rice was unrecognizable, it had turned to mush. The sausage was the “Queen City” kind, hardly equivalent to even the poorest Cajun restaurant standards. It did not taste foul though so I ate it anyway. This dish dishonored the name red beans and rice...really.
Hoping for a better showing with the jambalaya I dug right in. I was sad to say what passes for jambalaya at Allyns would be considered soup in New Orleans. True jambalaya is a rice dish descended from Spanish Paella. It is seasoned with chili powder as well as cayenne, it has a thick consistency like paella. The basic ingredients are the “Holy Trinity” (celery, onions and green peppers) cooked down with the meat, tomatoes and seasonings to create a thick rich stew. The rice is usually added at the very end or served on the side. It is a marvelous hearty one dish meal. I saw no signs of familiarity in the jambalaya I was served, it was simply a very decent soup. I must note the corn bread served along side both the red beans and the jambalaya was so hard my companion actually broke a nail when I asked her to pinch it. It was rock hard and absolutely inedible. Yesterdays beans are great...yesterdays corn bread is not. I’m not sure how Allyns got the reputation for serving good Cajun food, unless it’s simply that Cincinnatians don’t know the difference between Cajun and Caucasian. Good thing I ordered wings as a backup because I was hungry. The first wing was perfect, tender meat and the spicy tequila sauce was less tequila and more spice but good nevertheless. The next wing was not so good, a bit “rare” for my taste, pink and cool in the center to be exact. I took them home and a 20 minute trip in the oven did the trick (it also carmalized the sauce and made them even better). No harm no foul but if I had gotten sick I would have been fighting mad. Putting my wings in a to go box, I sampled the chimi dish. It was also disappointing. Traditional chimis are deep fried, in fact, that’s where they got their name. Back in 1922 the restaurant El Charro in Tucson accidentally invented the chimi when a youngster in the kitchen dropped a burrito in the fryer. Monica Flynn, the chef, held back her swears and instead yelled chimichanga (spanish equivalent to thingamajig) at the sight of the frying burrito. Chimichangas have spread from Tucson to every part of the country since that fateful day. Allyn’s chimis are not deep fried (at least not ours), only the top and bottom were slightly crisped, the sides were soft and mushy (cooked on a flat top most likely). I believe Taco Bell calls this a “grilled stuffed burrito”. The refried beans were your typical canned variety and the rice had an overpowering seasoning that stayed with us all day (and I only took two bites)!
The atmosphere was nice, there’s a great patio, the service was good and the drink selections of beer and wine is unbelievable. Allyns does a fantastic job behind the bar but I think some good old fashion home schooling with some books by authentic Cajun cooks would be a good start on getting this “Cajun” fare up to any kind of tolerable level. After all they already have a reputation for cajun cooking...why not live up to it?
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