A Long-Overdue Visit to Bayou Bakery

A few months back a friend of mine introduced me, in passing, to Bayou Bakery at Courthouse in Arlington. We popped in for a few breakfast beignets and returned later the same day for a crawfish cookout and some NOLA-style Creamsickle flavored sno-balls on a hot summer day. Despite my very narrow perspective on the place, I had a great first impression and immediately made it a point to return for a more representative sampling of the menu. Since that day, I’ve heard Chef David Guas’s name mentioned countless times around town, always in a neutral or positive context, never in a negative one. Best breakfast biscuit sandwiches, funkiest brunch cocktails, a good thing about living or working in Northern Virginia (apparently, there aren’t too many of those…) He’s appeared on Chopped!, his book has been nominated for a James Beard, he’s been named Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef in the Country for 2011 and 2012. He’s one of the only people in the Metro DC Area who makes King Cake, horrible little choking hazard plastic baby and all…

It had been killing me not to have tried his award-winning Muff-a-lotta or Cuban-roots inspired coffee creations. My friend Sarah met and interviewed him not long ago for an article she wrote about Bayou Bakery for Kesta Happening (page 19) and raved about the food and how knowledgable he was about the cuisines represented. This past week I got off my rump, jumped on the orange and headed out to Courthouse to meet him and try some of his signatures. He turned out to be a cool guy and a real one, an encyclopedia when it came to bread, dairy and meat sourcing, authentically passionate about what he does. He remains a loyal ally to his producer partners, serving only Abita beer and root beer (from Louisiana) and offering only Crystal Hot Sauce (also from Louisiana) to slap on them eggs. Seemingly easy-going about a lot of stuff, he plants his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to things like not buying fresh tomatoes out of season and not making people espressos to go. Why? Because those things are ridiculous and he’s not willing to yield to customers when they’re flat out wrong about what they (think they) want. It’s perhaps why he’s gotten to the point he’s at now and it’s hard not to respect him for it.

On to what I had from the lunch-time menu..

13There’s some pretty snazzy stuff on the Shareable Snacks and Sides list, little things that go well with an Abita beer and conversation, or with a coffee and a book. I tried the Hot Nuts, which usually come in a little glass Mason jar. Big, juicy Virginia peanuts are shelled and shallow fried in luscious bacon fat, then coated in Creole seasoning. They’re served toasty warm, which tells me they’re fried to order, which also means they are crunchy and mighty rich, but not greasy or heavy on the belly. Virginia peanuts really are quite wonderful in that they’re huge, but still concentrated in flavor and not watered down in nuttiness. They toast (or in this case, fry) beautifully, turning a golden brown color. They’re also quite the buxom canvas for Bayou Bakery’s Creole spice blend, which is salty and hot and even a bit tart in flavor. Definitely didn’t mind licking the stuff off my fingers. Should be perfect with a fizzy brew.

1112Before I move on to the next tasty snack, I must admit that before this day I had no clue what Pimento cheese actually was. This became pretty obvious to both myself and, I think, Chef Guas when I asked him what the spread had in it “besides this sun-dried tomato” and he, with a rather confused expression, answered “no, that’s the pepper.” The pepper? I thought “pimento” sounded similar to “pimiento” which in Spanish means red pepper, but I didn’t know it actually refers to those sweet little cherry peppers I’ve seen only at Italian sub shops in pickled and/or stuffed form. I learned that these pretty much form the base of flavor when it comes to Pimento cheese, hailed as the “caviar of the South.” There was no smirk or irony on Chef David’s face as he explained the preparation process of this humble spread. But then again, why would there be? Just because some make it with neon orange processed Velveeta does not mean it is characteristically lowbrow or sloppy. This version reminded me of körözött, a spread made with quark cheese, paprika and onion, which is especially popular in Hungary and which was a staple snack throughout my own childhood. Bayou Bakery’s Pimento cheese is made with quality New York sharp cheddar which is finely grated and blended for flavor but then added again, this time not-so-finely grated in order to achieve a slightly chunky-lumpy texture. There is also freshly roasted and chopped pimento peppers as well as diced Vidalia onions held together with cream cheese and a touch of mayonnaise, flavored with salt, pepper and cayenne. The end result is a spread with fine lumps, a combination of sharp, nutty flavors from the cheese, sweetness from the onion, smokiness from the pepper and just enough heat from the cayenne. It is served as a spread with Triscuits, the perfect midday snack, and is also made into a Grilled Pimento Cheese with buttered Texas toast. Guas explained how the unique chemistry of the spread (the heat conduction of cream cheese, I guess) affects the texture of their grilled cheese, which has melted, warm Pimento cheese towards the crust but is cold and solid in the middle. Ain’t nothing wrong with a little temperature and texture contrast, as far as I am concerned, but nice of Guas to warn grilled cheese traditionalists.

