I felt like I was going to be taking a huge risk in hunting down a decent Cajun restaurant in Phoenix. There has always been a colossal gap just waiting to be filled by some Louisiana expatriate who would want to bring authentic Cajun cooking to the Valley and wow the fine people of our Valley home.
There have, of course, been some who have tried. When Voodoo Daddys first opened near Paradise Valley Mall, it was decent fare at a good price and service was quite grand. I took a friend there on a lark and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. One year later, my friend and I wanted to relive that night only to discover that Daddy had been overcome by the Voodoo and the food and service were atrocious. All of that came at higher prices.
One place that has been in the Valley for some time is Baby Kays Cajun Kitchen, located in the Town and Country Mall on the southeast corner of 20th Street and Camelback Road in central Phoenix. I wanted to try it out since I hadnt been there in 10-plus years. All of this gave me some trepidation as my luck with restaurants at Town and Country has not been the best. But, you get nowhere without trying, so I swallowed my pride and headed to Baby Kays.
I arrived on a Saturday evening and the place was about half full. The space is fairly large with plenty of indoor seating and some outdoor seating. I felt it was too warm outside so I got a table near the window overlooking the Best Buy across the street. The interior is decorated with plenty of Mardi Gras memorabilia and various art works that scream Louisiana. Two bright neon signs that beckon people from the outside cast a red glow over the inside of the restaurant.
I was presented my menu and I reviewed the choices while listening to the live music of a solo guitarist playing Blues to background tracks. Sadly, the PA system was piping in great hits from the 80s and was very distracting. If you have live music, kill the PA or hook the performers microphone up to the PA system.
My server appeared with water and a place setting and took my drink order. I asked for a Diet Coke, but ended up being served a Diet Pepsi ($2.00). I thought about what I wanted and I was pretty hungry, but not famished, so I decided to go for some basics. I thought the Shrimp Remoulade ($8.00) sounded good as well as the Baby Kays Combo ($9.00) which allowed me to choose between chicken gumbo or chicken and sausage gumbo, plus a side of red beans and rice. I went with the chicken and sausage gumbo. I also ordered a side salad, which I later found out was included with the meal so there was no additional charge.
I sat back and listened to the music of the guitar player. He was quite good and it was nice to have some live entertainment since I was dining alone. Too bad I couldnt suppress the dulcet tones of Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer.
My Shrimp Remoulade arrived shortly thereafter and I was presented with a plate of six shrimp which rested on shredded lettuce and each was coated with the remoulade sauce. Well, drowned is more like it. While the sauce was very good, it was simply too much and complete eradicated anything resembling taste on the shrimp. I ended up scraping off a lot of it and then I tried the shrimp and wondered if the kitchen was ultimately trying to cover up the shrimp. They were not very fresh and quite rubbery.
Shortly after I finished my last bite of the shrimp, I was served my salad. This was a typical dinner salad, but the greens were very fresh, green and crunchy. The croutons were top notch, and the bright red tomatoes were excellent. The big winner, though, was the dressing. It was a Creole vinaigrette and was superb. The spicy flavor and the tart and tangy aftertaste were perfect and I would have been quite happy with a huge chefs salad with this dressing.
I went back to my being serenaded by the guitarist and patiently waited for my meal, my lips still stinging from the salad dressing. The Gumbo and the Beans and Rice were both served in separate bowls. Accompanying them was a basket of crispy garlic toast. The scent from the bread, beans and gumbo sent me through the roof and I was hopeful that they were much better than the shrimp.
I dove into the gumbo first. It was very good, although a little too thin for my taste. Still, it was completely satisfying with a strong spice taste and plenty of chicken and sausage pieces. The chicken was moist and tender and the sausage was good quality. Toward the bottom of the bowl, I was dipping my bread in it to make sure I got every drop. The bread was excellent. Toasted well, garlicky and plenty of butter to make it all melt in my mouth.
Next up were the red beans and rice. The mixture was very thick and I stirred it several times to let the steam escape. I took one bite and was happy. The beans had not been overcooked and the rice was a nice texture counterpoint with is softness. The flavor was full-bodied and they certainly did not spare the spice. By the time I had finished, my forehead was being dabbed with my napkin to help with the sweat. My mouth had a nice burn to it. Completing the trifecta was the runny nose.
I finished every drop and only wished I had the room for another basket of the bread, just to make sure I had captured every drop of the gumbo and red beans and rice.
I finished another glass of soda and watched the guitarist close up for the night. I asked for my bill and was presented with a $20.54 total that included tax. I felt it was an okay value, which would have been better if the shrimp hadnt been so tasteless and rubbery. The service was decent and friendly.
I would go back to Baby Kays and try some of the other items like the Jambalaya or the crawfish etouffee. The place is funky and fun and has some good food. If they worked on a few things, it could be very, very good. It wont, of course, rival many restaurants in Louisiana, but it did fill the void and satisfied a Cajun carving.
Hopefully, my next return wont include the selected hits of Queen or Berlin.
Baby Kays Cajun Kitchen
2021 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Notes: Baby Kays faces 20th Street and is near Trader Joes.