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J. Gumbo’s: Doing that Voodoo they do so well

By Jennifer Christman

This article was published August 22, 2013 at 3:49 a.m.

a-mix-and-match-of-crawfish-etouffee-and-red-beans-rice-is-served-at-j-gumbos-in-little-rock

A mix-and-match of Crawfish Etouffee and Red Beans & Rice is served at J. Gumbo’s in Little Rock.

J. Gumbo's

J. Gumbo's at 12911 Cantrell Road in Little Rock proves Big Easy and fast casual can go together rat...

Can the Big Easy and fast casual go together?

We wondered this as we opened the door to J. Gumbo’s, a chain quickie counter operation with a new location in a west Little Rock strip center (the same one that houses I.O. Metro and other fast-bite outlets of Tropical Smoothie Cafe and Larry’s Pizza).

It seemed promising as we were greeted by bluesy sounds, appetizing smells and a bargain menu board (nothing over $8.25).

While there are some 20 selections on the menu, there are two main choices to make: “Bowl or bread?” And “How spicy?”

Many of the dishes on the menu board (arranged into five categories: Appetizers; Sweet & Mild; Medium Zesty; Hot & Spicy; and Po’ Boys) feature the same slow-cooked stews served in different ways. The Voodoo Chicken, for example, which earns a three-hot-sauce-bottle heat rating on the carryout menu, can be served in a bowl over rice ($7) or in a po’ boy ($7.25) or as Voodoo Nacho Dip ($6.75) with tortilla chips, cheese and jalapenos.

Our first visit was a Friday evening with only a handful of other customers present (conclusion: J. Gumbo’s is more of a swift lunch or weekday dinner place than a date-night place; still, we’d not hesitate to stop in before a movie).

We didn’t know quite what we wanted, and a helpful worker offered several samples to test our pepper tolerance. After scoring high on the test, we selected two of the hottest selections - the Jean Lafitte Po’ Boy ($8.25, featuring that aforementioned Voodoo Chicken) and the Chicken Red Hot bowl ($7). Ooh, but then I saw you could upgrade with the mix and-match option ($1 to add a second entree to a bowl, $2 for a third), and requested Gumbo (a Medium Zesty option, usually $6.50). When I expressed concern that the textures might not work together, Helpful Worker graciously served them in separate bowls, each with rice.

For an appetizer, we ordered the Crawfish Cheese Dip ($6.50), although, as we ordered everything at the same time, it was more of a side dish. After our dishes were ladled out, we were offered sour cream, cheese and green onions.

We signed the credit card receipt (no space for a tip), selected a booth (with regular tables and stool seating also available) and transported our food to the table. After the meal, we bussed our table, noticing that seemed to be the norm.

We should have read the menu more closely. We envisioned the Crawfish Cheese Dip as a full-fledged cheese dip with crawfish in it. Instead, it was - as the menu stated but we didn’t grasp - “our Crawfish Etouffee blended with dark red chili powder, cheddar cheese and served with tortilla chips ” (though it was more “sprinkled with” than it was actually “blended”). The result lacked flavor and flair, requiring us to experiment with the Louisiana, Tabasco and J. Gumbo’s hot sauces on the table.

But no matter, we had our meals right there, and there was nothing bland about them.

The habit-forming shredded Chicken Red Hot packed serious heat with a tangy sauce described as Cajun buffalo (we suggest adding a dollop of cooling sour cream). Perhaps my overwhelmed tongue couldn’t quite appreciate the dark, soupy gumbo, which seemed a bit boring by comparison, especially once the few andouille sausage coins had been snagged out (we didn’t detect much chicken). The meal was served with a hunk of bread.

Named for a French pirate and big enough to sink a ship, the Jean Lafitte Po’ Boy ($8.25) was a beast of French bread stuffed with spirited Voodoo Chicken and then a scoop of vegetarian Bumblebee Stew (corn, stewed tomatoes, onions and black beans in a “creamy sweet and spicy butter sauce”). And then - because my companion has the Man vs. Food gene - sour cream and cheese too. Somehow he managed to eat it, all of it, with his hands, and not the fork and knife provided.And somehow he managed to not get anything on his shirt. (He did take home a bag of Zapp’s chips, which come with all sandwiches.) I cringe at soggy sandwiches, so no J. Gumbo’s Po’ Boys (all made with various chicken stews)for this girl.

A friend joined me for lunch on a busier weekday. We got bowls served with bread: Voodoo Chicken (because no one can get enough of that at J. Gumbo’s) for her and a mix-and-match Red Beans and Rice and Crawfish Etouffee for me (served in one bowl this time).

Spooned over fluffy, not clumpy rice, the Voodoo was described by my friend as tasting “like it had simmered in the pot all day until the flavors blossomed and the chicken melted in my mouth. Just enough heat to coax a sweat, but not enough to require a beer, which was a good thing because I don’t think my boss would have liked that. A spicy red sauce with no discernible chunks of anything except chicken.”

As for my bowl, the Crawfish Etouffee side was a bit light on shellfish and needed help from some sauce and salt(or maybe a bottle of Abita or one of the other brews in the cooler behind the counter - but alas, it was a work day and my boss wouldn’t have liked that either), but the robust Red Beans & Rice was just right, with the exception of several stray bay leaves.

In conclusion, yes, Big Easy and fast casual can go together. Rather nicely.

But can Jambalaya, Bourbon Street Chicken and Drunken Chicken go together? Or how about White Chili, Shrimp Etouffee and Creole Ratatouille?

We’ll mix and match and report back.

J. Gumbo’s is hosting a Grand Opening party today, 6:30-9 p.m., featuring jazz from Rodney Block and food and drink specials. Admission is free.

J. Gumbo’s Address: 12911 Cantrell Road, Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Fast-casual New Orleans fare Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Alcoholic beverages: Bottled beer, wine Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 916-9635 jgumbos.com

Weekend, Pages 38 on 08/22/2013

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