141716To get a good sense of the menu, I opted for a cup of Gumbo, which at Bayou Bakery is made with tender bits of white meat chicken and slices of wonderful pillowy andouille sausage. It’s served over rather long-grained white rice. Just from the color and consistency of the broth I already knew it was going to be immensely comforting. A velvety smooth blanket of warm stew, deep maroon against the bright white rice and green scallion. Specks of black pepper dotted the surface, promising smoky heat. Despite trying to pace myself, I couldn’t help finishing the entire cup and had no regrets when I did. The broth was thick, with the roux toasted and perfectly blended in. It had only a very slight slippery texture, which hinted at okra being incorporated, but it wasn’t slimy as some non-pro gumbos I’ve had in the past. Both types of meat were unbelievably tender. The lumps of chicken resembled butter-poached fish in consistency and I really don’t think I’ve had andouille softer, looser and more delicate than the stuff chopped into this stew. I think I remember Guas saying he sources the sausage from Jamie at Stachowski’s over in Georgetown, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite spots for tube-shaped meats and rillettes de lapin (yes, bunny-rabbit) in the city. The proportion of gumbo to rice was also awesome. The bite stayed wet, with the rice incorporated as an ingredient of the stew more so than becoming the base to pour it over.

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4Grab a heap of napkins, roll up your sleeve and get an Arm Drip sandwich. Just do it. If you’re a vegetarian, I guess you may be pardoned; but if not, this one is an absolute must-try on a cold winter day. Why? Because it does that thing that what, in my opinion, are the most valuable types of comfort food do: it gives you a warm hug or, better put, slobbers messy, yummy, crazy love all over your lips. A crusty and crunchy, yet wonderfully light po’ boy loaf is toasted, split and filled with tender slices of grass-fed, local, top round roasted til moist. A thick, salty gravy is poured all over, raising the sandwich to a plateau of messy decadence. Swiss cheese is melted on, contributing a funk, a crunch, a snap on the exterior and additional ooey-gooey texture in the center of the sandwich. There are also buttered Vidalia onions in there for some sweetness, and mayo (all po’ boys need to have mayo) smeared on as well. Beyond the earthy flavor of the meat, this sandwich showcases Guas’s mastery of textural harmony. The bread stays crunchy literally for the amount of time it takes to eat the sandwich (always in house, NEVER to go!) The soft interior yields gradually to the gravy and becomes moist and then soggy as one gets deeper into the sandwich. The meat stays in hearty lumps until bitten into, then flakes apart into juicy, moist fibers that are almost unnecessary to chew. And the gravy is really just enough to pack it with moisture and add a salty kick without overburdening the meat. It’s thick but not starchy or slimy, rich like the stuff mom pours over mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. Pretty damn impressed by the quality of the bread, I asked Guas about where he managed to find something like it and he explained how he decided to stop using the go-to Louisiana style po’ boy bread sold all around the country, because it got to be too expensive for something not baked fresh daily. He goes instead directly to some bread company out in Fall’s Church which makes it for him fresh. Definitely worth it, as this sandwich is truly something special. A warm, moist, juicy bite of gravy-slathered beef supported but not overpowered by the crunch and carb of the bread.

Delving into the influence behind the Arm Drip, Guas explained that it is modeled after a sandwich called the Red Man, which he grew up eating at a deli named Charlie’s in Lakeview. Unlike other sandwiches which Louisianians typically get “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato and onions), the Red Man only came in the nude. In fact, proprietor Ms. Sharon refused to sell it dressed. As Chef Guas told this story, he raised and eyebrow and seemed transported back to a time where he was first told that no, his roast beef po’ boy will not be dressed. That sense of “but why the heck not?” and a curiosity that might have eventually turned him into a chef was kept very much in tact in his expression. There was a place called Charlie’s. They had a thing called the Red Man. And it never came dressed. Why? Because it’s not supposed to be. But you want it dressed? Well, that’s too bad.

Though Charlie’s unfortunately fell victim to Katrina, the Red Man survives. It is reborn as the Arm’s Drip at Bayou Bakery. And no, it’s not dressed.

