During New Orleans’ violent 1929 transit strike, one major business showed its support for the union by offering free food to all strikers. It was a kind of culinary stand against “the man.” And when the beleaguered strikers would show up for their sandwiches, the owner would alert the staff, “The poor boys are coming.”
That’s the way the story was told to me by the third-generation co-owner of the famed Johnny’s Po Boys in the French Quarter (established in 1950, a couple of decades after the strike). And it’s said to be how the po-boy—Louisiana’s answer to the New York sub, the Philadelphia hoagie and the New England grinder—got its name. Like all of those sandwiches, the po-boy has morphed into various forms over the decades. But it is indisputably the signature sandwich of Louisiana. So when Zydeco Po-Boys opened its doors on Carson Avenue, I had only one thought: It better come correct. Happily, it does, as long as you’re open to the idea that Louisiana cuisine extends beyond the Big Easy.
Zydeco’s chef and co-owner Brandon Trahan is not from New Orleans, and admits he hasn’t spent a lot of time there. He was born in Creole, Louisiana, near the Texas border. And his roots are Cajun, with 75 percent of his bloodline tracing back to France by way of Canada. The cooking he experienced as a child had less Creole influence than what you might find in New Orleans. But he attended culinary school and worked in Las Vegas under Emeril Lagasse at two restaurants, and later at suburban French stalwart Marché Bacchus. So his influences go far beyond Mama’s home cooking.
The decor at Zydeco is casual, but extremely charming and welcoming. It’s a quick-casual place, which is new for this block. And while not quite as “hip” as neighbors VegeNation and Glutton, the exposed brick walls, bare light bulbs hung from reclaimed window frames and tables built from throwaway doors make it seem even cooler.
The menu, as one might expect, concentrates on po-boys. They’re made on beautiful, thick bread from New Orleans’ famed Leidenheimer Baking Company, and semi-traditionally dressed with lettuce, tomato, Swiss, Provolone and your choice of mayo, jalapeño mayo or Cajun mustard.
While roast beef is a traditional go-to po-boy, Trahan offers brisket. They also have house-brined turkey, Cajun sausage (a bit leaner than traditional Andouille), ham, fried catfish or fried shrimp. Or go all-out and get the Zydeco Special, which combines ham, turkey and brisket. The menu also offers red beans, sausage and rice, two types of gumbo (chicken and sausage, or vegan), and dirty Cajun fries.
My favorite po-boy so far has been the catfish, made with thick pieces of the flaky fish delicately seasoned and lightly fried. The Zydeco Special was also excellent, although it was hard to distinguish the flavors of each meat. And I loved the lightly smoked, slightly spicy sausage. But I found little flavor in the jalapeño mayo. For a bit more kick, request the Cajun mustard.
Actually, that search for a kick is a recurring theme here. The thin gumbo is packed with flavor, but is much milder then you’d expect in Cajun cuisine. Fortunately, the restaurant has a nice selection of hot sauces for those who want to turn it up a notch. Among the sides, try the Cajun potato salad, made with eggs, mayo, Creole mustard, red onions, pickles, jalapeños, pepperoncini, celery and Cajun spices.
My only real complaint is reserved for the very tasty red beans, sausage and rice that went a little too light on the beans (which are, after all, the headlining ingredient). But the sausage managed to save the day.
Trahan is the first to admit that his regional spins on these classic dishes are probably not what you remember from your trips to New Orleans. But Cajun cuisine of any stripe is tough to find in Las Vegas, and Zydeco’s efforts are rock solid. As a result, Zydeco turns the one-two punch of VegeNation and Glutton into a Holy Trinity of restaurants on this increasingly tasty stretch of Carson Avenue.
Al’s Menu Picks
Fried Catfish Po-Boy ($9.75), Cajun Sausage Po-Boy ($8.75) and Chicken & Sausage Gumbo ($5.50 or $8.50)
616 E. Carson Ave., 702-982-1889, Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon-Sat. Dinner for two, $15-$25. ZydecoPo-Boys.com.