BLOWING OFF SMOKE
Looking through a fogged-up sneeze guard at a hotel pan of ribs bubbling in a simmer of Laura’s II barbecue sauce, I’m immediately invaded with the idea that it isn’t “real barbecue.” The thought hangs over me like a dark cloud — an unwelcome notion of purity that’s generally paraded around by know-it-alls who build smokers out of used car parts and travel the USA comparing notes on “smoke penetration” and “bark.” To be sure, those things have value insofar as they can taste good, but not so much when it forces you to examine a rack of ribs like a show dog.
Here’s the deal: I challenge any smoke-blowing Texan to take a bite of Laura’s ribs and tell me it isn’t barbecue. I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was smoked, what color the outer rings were, what the bark was like, if the wood was hickory, or apple, or balsa, or some exotic rain forest timber that gives notes of tannins and elderberries. I don’t eat things because of provenance. I eat things for the same reasons I’m sure the folks at Laura’s II cook things. First, because I want to live. Second, because I like things that taste good. And Laura’s ribs are top-notch barbecue in that regard. A mess of syrupy sweet sauce that soaks every possible sinew in those fork-tender ribs. It gets everywhere. Your mac and cheese, your green beans, your remote control, your Persian rug. It may be a good idea to eat them over a drop cloth. Elitist pit masters would say Laura’s is compensating for something with all that sauce. Like they aren’t making up for something with those skyscraping smoke stacks.
Pro Tip: The people at Laura’s are just so damn friendly. They’d serve Rob Ryan and the Saints’ offensive line. If you want to feel good about yourself, watch the Saints fail your unreasonable expectations, then walk over to Laura’s II and ask for a coke. Don’t you feel better?
Laura’s II is located at 1904 W. University Ave. in Lafayette. It’s open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
THE CUBANO LIBERATED
Pursuit of the true Cuban sandwich is utter folly. My understanding is the sandwich was created by Cubans in diaspora, floating to and about the southern tip of Florida with nothing but French loaves, pots full of shredded pork and a battery of panini presses. As far as “authentic” cuisines go, the Cubano has very little on it that can’t be traced to some immediate colonial heritage. The baguette, the ham, the yellow mustard. The Swiss cheese? Sure, why not. Famous watch-making imperialists, those Swiss.
And there you have the essential recipe for something that’s proliferated the Americas in gas station sandwich shops, bodegas, cocinas abuelas and bistros. When you get down to it, the cubano is more of a genre than a dish, albeit one with very narrow specifications. No two are alike, but they’re all the same.
Rhum Room’s cubano is a capitalist dream served in the well-coiffed shellac of Hemingway’s pre-Castro Havana. Gorgeously crusty bread, with a toothsome bite and a buttery finish, warmed like an electric blanket around a unity of Swiss cheese and Jose Pepin’s pork roast. Just a hint of pickle, a touch of mustard, and you’re in the presence of the greatest side-effect of the Cuban embargo. The recipe is all Pepin, Cuban expat and namesake of the sandwich shop on Ridge Road where this cubano variation began, but the presentation is all modern romance. There’s an irony here given that the sandwich was created by Cuban refugees fleeing Castro’s liberally imposed austerity. I’ll spare you a forced Bay of Pigs reference.
Pro Tip: Seriously, folks, it’s always about the bread. The superiority of Pepin’s bread is the secret here, and it’s frankly shameful to think of all the sandwiches in the world, lost to an ether of mediocrity by timid starches. It’s probably leavened with Martian science water.
Rhum Room is located at 535 Garfield Street in Lafayette. They’re open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to midnight.
WE BANH MEET AGAIN
I was initially intimidated by the disquieting lack of information conveyed by the name “Fusion Seafood.” I don’t much care for seafood, a fact I’m fully aware disqualifies me from food expertise in Louisiana, and its sign, mounted on the beige awning of a strip mall, didn’t give much hope for a restaurant that was more than a fryer in a poorly ventilated box. It’s not fusion if the only thing getting mixed is two different brands of Sysco-provided stir fries. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll gladly pay for frozen fried rice, marinate it in soy sauce and call it Chinese, but that doesn’t really pass muster for musings. Cast your anxieties aside, friends, this place is a trove of pan-Asian surprises.
When I saw a banh mi thit buried on the menu by a host of fried seafood platters I got nervous. The last banh mi shop in this location shut down after I wrote about it, so my presence in this place clearly imperiled it. I am a Greek tragedy. Everything I eat turns to failure. I beg you, gods of Olympus, to free me from this curse that I may be your bacchanal scribe without fear of collateral reprisal. At the very least, spare Fusion Seafood that it may serve to pleasure your divine palates.
Let me put it to you this way. I once walked through a horde of zombies outside a San Francisco methadone clinic to eat a banh mi, and I would gladly do the same to eat Fusion’s. The proper trick a banh mi plays is when the mayo cools the fresh jalapeño to the point that you weep only tears of joy. Banh mi trade iceberg and tomato for cilantro, cucumber, pickled vegetables and fried shrimp for Vietnamese cold cuts resulting in a poboy that’s actually not a gut bomb. Nutrition will do that to you.
Pro Tip: They have this thing on the menu called a potato tornado, a spiral-cut fried potato on a skewer that’s been dusted with powdered sugar. End transmission.
Fusion Seafood is located at 2829 Johnston Street in Lafayette. They’re open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.