810And finally, Bayou Bakery’s perhaps most significant claim to fame, the Muff-a-lotta (they know it’s misspelled). A very approachable, dense little sandwich with a trio of deli meats (salami, mortadella, smoked ham), and some aged provolone layered between two slices of doughy Sicilian sesame seed bread, each smeared with a house-made olive salad. This guy has been written up more times than Bender from the Breakfast Club. It’s been named one of the best sandwiches in the world by Food & Wine and by The Washingtonian and it’s been the mentioned in pretty much every article ever written about Bayou Bakery (and there are quite a lot…Huffington Post, Refinery29…). Modeled after the original version at Central Grocery, which is where Guas (among many other New Orleansians) claims it was initially invented by Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Lupo over 120 years ago, it contains the same set up of core ingredients. Two major differences, however, are the approachable size (Bayou Bakery’s muff is way smaller than Central Grocery’s ginormous version) and the temperature of the sandwich. Chef David’s Muff-a-Lotta is heated up a bit to allow the sesame seeds to toast, the provolone to melt and the juices trickling down from the three different deli meats to fuse together in a mad embrace. The meats work perfectly together, each one bringing something unique to the table. The salami brings a heat, the funk of its cure and a chewy texture. Mortadella brings a creamy, buttery luxuriousness and serves as a binder for the more outspoken salami and ham. Smoked ham bring a char, porky sweetness and tenderness, providing most of the texture for the tri-meat filling. Warming up the bread, I think, also brings out the flavor of the many ingredients making up the olive salad – at least two types of olive, along with carrot, oregano, red wine vinegar, garlic and onion. It’s tangy, acidic and complex. It’s fresh and tart enough to uppercut the grease of the meats and to balance out each bite. As I got to it, Chef David explained that even those who normally don’t care for olives appreciate the salad, as it cleans the flavors of the sandwich up a bit. My impression of the Muff-a-lotta was that each bite is pretty much the same (it’s a very consistent sandwich in terms of layers), but that each of those identical bites have varying stages of flavor and texture, making it an exciting experience to eat – biting through the dense bread (somewhere between a toasted bagel and focaccia in texture) to arrive at the tender layer of meaty filling, then continuing on to the tangy, moist olive spread on the bottom and finishing off with more crisp, nutty sesame bread. A complete and very satisfying sensory journey indeed.

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When I mentioned wanting to try one of their coffee offerings, Guas popped right back behind the espresso machine and personally made a perfect Cortado himself. I found this very impressive, especially considering that Bayou Bakery has a Coffee & Tea Director (Kyle Poole), who is specifically in charge of sending soon-to-be baristas off to Counter Culture Coffee training centers and making sure a standard is met with every espresso drink sold. It seems that the efficiency of delegating responsibility behind the counter does not come at the expense of Chef Guas himself not knowing how to whip up a latte. The Cortado, again, was perfect. It was a Spicy Mexican Chocolate Cortado, served lukewarm, and made with Counter Culture Coffee, bittersweet chocolate imported from France, and a syrup of cinnamon, cayenne and chipotle for heat. The milk used to create the unbelievably thick but frothy, light and smooth as a baby’s butt foam is from Trickling Springs Creamery in Pennsylvania, purchased straight from those who know dairy the best, the Amish. According to Guas, the milk noticeably changes texture with each season, as the Jersey cows producing it switch from an alfalfa diet to a dry one during the winter. This makes the milk slightly easier to froth in the summertime, as the milk is denser with globules of fat in summer months. Whatever those cows were eating to make the stuff in my Cortado, I’m okay with it. The milk was fantastically silky and expertly incorporated in with the espresso, chocolate and spices. What I liked most was the surprise glob of frothed milk creepin’ around right below the espresso, breaking forth after I had downed the shot. And that glob was wonderfully intentional. I don’t think I’ve ever learned more about what happens (and how and why) between espresso and milk than during the conversation following my first sip of that Cortado. It was the perfect little parting gift and a great ending to my meal.

I had great expectations for Bayou Bakery and they were all met and exceeded. Downhome Southern, NOLA-specific and Cuban heritage cuisines peacefully coexist on the menu without being forcibly fused together. Messy classics are cleaned up but not modified. Traditional preparations are taken seriously and carried out with meticulous precision, especially in terms of where the ingredients are sourced from and how their full potential can be showcased. Everything has an air of authenticity about it but nothing apologizes for being buttery, juicy and delicious. There’s not that pathetic, repulsive and guilty Paula Deen grin cast over any of the dishes that are meant to comfort and please rather than make the eater feel fresh and thin. There’s only pride at a dish well made, at a latte well-poured, at “funkified” Southern cuisine expertly introduced to a lucky Arlington clientele.

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