Monday, February 28, 2011

The Free Meal Report: Beck's Cajun Cafe

Disclosure: I'll Eat You dined at Beck's compliments of the chef/owner.

Maybe it was all the hours of watching the likes of Justin Wilson and Emeril when I was growing up, but I've always had a thing for New Orleans cuisine, so I was excited to have the opportunity to sample Chef Bill Beck's spin on the Cajun and Creole genres at his stall in the Reading Terminal. A native New Yorker (but we'll forgive him for that), Beck has been in Philly for the past twenty-plus years, but he drew his first culinary inspiration from the Big Easy. After putting in stints at the old Pompano Grille and catering for events like the Jambalaya Jam, he opened his spot in the Terminal over a year ago and is now finding great success with bringing NOLA cuisine to the Philly lunchtime crowd.

Beck's menu covers many of the New Orleans favorites like jambalaya, gumbo, muffalettas, red beans and rice, and po' boys. Many of the ingredients (like the alligator sausage and catfish) are imported from New Orleans and picked up at the airport by Bill himself, and everything's made from scratch right there in the market stall. You'll also find Zapp's potato chips, Community Coffee, and Abita Root Beer (sorry, no Turbo Dog).

Being a big fan of the sandwich, I had to try the oyster po' boy. There are two areas where Beck's rendition breaks with tradition: the roll is a chewy, dense French number from LeBus rather than the more typical baguette-like bread, and the oysters are breaded with panko instead of corn meal. Though I'm more a fan of the lighter touch in both of these areas, the sandwich was enjoyable, with great oyster flavor. (Bill says the denser rolls survive the day better than baguettes, which went stale quickly in testing, and that the panko-crusted oysters stay crunchy better when confronted with the lettuce, tomato, pickle and Creole mayo on the po' boy.)

The Train Wreck (photo courtesy Beck's Cajun Cafe)

The other sandwich I tried is decidedly not traditional: the Train Wreck, which I would describe as Beck's entry in the ongoing crazy-sandwich arms race. In a clear expression of Philly-meets-New Orleans, the Wreck is basically a cheesesteak with the addition of chopped-up andouille sausage and salami, served on the same French bread as the other po' boys. Though I would be hard-pressed to consume an entire one without clearing my schedule for a nap afterwards, the fact is that it is delicious, and the smoke and spice of the andouille and salami bring a new level of complexity to the Philly classic.

Bill was kind enough to send me home with a sample of the alligator gumbo to try later. Served over white rice, it's a bit on the thick side, but nicely spiced and deep in flavor. I'm going to have to make a return visit to try out the jambalaya and étoufée some time.

I also tried out a little bit of the bread pudding. Beck started with a recipe from the famed Commander's Palace and then tweaked it for several rounds, adding apples, raisins, and topping it with a very pronounced whiskey sauce. Despite all the cream, it's quite light and worth at least a sample. There are also beignets on Wednesday and Sunday, which I'll have to go back and try as well.

As if that weren't enough, Beck's also offers a variety of spice blends, and he sent me home with his Angel Dust and Devil Dust. A sprinkle of some of the finely-milled Devil Dust on some portobello burgers lent them a nice kick, and I'm looking forward to try the subtler Angel Dust on something. (Bill kindly requests that you refrain from saying "bam" when using these seasonings.)

I think the Train Wreck is a must-try for "extreme" sandwich fans and cheesesteak fiends, and if you've been looking for a place to get some alligator, well, now you know where to find it. Overall, Beck's is a welcome addition to the Terminal, and a pretty quick and authentic way to acquaint yourself with New Orleans flavors if they're new to you.

Beck's Cajun Cafe on Urbanspoon

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