Current Day French Culture in Lafayette, LA

While growing up, my dad and uncle shared their household with my great grandmother from Belgium, giving our family a very strong link to the French culture. My dad’s generation had never attempted a serious study of French that I know about, and French conversation in the household consisted of a few phrases.

These stories, though, prompted an interest on my part to become at least a little familiar with this part of my family tradition. An obvious place of interest to me is Lafayette, the unofficial capital of French Acadiana where French families settled after they had been “kicked out” (I believe that is the technical term) of Nova Scotia and surrounding provinces by the British settlers during the “Great Expulsion” from 1755 to 1764. Some of these refugees found homes in the Thirteen Colonies, but a large number arrived as a group in 1765 in what was then the Spanish ruled colony of Louisiana. Because of their numbers, though, they and other French colonists preserved French as the predominant language of the area, and Louisiana fell back under French control shortly before the time it became the American “Louisiana Purchase” in 1803.

Remarkably, French remained the primary spoken language in Acadiana through at least the 1930’s and early 1940’s (the boundaries of Acadiana being based on the areas where French was spoken). When I visited in 2017 I can say that I really never heard any French spoken by the residents there. I was searching for it (such as listening to French radio stations, etc.), and I know it exists, but today this is not a French speaking area.

Through sources such as YouTube you can find videos of Cajun French, and it is obvious that the expert speakers are primarily of the older generation. In the short term the language has not died out because there is a diligent effort by much of the younger generation to keep it going. In the long term, though, it is hard to know what is going to happen.

This narrative is meant to give a background for some things you can see when you are in this beautiful and totally enchanting area.

Hotels along Pinhook Rd.

Hotels along Pinhook Rd.

An area that may at first look like downtown is the “commercial district” along Pinhook Rd. located just south of the historic city center. This area has a wide choice of hotels and is away from the Interstate traffic (Interstate 10 is about four miles to the north).

Rosa Parks Transportation Center

Rosa Parks Transportation Center

A good place to start an exploration of downtown Lafayette is at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center at Jefferson St. and Cypress St. To get here from Pinhook Rd. go east to the Evangeline Thruway where you turn north, turn left when you get to Jefferson Boulevard and go about four blocks until you see the large public parking area (parking is free). This is also the parking lot for Amtrak, Greyhound Bus, and several city and parish offices.

Entranceway to downtown

Entranceway to downtown

While headed west on Jefferson you will also notice this entrance sign to downtown Lafayette (this is the historic downtown area). This view is looking west from the parking lot shown in the last photo. The building at the left edge of the photo is Dat Dog, a casual restaurant that I went in to investigate, and found that it could be of interest to foodies (although I was not able to try it at that time).

Along Jefferson St.

Along Jefferson St.

Along Jefferson Street are some shops, restaurants, bars, etc. that could be of interest to visitors. Mainly I thought it was very visually appealing, and not typical of what you would see in a city’s downtown (just south of this area is the main part of downtown with more traffic, parking lots, etc.).

Dwyer's Cafe

Dwyer’s Cafe

I wasn’t there at the right time, but Dwyer’s Cafe (323 Jefferson St.) is known as the home of the “French Table” where people gather at 7:00 am to enjoy breakfast and speak French. Of course I think Dwyer’s also has good food (which I also was not able to try on this visit).

There is a YouTube video in French showing the group who meet at Dwyer’s as well as other efforts to promote the French Language: Louisiane 2010 – Parler français. The video caption says some of the people who come learned the language from their grandparents but did not know where or when they would have a chance to practice it today (and the meeting at Dwyer’s gives them the opportunity).

In fact, if you wish you can find a multitude of videos about Cajun French on YouTube. My big takeaway from visiting Lafayette, though, is that they speak English. If you want to practice your French you may have to seek out someone who can converse with you.

For those not interested in the language the Cajun food is reason enough to visit Lafayette (but I think there are opportunities to experience the language as well). Most of all, though, this is a very livable mid-sized city with plenty of food choices of all types, and it is a good base from which to explore the surrounding area.

This area of Louisiana certainly seems to rank with northern New Mexico as being one of the most unique cultural areas of the United States. One commonality of these two areas was the homogeneous language and cultural group each had that allowed their native language to survive, and which to some extent is present today.

