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

Las Palmas–El Paso, TX

Las Palmas Mexican Restaurant
1605 George Dieter Dr.
El Paso, TX
(915) 629-9898

Las Palmas


Las Palmas is located in a strip mall in east El Paso, and it seemed to be an unlikely candidate for being one of the best Mexican restaurants in El Paso strictly from its location and appearance. It gets packed at lunch time, but many El Paso restaurants are the same. Like most Mexican restaurants in the city it gets good reviews, but everyone has their own taste and everyone has their own opinion about what is the best Mexican food.

In the case of Las Palmas, I make the statement that this is one of the best Mexican restaurants based on my standbys, red enchiladas, chile relleno, rice, beans, chips, and salsa. In addition, though, there are a couple of outstanding items that I do not normally order that I also think are the best in the city or very close to it, namely the guacamole and albondigas (meatballs).

Even though Las Palmas is busy, it has not been “discovered” like some some of the more popular restaurants have been. This is a good thing, because I have seen some of the more popular places go down somewhat in quality because they have to expand, add new cooks, etc. in order to meet the demand of the customers they have. I think Las Palmas is small enough to maintain their quality and consistency (and I have to say that the majority of restaurants in El Paso are like this, but not many have a flavor that I like as well as at Las Palmas).

There are different lunch specials each weekday, but rather than regular menu items served at a lower price, they are items that are only served on that day (and only for lunch). These seem to be items that take longer to prepare than most dishes, and include such items as albondigas and mole (only available on Thursday). These are also items that they are not typically available at El Paso restaurants.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and salsa

The chips and salsa were a good indication that the food would be very good here, particularly because of the fresh and flavorful salsa. The salsa is not super spicy, but it does have a good kick.

Regular Menu

Las Palmas Special

All right, it is a little confusing that the Las Palmas Special is on the regular menu, but every day they have a “special” of the day. Actually the Las Palmas Special is equivalent to what most restaurants call the Mexican Plate, or with some it may be the combination plate.

Ordering the Las Palmas Special allowed me to enjoy what are usually my favorite items, and to even get some bonus items such as guacamole.

If I had to pick a best dish here it would be the Chile Relleno. The flavor of the relleno was probably the biggest factor in convincing me that Las Palmas is at one of the highest levels of Mexican food in the city. It is covered with cheese, and writing this review largely from memory I am not sure that it even had what I would call a sauce on top. It stuck in my mind, though, that the flavor was more than just the traditional chile itself and the cheese. The breading was excellent, and I think this was the source of much of the flavor that I thought was so good.

The Red Enchilada is typically my favorite item on a combination plate. The one here was better than any I had recently tried, and very close to some of my favorites that I had not eaten recently (Forti’s, Su Casa, etc.). It was very much a case that while I was not sure the enchilada was the very best in town, having both an enchilada and chile relleno together that were this good made Las Palmas one of the best restaurants overall in my book.

I put in my notes that the Guacamole was the best that I have tried, but this does not include some that I may have had in Mexico or some from now closed El Paso restaurants (Casa Jurado may have been one of these). In any case, the guacamole was extremely good.

I barely noted the Flauta because this were much the same as I could get anywhere. If you are from any city other than El Paso, though, I think this will probably be one of the best you have tried. The flautas here only come with beef (some restaurant also have ones with chicken).

Daily Specials

Albondigas

Albondigas is a special on Thursday

The Albondigas served Thursdays as a lunch special are a little deceiving because a bowl of soup like this does not look as filling as it actually is. It actually has several beef meatballs that make a very substantial meal, and the broth is so flavorful I could tell the restaurant really knows what it is doing when it comes to Mexican food. Albondigas are not typically one of my favorite Mexican foods, but I always enjoy something that is among the best in its class, as the one here proved to be.

Other Notes
The restaurant is very busy at lunch time, and the service is a little slow by the standards of when I was working in an office and only had an hour for lunch. After the usual wait for a table, though, things go pretty smoothly from that point forward.

So far my favorite dishes here are the ones that are my favorites at almost all Mexican restaurants, but the ones here were definitely better than most.

The prices did not strike me as being high or low–I think they are about normal. I had to wait for a table when I went for the albondigas, but on my other trip there was seating right away.

The Las Palmas Special was the only combination plate they had, and in this respect I would say the menu is fairly limited (I would like to have more choices for a combination plate). Of course if you have the time you can make multiple trips and try different items, but I think the Las Palmas Special gives a good sample of some of their best items.


RATING: 25

Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $$
Hours: Open daily (breakfast Fri-Sun.)
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: N/A

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 11, 2019
Number of Visits: 2
Best Items: Red Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Guacamole, Albondigas, Salsa

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: N/A

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchilada
star 5 Chile Relleno
star 5 Albondigas
star 5 Guacamole
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa