A Merlin by any other name

by Anna Purdy

Creole Lunch House's Merline Herbert is a soul food wizard.

Creole Lunch House's Merline Herbert is a soul food wizard. By Anna Purdy

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

June 23, 1983, was the day Merline Herbert opened the doors to Creole Lunch House. Nearly three decades later her work has expanded to a processing plant where her famous stuffed breads are made for wholesalers, but you can still find her slinging red beans, mustard greens and lusciously baked, smothered or stuffed meats five days a week from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Photo by Robin May

Creole Lunch House was a dream borne of a schoolteacher's mind. "When I retired I had been principal of J. Wallace James Elementary," recalls Herbert, "so I like to keep the same hours. No working on weekends or holidays but I do have to work summers." Her restaurant is on the corner of St. Charles and 12th streets in one of Lafayette's oldest neighborhoods. The streets are wide and tidily kept, flecked with small shotgun houses on what is now considered generous helpings of lawn as they were built before people were choked in like packaging Styrofoam to fill towns to the brim. Most of the residents have been in this neighborhood for generations.

Creole Lunch House truly is a house. You walk into not a replication but the feel of an actual home - a TV purrs news or soap operas from one corner and a mixture of artwork and family photos give the singular diner much to read and think about. The delirious din of tiny children can be heard from the Immaculate Heart of Mary School diagonally from the porch, and on a balmy day like a Louisiana winter, fall or spring the open doors and the full belly with the sounds of life make the whole experience feel like heaven.

The corn bread mix is now sold for a dollar a bag at the counter, and a piece comes with every plate lunch. Break it apart and it falls away into tender pieces of sunlit bread, arguably some of the best. Even if you know how to make it, buy the mix as a gift for the not as fortunate.

Every day Creole Lunch House offers red beans and rice along with several other choices like stuffed pork chops, barbecue ribs, fricassee and more. Today we chose the red beans and rice and the chicken fricassee with sides of mustard greens and green beans. Beautifully flecked with bright green parsley, good rice is no joke and it's not as easy as throwing grain in a rice cooker and letting the water and pressure have at it - the rice married perfectly with the fricassee gravy, and a whole plate later it was all gone.

When you order the fricassee you get a choice between white and dark meat. Being my mother's child I chose the dark meat and got a thigh so huge the chicken must have wrestled professionally before meeting its maker. The only way to eat something like this is to eschew utensils in favor of your hands. Don't worry, no one judges you at Creole Lunch House.

You'll notice there is no salt or pepper - only hot sauces on the table here. This should be your first clue not to entertain those of weak taste buds. The greens exploded with the flavor of the pork it was cooked with and the cayenne generously added. These, too, maintain a bright green color that proves they haven't been cooked so long as to lose texture, color, flavor and nutrients. Mustard greens are truly indigenous to the Southern cuisine, and if you have a visitor from the North who wants to try this mysterious dish, look no further than Miss Merline's kitchen.

What you can't find anywhere else is Merline Herbert. Whether a customer is at the drive-thru or walking in, she greets you with the calm happiness of someone who feels confident in who they are - and what they bring to the table. Visit her for lunch Monday-Friday or call 232-9929 to order ahead.