My Restaurant Guide lists some restaurants I tried as well as ones that look good and would be on my list for future visits: Louisiana Restaurant Guide.

I want to be sure to mention Poche’s, in Breaux Bridge a few miles east of Lafayette, for excellent home style Cajun food.

“Lagniappe” (Additional Information Available on the Internet)
While Lafayette and the surrounding area may not always exude an obvious French culture in its day-to-day life, there is much to discover just below the surface, or simply by knowing where to look. An excellent source seems to be the Lafayette Travel web site, with links to events, attractions, food, and any other information that might be of interest to residents and visitors (I compliment them on the amount of information that is available on the site).

Outdoor concert series are often scheduled multiple times per week (with the most taking place during the best weather seasons of spring and fall or at the appropriate time of day for the musicians’ and audience comfort). Indoor concerts and dances are also available on a frequent basis.

Much of the local music is performed in Cajun French or has French roots, and this music has continued through the generations at dances and just about anywhere people got together for a social occasion or to have a good time. The Lafayette Travel web site seems to provide information about the easiest ways to find whatever musical event is going on.

Lafayette and all the surrounding cities celebrate their French roots through the local cuisine, and the Lafayette Travel site offers a multitude of suggestions. My experience is that a little bit of searching on web sites can result in very positive results in finding Cajun food or other types of local cuisine. In fact, even many people in New Orleans say the best Cajun food is not there, but in Acadiana.

The web site even has a list of places with a “French Table” where people can get together to practice French (and usually enjoy food at the same time). I was unable to find this list through the web site’s menu, but located it through a Google search which I will share:

French Tables (for Practicing French)

According to the list Dwyer’s Cafe has their meeting every Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. This is only one of nine places currently listed in Lafayette which have a French Table, with others available in surrounding cities.

My Overview of All of This
I really have a couple of takeaways from visiting the area: (1) If you are interested in exploring any aspect of French culture in Louisiana it is easy to find with a little bit of searching, although it will definitely not be a situation where you will feel like you are in a foreign country and do not know the language, and (2) If you are coming primarily for Cajun food I think it will definitely be worth the trip–any cuisine is its best at the source, and I definitely found that to be true here.

JJ’s Mexican Food–El Paso, TX

JJ’s Mexican Food
5320 Doniphan Dr.
El Paso, TX
(915) 581-7267
JJ's Mexican Restaurant

JJ’s Mexican Restaurant on Doniphan


JJ’s first came to my attention as a small neighborhood Mexican restaurant with cheap prices and very hot salsa. The casual atmosphere meant that customers could spend as little or as much time as they wanted on the meal, and since food is paid for at the counter when ordering, patrons can leave as soon as they are finished or order the food as take-out. In addition to getting good Mexican food, it was sometimes very convenient to go out to eat and not have to make a “production” out of it.

JJ’s is probably best known for its gorditas. These are made with a deep fried corn masa, and while this is supposed to be a traditional Mexican recipe, it is surprisingly difficult to find any that are even close to the ones at JJ’s. Some web sites have published lists of restaurants that have them, and it looks as if there are about five or ten restaurants in El Paso that make them the traditional way (an alternate traditional way is to make them with a flour tortilla, but this is not the local style that I have experienced in El Paso).

After many visits to JJ’s I would definitely say that the gordita is their best item. Moreover, while I have not tried all the ones in El Paso, the one at JJ’s must either be the one by which all others are judged or else it is very close. There are several fillings available, and I prefer some over others, but the shell here is what I think makes them a standout (everyone has their own taste when it comes to the filling).

JJ’s opened in 1982, I have seen information on the Internet that it has changed owners since then. This may be completely unrelated, but I think the rest of the menu besides the gorditas has been getting better recently. The gorditas are usually the reason to come, but I like to get other items beside this on a combination plate, and I have enjoyed all of them. This was not true previously, and this is why I think the new owners have made some changes for the better (or else my tastes have changed more drastically than I thought).

In any case, I always feel positive about restaurants that are improving or at least seem to be doing a better job of satisfying my taste buds.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

To me one of the main attractions of JJ’s is the chips and salsa. I made note previously that the salsa was red, and now it is green. It is always on the spicy side, and to me it is obvious that it is made from fresh, locally grown chiles. Sometimes it borders on being too hot to eat with the chips, but even if this is the case a small amount sprinkled inside the gordita gives it an excellent flavor boost.

