Off the Menu

by Mary Tutwiler

An insider's guide to sub rosa dining Everybody loves insider information: Hot stock tips, which horse is feeling his oats in the third race, when the price of oil is about to gush. It's no different in a restaurant. A recommendation from a regular waiter that there's only one order of fresh pompano left or a soupçon of oysters Rockefeller sent out to your table as a gift from the chef make you the envy of dining room. One way around the intricacies of ordering is knowing about those special dishes, never listed on the menu, but available if you know what to ask for. We've been chowing down a lot lately, as well as chatting with chefs and restaurant regulars about those little gems you'll never taste unless you know to ask. Here's a list of our top pics, and we're just salivating, thinking about what you, dear eater, can add to the list. You can post your faves at

Pho Sho
Come blustery weather, some need their gumbo, some their pho. If you've never had it, pho, the unofficial dish of north Vietnam, is a rich beef noodle soup, spiked with hot hot hot chili sauce, sweet hoisin, n??c m?m (Vietnamese fish sauce), fresh mung bean sprouts, shreds of fresh basil and cilantro, and slices of fresh chili pepper, if you can take the heat. The broth is part nutritional, part medicinal; I'm absolutely sure it cures the common cold. I found a terrific version of pho at Lotus Gardens, which for the most part is known for its huge Chinese buffet and Mongolian grill. But dig a little deeper. While no pho appears on the large menu, there's a sign taped to the cash register that says "beef noodle soup." Ah ha! Ask your waitress for pho, which also comes in a chicken version, or you can combine beef, chicken and shrimp. A single order, under $10, will easily feed two hungry people. Lotus Gardens, 2865 Ambassador Caffery, Lafayette, 981-0288

It was a dark and stormy night...
But rest assured, Luke Tullos is at the helm. Tullos, former manager of Pamplona and bartender par excellence, has returned from a sojourn in Austin to take up the siphon and shaker. He's back at Pamplona, mixing up a drinks menu that will focus on pre-Prohibition cocktails. I don't think this drink dates back to the roaring 20s, it probably was slugged down by Caribbean pirates in the days of Jack Sparrow. The Dark and Stormy is made by mixing dark rum with Jamaican ginger beer. While the preferred rum, Gosling's, can be found in liquor stores these days, you still have to make your own ginger beer (it's not really beer, it's a ginger-citrus soda). Thanks to Luke and his backbar alchemy, he's stirring up a masterly Dark and Stormy, which may be on the drinks menu someday, but for now, you've just got to pound on the bar and demand it, matey. Pamplona Tapas Bar, 631 Jefferson St, Lafayette,  232-0070

And for the morning after...
One Dark and Stormy too many? I don't know what you reach for when your head pounds and your stomach is at sea, but my all time favorite hangover breakfast is a hot tortilla filled with scrambled eggs laced with spicy Mexican chorizo. All that lovely greasy paprika-laced sausage settles down my tummy and lets me know I'll live, at least until noon. And to top it off, El Ranchito, where you have to ask in Spanish for huevos con chorizo, has a cooler full of Corona. Never hurts to flirt with the dog that bit you last night. El Ranchito, 415 Cameron St., Lafayette, 235-3297

Roll another number
There's probably a hundred different ways to stuff fish into a seaweed and rice roll. Over at Tsunami, they're working on 101. Sushi chef Michael Tran came up with a winner, his Transbestbite, a fave of cognoscente at the raw bar on Jefferson. Tran layers spicy minced tuna, cream cheese, asparagus, jalapeño, crab stick and shrimp tempura into a nori roll. The whole thing is lightly fried, and served with sea bass sauce. This is a big roll, crunchy, spicy and definitely different. Just to show off, Tran rolled another, this one built of cucumber, lump crabmeat, shrimp tempura, crabstick, asparagus, jalapeño and cilantro, wrapped in delicate soy paper. I liked it even better. The Transcendental? Transcontinental? Intransigent? He just shrugged. For the moment, it's the No Name roll. Tsunami, 412 Jefferson St., Lafayette, 234-3474

In an octopus' garden
I love a place where you walk in and nothing's on the menu. Well, yeah, The Italian Food Market does have a menu, but nobody who goes there regularly looks at it. The whole experience is about whatever appeals to owner/chef Maurizio Principato at the moment, so all you need is a reservation, a couple of bottles of wine if you like bringing your own, and a good appetite. Let Maurizio dream up your dinner. However, there is one item I love so much, I usually call Maurizio and ask him if he has any. It's fresh octopus salad, sharply citrusy with a lovely succulent chew to the tender tentacles. I wish he would put that on the menu, so I'd be assured of having it when I'm hungry. But alas, octopus, like everything at The Italian Food Market, is so off the menu, you just have to hit it on the right day, when Maurizio is in the mood. (Note: When we went to shoot a photo of the octopus salad, sure enough, there was none. Pictured here is veal ossobucco alla paesana, (country style). Not to worry, it's all good chez Maurizio.) The Italian Food Market Bistro and Delicatessen, 4416 Johnston St., Lafayette, 988-9969

Phares is known for its oysters - raw, charbroiled and fried. Actually I never get much further into the menu, after I've slurped down about three dozen raw oysters, I suddenly realize I'm really full and it's time to go home. But I've lately learned that the same great connection to oyster beds in Grand Isle is a fish connection as well. In the fall, when they can get them, Phares serves tripletail, a Gulf of Mexico game fish. It looks kind of like a grouper, but tastes better, with delicate buttery flesh that the cooks at Phares know to treat with simple care - a butter saute or quick broil, the better to bring out the flavor. Other off-the-menu fish, pompano and speckled trout, are worth asking about before you go whole hog on the oysters. Phares 3502 Ambassador Caffery Parkway, Lafayette, 504-3002

The sky is falling
Who goes to a Mexican restaurant to eat fried chicken? In 99 out of a 100 cases, I'd say the diner was skeered to head into enchilada territory. But Lafayette's most beloved Tex-Mex hacienda has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, even if you haven't downed one too many margaritas while waiting for the table. An order of fried chicken comes in one size, large. It's half a chicken, four pieces of extra crispy chicken, cooked to order, with a salad and fried potatoes you'll never get to. The chicken is that good. La Fonda, 3809 Johnston St., Lafayette, 984-5630

Crab shak
I love fried softshell crabs, and there are some great ones at imonelli, but when the big boys are coming in from Vermilion Bay, spanking fresh, the simplest way to get the full flavor is a pan sautee. Fortunately, Chef Wayne Jean is knowledgeable and willing to bend to special requests. There are some nice creamy sauces, but again, look to the light side, ask for a lemon or wine butter sauce. Nothing sets a fresh softshell off better, except maybe a soupcon of lump crabmeat on top. Blue crab paradise. imonelli, 4017 Johnston St., Lafayette, 989-9291