Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
It should be said before we get started that this writer lived in Lafayette, La., for two years awhile back, so I know a little bit about Cajun food beyond spicy fried crawfish tails at Popeye's chicken and King Cakes from Kroger's at Mardi Gras. That doesn't make me an expert by a long shot, but it does mean I think I know what real-deal Cajun food is supposed to taste like. I've bought and devoured gumbo from cracked bowls in clapboard shacks that look like they were about to keel right over, and eaten crawfish off newspaper in little dives so far back in the sticks that I couldn't understand a single word any person within arm's reach was saying. For a foodie who loves seeking out the local joints the tourists never hear about, two years in Cajun Country was a beautiful thing.
But enough of my dissertation on theoretical Cajun food. Let's talk about the real thing. Driving back from an assignment the other day, your friendly reviewer noticed Cayenne's Cajun Cuisine. Located in a strip mall just north of the airbase exit off 67/167 in Jacksonville (don't blow past it on the freeway, or you'll have to drive to Cabot to turn around), it's the kind of place you'll miss if you blink. A few days after we noticed it, some relatives tried it out and pronounced it good. While relative-endorsements are always a little iffy for us, we decided that was enough to try it ourselves.
Inside, Cayenne's is spanking-new clean and purty. Though they have a full menu (featuring stuff like burgers and po-boys), a lot of the stuff on it is also on their good-sized Cajun buffet ($9.99 for lunch, $15 for dinner) so we tried that. Though we have soured quite a bit on steam table dining as the years have worn on — quantity over quality in most cases we've found — this one sure looked good. One table was devoted to bowl stuff: two kinds of gumbo, shrimp Creole, dirty rice, Jambalaya, etoufee and the like. Another was all about the fried goods: catfish, fried shrimp tails, fried alligator, stuffed crab shells and frog legs, but also stuff like veggies, peel-and-eat shrimp, boudin sausage, two kinds of cobbler and more. They've also got a salad bar, but if my father taught me anything about buffet dining it's dodge the rabbit food and go for the expensive stuff. Heeding that advice, I took a Herculean sampling of goodies and headed back to our table.
The fried stuff was, on balance, good. Though it could have stood a bit more spicy zing for our taste, the catfish was fleshy and flaky, with a nice breading. Same went for the especially good popcorn shrimp and stuffed crab; the latter of which were large and packed with a meaty filling. The best thing about everything was that none of it appeared to have come frozen from a plastic bag in a freezer somewhere. Though I might be wrong, everything appeared to be scratch made, and the idea that somebody got their hands in flour or batter while preparing the fried foods anywhere always gets a thumbs up from me. The peel-and-eat shrimp were similarly good, with a hint of spice and a buttery texture (they serve them warm, which was a pleasant change from the served-on-ice delivery of most places). Also good: the frog legs (big and meaty, with a crispy peppered breading); a very good grilled sausage, bell pepper and onion mix, and the boudin. Too, while I know it's weird to brag on condiments, I really enjoyed their very thick and spicy cocktail and tartar sauces, which I suspect were made in-house.
Moving on to the bowled end of things, I wasn't as impressed. Though the gumbos were hearty and meaty, they seemed a bit too salty for my taste (though, to be fair, I always thought the gumbos down in LaLa Land were a bit too salty as well). However, a spoonful or two of the dirty rice, etoufee and shrimp creole found them to be tasty. We finished things off with the apple cobbler, which was steaming hot and full of sweet goodness, lacking only a dollop of ice cream on the side to be complete.
Doing Cajun food outside of Louisiana can be hard, just because South Louisiana — up until maybe 75 years ago — was The Land that Food Forgot, with cooks there having developed their own ingredients, spices and techniques. Because of that, Cajun food is really more like ethnic food, and your average diner — weaned on a diet of Cajun-means-hot and gumbo-means-okra thinking by too much bad Cajun grub — can find the real deal a little jarring. All that said, I hope Cayenne's catches on and makes it. With good variety, very friendly service and some tasty and authentic selections on their buffet and menu, it's worth checking out.
Cayenne's Cajun Cuisine
2650 John Harden Drive
On Wednesday nights, Cayenne's offers all-you-can-eat crab legs for a $10 premium over the cost of a regular buffet. We didn't spring for the crab legs, but from what we saw they seemed to be big and plentiful, and the waiters kept 'em coming as fast as diners had them cracked and scarfed down.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
All credit cards, full bar (private club)