The Chips are always good and go well with the meal even if the salsa is too hot.

Gorditas

Avocado and ground beef gordita

Avocado gordita with ground beef gordita in the rear

Gorditas are by far the best item I have found at JJ’s. I think the restaurant recognizes it as their signature dish to the point that their east side branches are known either formally or informally as JJ’s Gorditas.

The gorditas at JJ’s are known for their light, thin crust that I think you inhale more than swallow (the flavor is very substantial, though). Inside will be a choice of several fillings: ground beef, shredded beef, chicken, beans, or avocado (I am not sure of the one with beans is still on the menu but if not, I am sure they can make it this way).

Avocado Gorditas have been one of my favorites, more for health reasons than because of flavor. It is interesting that the avocado turns the crust a green color as it soaks through, making this type of gordita easy to spot. The lettuce and tomato served in the gordita make the avocado taste somewhat like a guacamole salad. The yellow cheese is probably more to complement the flavor of the crust than the filling. All in all I like this better than the gordita at Little Diner, one of the few other restaurants that even serve an avocado gordita. The main difference between the two restaurants is that Little Diner’s crust is thicker as opposed to a somewhat light and fluffy texture which I think is JJ’s signature. Somehow, though, I think JJ’s also does a better job with the avocado filling.

JJ’s serves two types of beef gorditas, a shredded beef style and the ground beef gordita that is comparable to the one served at Little Diner. It is a matter of taste as to which one is better, but lately I have enjoyed the shredded beef more. Of course it is a bonus that customers can spoon on some of JJ’s fresh salsa.

The gordita that has become my absolute favorite, though, is the one with a chicken filling. Somehow this does not sound traditional, but I thought it was very good.

The problem I had with JJ’s gorditas at the “old” restaurant was that they left a “corn oil” aftertaste that I thought was stronger than I found in other restaurants. Recently, though, I have found JJ’s to have improved, while the much heralded ones at Little Diner have had such a thick and dense texture that I think there is now no comparison with the ones at JJ’s (even though I think the fillings in Little Diner’s gorditas are good).

Little Diner is known nationally for its gorditas, but recent ownership changes at both restaurants have caused some changes so that I would encourage those who have the chance to try both restaurants and compare the gorditas. Do not rely exclusively on reviews which are several years old (I would say that my experiences may not totally reflect how the food is normally prepared at both restaurants, but I still go back to the advice to do your own taste test).

Other Items

Combination dinner

Combination dinner with shredded beef gordita, chile relleno, and red enchilada

JJ’s has a number of combination plates, many of which contain a gordita with other items. For all of these you can choose your own filling for the gordita, and the choice of plates only involves the other items that will go with it.

I think probably my favorite item to go along with the gordita on a combination plate is the Chile Relleno. In the El Paso Upper Valley and adjacent Dona Ana County, New Mexico, it seems that it is impossible to find a bad chile relleno (the chiles are grown locally). The ones at JJ’s are a little bit greasy, but are definitely within my tolerance level. I have had some with no sauce on top and some with a red tomato flavored sauce (both are very good). The chile itself and the breading are also very good, along with the cheese.

Another good choice is the Red Enchilada which has a good red sauce, although I do not think JJ’s has one of the city’s premier sauces. I have seen good reviews for the green enchilada, but I have not tried it.

The Pregnant Burrito is so large it usually qualifies as a meal in itself (I am not sure if it comes on any combination plates. This is a very large tortilla enveloping a large helping of chicken and the condiments that provide the vegetables and spices. The pregnant burrito did not include the best grade of chicken when I tried it, but was otherwise delicious with large amounts of cheese, lettuce, avocado, and red chile.

The Refried Beans at JJ’s have not been noticeably greasy (I do not know if they are made with lard or corn oil but I do think that they taste much like the ones at other restaurants). They are very good for cooling the mouth if I order something spicy or use overly generous portions of salsa with the meal.

I have found the Rice to be genuinely good and flavorful (previously it was sometimes overcooked but I have not found that to be the case recently).

