The last word in Cajun ... or creole
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Cooking styles have their seasons, just as nature does, and lately there has been a delicate springtime for restaurants serving Louisiana-style food. By this I mean Cajun and creole, a pair of slippery terms that are almost always mentioned together but, despite an implication of fungibility, don't mean quite the same thing. Cajuns were French speakers who in the 18th century left northeastern Canada and drifted down the Mississippi Valley to the bayou country south and west of New Orleans, where they established a rural and isolated culture that persists to this day. Creoles, by contrast, were citified types who traced their origins directly to Europe; New Orleans was their capital and remains their symbol.
These distinctions, fiercely policed by the interested parties, carry a diminished and blurred charge here in our polyglot land of blurred distinctions. If you see crawfish étouffée (a classic Cajun dish) on a menu, you're likely to see jambalaya and gumbo too, with beignets (the sophisticated little holeless doughnuts) for dessert. And where would you be looking at such menus? Possibly at such old-timers as Cajun Pacific or the Elite Café, or at such newcomers as Farmerbrown and Brenda's, whose openings have helped fill the void left by the departures some years ago of Jessie's (on Folsom Street) and Alcatraces (on 24th Street).
Amid all of these comings and goings and endurings, the question of convincingness has never quite dissipated. A friend with Cajun roots scoffs at the Bay Area's Louisiana-style restaurants, but it's likely he hasn't yet been to Nickie's, which serves a jambalaya (among other Cajun-tilting treats) that can fairly be described as incendiary, in not the likeliest setting: a remade pub with sports-bar overtones on one of the sketchier blocks of lower Haight Street.
Haight east of Divisadero these days bears some resemblance to the Valencia Street of 15 years ago. The sense of stratification is vertiginous; at the corner of Steiner stands RNM, a clubby restaurant of voluptuous urbanity, but take a few steps east and you are passing badly lit Laundromats, a "low cost" butcher shop, and the occasional pedestrian mumbling soliloquies to a shopping cart in the middle of the street. Then you see a large N glowing green in the night, and you step inside and order a Stella Artois on tap Nickie's offers 13 varieties of draft beer, plus pear cider, beer in bottles, and mixed drinks and wine while scanning several flat-panel windows into the wide world of sports. And you are hungry.
There is no connection I know of between sports bars and Cajun-creole food, but a pub is a pub and should have at least some pub food, sports screens or no, and Nickie's does. If fish-and-chips is the staple dish of English pubs, then the burger has to be the staple of ours. Nickie's version ($11) is a triple threat: a troika of little burgers on little egg-washed buns, each with a different topping. The avocado and cheddar edition didn't quite work for me (clash of creamy yet assertive personalities), but Swiss cheese went well enough with mushroom, and the blue cheeseandbacon combination was intense.
As for the accompanying fries: they were good with ketchup but even better dipped into the spicy aioli left over from our rapid devouring of the shrimp cakes ($8), lightly crisped like any good fritter and insinuatingly lumpy with crustacean meat. You can get coleslaw instead of fries, but really, who has a burger let alone three burgers with slaw instead of fries? And what would you do then with your leftover aioli? Stick your finger in it? Who, me?
We'd ordered mac and cheese ($6.50) as a sort of shareable starter, and it might have held its own if it had appeared as the opening act, ahead of the jambalaya. Instead it turned up in the same armful of plates as that formidable dish and ended up being overwhelmed by it. (Service is attentive enough, if not exactly polished.) But there was no dishonor here, since the jambalaya ($10) left us gasping with pleasure. The dish was studded with peeled shrimp and knuckles of seriously spicy andouille sausage, and the low volcano of rice, cooked with tomatoes and green bell peppers, had been infused with enough cayenne to be spicy-hot in its own right.
In keeping with the complex, squabbling-siblings narrative of Cajun and creole, there are Cajun and creole interpretations of jambalaya. The latter (and perhaps the original) kind includes tomatoes and is accordingly reddish, while the former is tomatoless and acquires its brown color from the initial searing of meat in the pan. Either way, jambalaya is a New World descendant of paella and, like its close relation gumbo (a child of bouillabaisse), reflects the complex play of influences French, Spanish, Caribbean, African that produced the well-seasoned cultural stew of New Orleans and South Louisiana.
I would add Irish to that list if there were (but there isn't) any historical warrant for doing so, since Nickie's feels somehow Irish, and to be served excellent Cajun and creole food, along with a foamy glass of draft Guinness, by a server with an Irish accent in a pub on Haight Street in San Francisco is one of life's delightful little paradoxes. Paradox is the spice of life let's get that into our book of quotations, truisms, aphorisms for all occasions, and words to live by. *
Mon.Fri., 4 p.m.2 a.m.; Sat.Sun., noon2 a.m.
466 Haight, SF