In honor of Mardi Gras, the Saints’ Super Bowl win, and my lingering connection to New Orleans, it was high time for me to find a Cajun or Creole restaurant in the Inland Empire.
As I discovered, that’s relatively hard to do.
In every strip mall, there are numerous Korean and Mexican restaurants serving fiery, spicy dishes. There are Asian and American Fusion places boasting farm-fresh, semi-odd ingredients. And there are thousands of little yogurt shops with “We’re so hip and healthy!” sparkling from every frosted glass display and white plastic bubble chair. However, with its dependence on sausage, roux (a cooked mixture of flour and fat), and rice combined with its evasion of vegetables, deep-fried Cajun and Creole food doesn’t exactly fit into either the “hip” or the “healthy” category. According to Yelp, there are only five restaurants in LA Country that even serve Louisiana cuisine. The Boiler is one of them.
I admit, I had high expectations walking into The Boiler. Though I’m not a Louisiana native, I lived there long enough to desperately wish I were. The food is a main factor. From my first oyster at Acme Oyster House to my last night in Louisiana—going back for plate after plate of crawfish étouffée and hush puppies at a wedding banquet in Baton Rouge—I ate pretty well.
As much as I hoped for authenticity, this is Los Angeles. The décor makes it clear that The Boiler tries to balance two urges: one to prove its Louisiana influences, and the other to blend in with the strip mall chain restaurants surrounding it. Despite the pastiche of Louisiana tourist stereotypes painted on the walls and the gaslight festooned with Mardi Gras beads on the menu, the strip mall aesthetic wins. The Boiler is a clean, glossy restaurant with a U-shaped counter in the center where customers can watch the chefs make their dishes in special steam kettles or view Olympic speedskating on big screens behind the bar. Steam kettles, usually used in industrial cooking, are actually pretty cool. Steam circulates around a metal bowl, keeping the ingredients at a consistent temperature, and prevents finicky dishes such as seafood and stews from scorching.
Our waitress was an absolute sweetheart, assuring me up and down that the raw oysters came directly from Houma, Louisiana. Gold Band, the company providing the oysters, boasts that their process keeps raw oysters fresh for three weeks. Somehow, that seems kind of wrong. This crime against nature translated directly into its quality: enormous, bland, and preserved—the Bizarro of oysters. Not bad, but not worth spending $10 for a half-dozen.
The menu is an eclectic mix of seafood-based dishes, some of them wildly derivative. The broiled oysters with bacon, peanut butter, and tomato stood out. (“We HAVE to get those,” my dining partner begged. “I don’t like any of those ingredients on their own. They must be great together.”)
At times I had to wonder if this was secretly a San Francisco restaurant. The chef boasted that the New England Clam Chowder was a huge hit at the restaurant. Also on the menu is cioppino—a dish invented by Italian fishermen from San Francisco—shrimp scampi, linguine dishes, salmon dishes, lobster, and clams and mussels—ingredients not traditionally found on the Dirty Coast. And what the heck is a “pan roast” if it’s not roasted in a pan? (Apparently it’s a creamy, tomato-based stew with seafood in it: a popular dish at the restaurant. I didn’t try it. The name gives me a cognitive dissonance headache.)
But I came to judge the restaurant on its Cajun and Creole food, and that meant a serving of jambalaya and gumbo. A very big serving, it turns out—each bowl could easily have served two. Our waitress asked us to order our dishes on a scale one to ten in terms of spiciness, warning us that our dishes already started at seven. Though my dining partner said his “seven-to-eight” jambalaya was hardly spicy enough for his taste, my gumbo was satisfyingly spicy at a six. I did notice, however, that he kept reaching for his water. A manly display of ego, perhaps?
As far as gumbo goes, The Boiler’s version was decent, though not evocative. It was a medley of seafood, andouille, okra, and tomatoes in a spicy, thick roux. The gumbo-to-rice ratio skewed heavily to the gumbo, and I was puzzled as to why the chef chose jasmine rice—too fragrant for the hearty flavors of gumbo. The andouille (Were we sure that was andouille?) had the texture of hot dogs. It was chopped very small compared to the three giant shrimps buried in the gumbo.
But why did the jambalaya, studded with sausage, chicken and shrimp, have the scent and sweet taste of cinnamon? It overpowered the smoked spiciness I expect from the dish, which may have been okay in The Boiler. Thinking I might have forgotten something, I asked a friend at LSU if cinnamon was ever used in jambalaya.
“Truthfully, that thought has never crossed my mind,” he said. “Since you did have it cross my mind, the answer is no. What would make you dream of such horrors? Thanks for the nightmares.”
Apparently, the chef dreamt of such things. I spoke with the owner, a Chicago native who trained in Las Vegas at the Oyster Bar (whose menu The Boiler copied almost verbatim). He proudly boasted that all the recipes were his. He’d visited Louisiana once, and that was to check out his oyster distributor’s facilities. His favorite restaurant, in the entirety of the state, with all its glorious restaurants? Big Al’s Boiled Seafood in Houma.
You don’t have to be a Louisiana native to be a good Louisiana chef. Emeril Lagasse, a Massachusetts native, became executive chef of the famous Commander’s Palace in New Orleans before becoming a TV advocate for Louisiana cooking. Similarly, you don’t have to advertise yourself as a Louisiana-inspired restaurant to do the fusion cooking you seem to like. The Boiler seems to want to be a seafood restaurant that draws on different influences, but its decision to advertise itself as Creole and Cajun disappointed me. Nothing is sadder than a jambalaya that rings insincere.