Drinks
JJ’s serves aguas frescas drinks including Horchata that is one of the best I have tasted with generous amounts of cinnamon.

Other Locations
“JJ’s Gorditas” restaurants are located at 1188 N. Yarbrough Drive and 10750 North Loop Drive (both are in east El Paso). I believe the one on Doniphan is the original restaurant.

Closing Comments
I think JJ’s does one thing really well, and that is the gordita. Other items are also very good, and I think certainly better than they used to be. I think the gorditas here are certainly worth trying, and for most people they will be quite different than ones they have had at other restaurants.

This is a very casual restaurant. You pay when you order and they bring the food to the table, but after that you are mostly on your own (although you can get drink refills, etc.). Because of this the prices are cheap, and this makes it even better to enjoy what I consider to be one of El Paso’s treats.


RATING: 23

Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Special Features: Has a food truck

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 17, 2019
Number of Visits: 10+
Best Items: Gorditas, Salsa, Horchata

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: N/A

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Gorditas
star 4 Pregnant Burrito
star 5 Chile Relleno
star 4 Chicken Mole
star 5 Red Enchilada
star 5 Beans
star 5 Rice
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa

Li’s Cafe–El Paso, TX

Li’s Cafe
632 Sunland Park Dr.
El Paso, TX
(915) 875-0509
Li's Cafe

Li’s Cafe


Li’s Cafe opened in 2010 as the “fast food” version of Moon Day, the now closed restaurant which served authentic northern style Chinese food. Lili, the owner of these restaurants, eventually closed Moon Day and sold Li’s Cafe (and for a while opened Coli Wok & Grille at Mesa and Remcon).

I mention this because Lili worked with the current owners of Li’s Cafe (who are not Chinese) to give them many of her cooking techniques and recipes. The food at Li’s Cafe is not the same as it was at Moon Day, but I think the owners are using enough of Lili’s recipes that the food here seems to be much better than I expected from a non-Chinese owned restaurant. This may be a backhanded compliment, but I truly enjoy the food at Li’s Cafe (at the same time I know its limitations when it comes to getting food that is authentic).

The menu here is targeted at people who like the Americanized version of Chinese food (sweet and sour, broccoli beef, etc.). For at least some of the dishes, though, I think the flavor is closer to the food at Moon Day than to the typical Americanized Chinese restaurants throughout the city. I am not going to compare every dish here to the ones at Moon Day, but for the ones that are especially good I am sure that Lili was a big influence in this.

I found out that Li’s Cafe can prepare dishes that are not listed on the menu (I asked for Szechwan pork and they were willing to prepare it even though it is not on the menu). They do have Szechwan beef on the menu but obviously there is some flexibility with what you can order.

Soup

Hot and sour soup

Hot and sour soup

The Hot and Sour Soup is the most obvious example I know of something that tastes like it did at Moon Day. Whether I am remembering this correctly or not, I can definitely say this soup has a very good flavor. I am impressed with the number of mushrooms it has and other “substance” (it is not just a big bowl containing mostly broth).

Egg drop soup

Egg drop soup

The Egg Drop Soup also has a very good flavor, and this is usually my preference if the meal I order is spicy so that this will provide an offset to it.

Won ton soup

The Won Ton Soup also has a very good flavor, but it seemed that the only “substance” to it was floating at the top (so this soup is mostly broth). I think it had one won ton but this is normal for this type of soup.

Dinner Menu
The dinner menu expands quite a bit from the items that are served at lunch, they come in larger portions, and the price is higher. Dinner includes items such as kung pao scallops (this is is not available as a lunch special but you can get kung pao shrimp). I think just about everything that is of interest to me is on the lunch menu, but dinner does have some interesting things I might like to try sometime.

Hunan pork

Hunan pork

The owners told me that the sauce on the Hunan Pork was “not sweet,” while the Szechwan sauce is sweet. It did turn out to be a good sauce. My main problem was with the vegetables, since I do not consider broccoli to be a Chinese vegetable or to contribute to the flavor of a Chinese dish in the way it should. (I had a take home order of Hunan chicken and had the same experience with it). There are some Chinese vegetables here such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, carrots, and baby corn, but these were in relatively small quantities.

