A Meal at Alzina's
The Bayou Mama of Lafourche Parish is Cajun cuisine's best-kept secret. Reservations required—if you can get one
In southeastern Louisiana, in a windowless restaurant that was once a welding shop, a diner has left a fervent message for the proprietor, scribbled in the guest book: “God loves Alzina!” The writer may be in a special position to know. After all, Alzina Toups, who attends mass just across Bayou Lafourche at St. Joseph Catholic Church, has cooked for countless priests, nuns, and bishops over the past thirty-five years. Then again, maybe the note’s author just figured that anybody who makes such a heavenly black-eyed pea jambalaya has got to be blessed.
Regardless, many in the oil-and-fishing town of Galliano would most likely agree, because they’ve eaten Alzina’s Cajun food, bought one of her cookbooks, or heard stories about her amaretto yams. Culinary pilgrims from Brooklyn and France have sat at her table. Yet even among eaters an hour and a half north in New Orleans, Alzina’s Kitchen remains relatively unknown.
Of course, the place is hard to find. The blue letters that once spelled “Alzina’s” have crumbled almost completely off the metal building that houses the restaurant, located on a residential street. There’s no menu on the door, no posted hours. The only signs that food might be ahead are a rusting Ford pickup truck with thyme and garlic chives growing in its bed, and patches of parsley sprouting between cracks in the concrete. She refuses to advertise and cooks only for groups of six or more who reserve at least two weeks in advance.
Inside, Alzina has erased the boundaries between kitchen and dining room, chef and patrons. Customers eat family-style at two long communal tables beneath images of the Virgin Mary and framed menus of grand meals past, and they share the same fluorescent-lit room as sink, stove, and oven. The proximity has inspired diners to volunteer for dish duty after meals. Regulars—and there are many—send cards and letters. One group of bankers ate dinner at Alzina’s once a week for thirty-three years.
“All my people who come here, even the first time, they make themselves at home,” Alzina says in her kitchen on the first day of spring. She’s standing behind pots of slow-cooking green beans and a simmering red sauce that will be served with Gulf shrimp as part of a seven-course lunch. “See this tomato sauce?” she says, offering a spoonful. “It’s perfect. And I don’t put any salt in there because I salt my shrimp. Taste that. It’s good?”
C’est bon, as they say around here—uncomplicated, fresh, and bright—and Cajun in spirit and detail. “Not like in New Orleans,” Alzina says. “In New Orleans, it’s Creole. They use a heavy roux for their gumbo; we don’t use a heavy roux. They use bay leaves in their cabbage; we don’t do that.”