November 10, 2010 10:44:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
With house rules like "Feel free to fall in love," and "Dance wildly if you want to," you might expect the unexpected at Crawgators Restaurant, recently opened at 1586 Lake Lowndes Road in the New Hope community. So seeing alligator as a staple on the menu should come as no surprise. The meat often considered a Cajun delicacy is becoming one of the more popular items, as appetizers, on po'' boys and in gator chili.
The eatery specializing in Cuisine Acadienne -- Cajun cooking -- aims for a casual, upbeat atmosphere and an authentic Louisiana experience. For chef and founder Bobby McNab, that''s an easy task.
"My whole family are all Cajuns ... from Natchitoches, La., New Orleans and that area on my dad''s side. My mom''s side is from Monticello, right on the border -- what we call spitting distance from Louisiana," said McNab. "I cook just the same way my mom taught me and both my grandmothers taught me, the traditional way."
In one respect, the restaurant is a tribute to his late mother, Debbie McNab of Columbus. The outgoing volunteer and former volunteer teacher of the year passed away from cancer this year. It was at the family''s Thanksgiving gathering last November that Bobby told her he intended to open a restaurant.
"We all pretty much knew it would be her last ... when I told her, the look on her face, she was just so proud," he shared. "I was bound and determined to do it." He credits Angie Ayers, his girlfriend and owner of Crawgators, for the inspiration to see the venture to fruition.
Bayou country to Columbus
The McNab family moved to Columbus in the early 1980s, with the Weyerhaueser start-up. Bobby graduated from S.D. Lee High School in 1990. Since then, he has trained and worked at restaurants throughout the Southeast, including, of course, New Orleans.
"I studied under Mike Nugent, who taught me real Cajun cooking in the restaurant industry. He was a real inspiration to me," said MaNab.
Before moving back to Columbus in January of this year, the chef had been a restaurateur in England, where he opened his first Crawgators.
"They love spicy foods there; they like the curries and eastern Indian food. They love American food; they love our burgers, ribs and chicken because it has flavor. They love crawfish. And catfish in Europe is the third largest selling fish; it''s all imported from the U.S.," he said.
Crawgators uses only Louisiana farm-raised alligator. Specifically, the tenderized tail meat.
"It''s all white meat, and tail meat is very lean meat, with virtually no fat," he noted. "When you cook it, it has the texture of chicken, and a lot of people think it tastes like chicken; but it has a little hint of a seafood taste, a freshwater taste."
Because gator meat has a tendency to be tough, the chef prefers it fried. "You can grill it, but it can still be a little tough. ... Gator''s kind of like pork; the more you cook it, the more tender it gets."
His popular gator bites appetizers are small chunks of fried gator meat, with an added kick from a dusting of seasoned coating that boasts cayenne, paprika, garlic and other ingredients.
Oh boy, po'' boy!
The establishment''s hearty gator po'' boy is made on homemade bread brought in from New Orleans, and served with a house recipe creole mayo "similar to a remoulade sauce." Since joining the lineup of shrimp, crawfish, catfish and chicken po'' boys, the gator has been gaining ground steadily.
"We also make a bayou gator chili, like Texas chili with a Louisiana twist," McNab said with a smile. The slow-cooked spicy alligator and red bean chili can be a great warm-up for cool-weather tailgates, or even for watching the game on TV. (Speaking of tailgates, the cook and company recently put together a tailgate spread of red beans and rice, jumbalaya and crawfish for 45 people.)
As far as McNab is aware, Crawgators is the only restaurant in Northeast Mississippi that regularly serves alligator. He credits much of their success to Elliott Dismukes of Sysco Corp., the largest food supplier in North America.
"It''s the highest quality of food that he supplies me with that makes us so successful; keeping it all as authentic from New Orleans as he can. He''s kind of a cornerstone of our success," said Bobby.
Gator may be the most exotic item, but the menu is packed with other specialties, like jambalaya, shrimp creole, crawfish and shrimp etouffee, rajun Cajun crab cakes, seafood gumbo and McNab''s signature catfish Louisiana, made with jambalaya, blackened catfish, and crawfish and shrimp etouffee. For less adventuresome tastebuds, there''s Dixieland catfish, ribeye steak, voodoo prime rib, barbecue chicken, slow smoked ribs and burgers.
Crawgators, in the former Mr. John''s Restaurant location, is open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sundays from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.
McNab and Ayers strive to provide a unique experience, complete with colored lights, music and a friendly welcome, as apparent in another house rule: "Come here as a stranger and leave here as family."
"It''s just really been fun," said the chef. "I just really enjoy cooking food and watching peoples'' faces as they eat it. ... that''s satisfaction for me. Here at Crawgators, we don''t eat to live, we live to eat -- and we don''t let you forget it."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.