It's a long haul to Mardi Gras in New Orleans but what a once-a-year party they throw down there - and they'll do it again Tuesday. On a more local, less Dixielandish note, our King Lincoln District is home to a zippy little joint which marches to the beat of Mardi Gras six days a week.
If you're nodding and smiling now - and shaking a figurative tail feather - then you know I'm singing the praises of the remarkable Creole Kitchen, a tiny Columbus treasure.
Under the expert supervision of Chef Henry Butcher - bayou born and bred but working the stoves of Columbus for three decades now - this to-go-only no-seater turns out a terrific full menu of authentic swamp cuisine that could have a gator weeping with nostalgia - and the thought that a long-tailed family member might be getting fried up for dinner.
That's right, Creole Kitchen - specializing in huge portions, huge flavors yet jarringly low prices - serves alligator. Fear not, though, if gator ain't your cup of gumbo, because there's tons of other down-home zesty grub here that would please even the land-lubbinest Yankee sodbuster.
I mean, who wouldn't love the jumbo-sized and jammin' Chicken and Andouille Jambalaya ($8)? Bulging out of its overburdened large Styrofoam box, Creole Kitchen's Louisiana-style paella was a steamboat-load of rice densely populated with plump chunks of tender white-meat chicken, seared smoky and spicy andouille sausage, green peppers, onions, celery and plenty of stewed tomatoes. The panoply of symbiotic flavors was thoroughly distributed throughout the lively rice, which was neither sticky-dry nor overly soupy - it was moist and just right.
So was the excellent Oyster Po' Boy ($6). Unlike many lesser versions, its slightly sweet, slightly salty, succulent cornmeal-dusted fried mollusk blobs actually blanketed the soft, toasted hoagie bun and thus weren't overwhelmed by bread, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle or the banana peppers on the sandwich (you apply your own yellow and rich tartar sauce and packeted hot sauce).
I had serious doubts about short-order pasta to go - until I savored my first peppery and velvety bites of Creole Fettuccini ($8). Its vast parade of long and wide noodles were surprisingly al dente, drenched in a supremely lush cream sauce and delivered richness relief via a festive Crescent City spice mix. Interspersed throughout were salty fat chunks of addictive tasso ham and that killer andouille.
Crawfish etouffee ($10) was dozens of meaty little mudbugs - which eat like earthy langoustines - in a brown, viscous, roux-built sauce that tasted like it was hopped up on ketchup.
Seafood Gumbo ($4) was a loose, dark broth rife with chunks of the New Orleans holy trinity (celery, onions and green pepper) plus hacked-up knobby okra, some shrimp and fake crab. It came with a ladle of rice which I'd request on the side next time.
Like many mains here, it also arrived with two sides, which likewise scored high - try the wonderful dirty rice, refried-like red beans and rice, green beans or rough-cut, sweet, creamy-yet-vinegary cole slaw.
Hefty homey sides also grace Creole Kitchen's deservedly popular breakfast fixins (served till 10:30 a.m., 11 on busy Saturdays). So I got a trough of terrific grits with my crazy-good Creole Omelet ($5 - big as a football, and busting out with tasso, andouille, jack cheese, tomatoes and onion), and a veritable sack of spuds (ungreasy, peppery home fries) with my equally lusty, equally delicious Creole Eggs Benedict ($5 - two poachers with a lemony if loose Hollandaise, over generous slices of seared tasso atop warm biscuits).
Creole Kitchen is the kind of place where I always go with a breakfast dessert, and the cakey superb two-bite beignets (New Orleans doughnuts - 4 for $2) were covered with powdered sugar and made and eaten with love.
So get your wild tchoupitoulas down to Creole Kitchen soon and often, because Mardi Gras is too much fun to have only once a year. Lassaiz les bons temps rouler toujours!