The pork was good in this dish, and the chicken was good on my take home dish (these meats are not breaded). Hunan pork is only available on the dinner menu, but Hunan chicken and beef are available for lunch at a very good price.

The dinner portions are an awkward size for me in that they are usually more than satisfies my appetite but there is not enough to split and make two meals out of ii.

As far as I know, dinner comes with the same choice of soups you get at lunch (hot and sour, egg drop, or won ton). It has been some time since I went at dinner time and I am not sure about the soup, but my memory is that I got soup with the meal.

Special Dishes

Szechwan pork

Szechwan pork

The Szechwan Pork was something I got as a special order, but they only serve it in a dinner portion (the only lunch item with Szechwan sauce is the beef). The meat on this dish was tough (more so than on the Hunan pork I ordered). The Chinese vegetables on this dish, though, were far better than the broccoli and other American vegetables that came with the Hunan style dishes (although the Hunan dishes do have a few Chinese style vegetables).

The sauce on this dish was supposed to be sweeter than the Hunan sauce, but I did not think it was sweet to the point that it had an Americanized taste. Instead, I really liked it, and overall the Szechwan dishes are my preference over Hunan style when the vegetables are factored in. The meat was tough, but I think this was a fluke rather than that they purposely serve a different meat on this dish.

I do not know what other “special” dishes they can prepare. I have tried to ask for some of the some of the dishes that were served at Moon Day, and Li’s either does not have them or they have been morphed into Li’s version of them (which are good but they are not the same as Moon Day’s food).

Lunch Specials

Fragrant chicken

Fragrant chicken on the lunch special

Some reviewers on other web sites complain about the breaded chicken here where you get very little flavor of the chicken. With the Fragrant Chicken, though, the meat is not breaded (although there is a thick sauce on it similar to sweet and sour). The sauce is thick but it does not have the same sweetness as sweet and sour, and I thought it had a very good balance of flavors. The vegetables were excellent, and overall this is probably the best dish I have had at Li’s (for sure it seems to be one of the best items on the lunch menu).

Citrus chicken

Citrus chicken on the lunch special

Citrus Chicken was disappointing because it was not the same as Moon Day’s version (and I think think this is one of the recipes they got from Lili when they bought the restaurant from her). Li’s also refers to this as orange chicken, although I think it is better than the average orange chicken at other restaurants. The sauce here is not extremely sweet and it contains orange peels. Some reviewers say there is not much chicken flavor because of the breading, and it is true that this might be an issue. Moon Day had a whole chicken breast with a very light breading (it was somewhat like the breading on a German schnitzel). The way Li’s Cafe has changed the chicken has made it a different dish, although I think the sauce is still good.

Conclusion
The lunch specials here are definitely a good deal–it is hard to beat the flavor and quality of food here for the price you pay. My favorite lunch is the fragrant chicken but there are many dishes I have not tried.

For me they have extended the time I can get lunch past the 3:00 p.m. deadline, but I do not know their exact policy on this. I just know that because it is a family run business they are free to do things to help out the customer, and they have been very generous in doing this with me.

The hot jasmine tea is brewed in a large pitcher, and it is so good this has been a deciding factor at times concerning whether I go to Li’s Cafe or another restaurant.

I know they do not try to make the food authentic as it was at Moon Day, but I definitely think Lili has had an influence on the new owners by the sauces being less sweet and having a better flavor than at other restaurants, and by a high quality I find in the food. There is no MSG in the food here, and I can tell that the food and sauces are freshly made. Overall I have enjoyed what I have had here. If possible, though, go at lunch (the dinner prices are fairly close to Sun Garden, and I think Sun Garden has some very good choices that make it more attractive to me).


RATING: 22

Cuisine: Chinese
Cost: $$ (Lunch $)
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 14, 2019
Number of Visits: 7
Best Items: Fragrant Chicken, Szechwan Pork, Hot and Sour Soup

 

Asian Food Details

Tea: Jasmine (brewed)
MSG: No
Buffet: No

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Fragrant Chicken
star 5 Hunan Pork
star 4 Hunan Chicken
star 4 Szechwan Pork
star 4 Citrus Chicken
star 5 Hot and Sour Soup
star 5 Egg Drop Soup
star 4 Won Ton Soup