Whether it’s time for Mardi Gras or not, you can let the good tastes roll any time of year at Bon Temps Creole Café in San Luis Obispo.
Tucked away next to the Ramada hotel on Olive Street, Bon Temps is part restaurant, part coffee shop and 100 percent New Orleans. Purples, greens and golds dominate the décor, which is chock full of Mardi Gras beads, Louisiana memorabilia, jazz posters and anything else that represents the Crescent City.
Bon Temps has been meeting the red-beans-and-rice needs of San Luis Obispo since 1995, but owner Phil Lang admits that he and then-business partner Bob Winick “had about five ideas for their restaurant and none of them was Cajun.”
Ultimately, the two chefs arrived at the Bon Temps concept, in part because of San Luis Obispo’s well known Mardi Gras celebration, but also because Winick had been a sous chef at such venerable New Orleans restaurants as Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s.
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“We hit upon a niche,” said Lang, and although the local celebration is no more, “there’s still such a national interest in Mardi Gras and in that area. Our food is very typical of what’s in New Orleans, though we did tone down the heat a little bit because we didn’t want to scare every one away.” (If you do want to kick it up, there are bottles of hot sauce on every table.)
Bon Temps also brings a bit of California to the table with dishes such as blackened salmon benedict with housemade hollandaise, and even Cajun Carnitas made with blackened pork.
Still, the Bon Temps menu is a bona fide blast of Bourbon Street.
You’ll see authentic dishes such as po’ boy sandwiches, Cajun pain perdu (a decadent version of French toast smothered in honey rum syrup and pecans), shrimp Creole over rice, and several riffs on jambalaya.
You’ll also see bayou ingredients such as catfish, crayfish and, yes, even gator on the menu. Lang sources a premium cut from Louisiana farm-raised alligator, and estimates that he serves about 10 pounds a week either in the Alligator Bites appetizer or the Alligator Etoufée entrée.
Granted, purists might quibble with some details on the Bon Temps menu. No, the muffaletta sandwich isn’t absolutely what you’d get at the famous Central Market in New Orleans, but it does have the three necessary things that make it a muffaletta — the olive “salad” (think olive tapenade), Creole mayonnaise and a distinctive sesame bread loaf — and all three are made in-house at Bon Temps.
“Everything is from scratch,” said Lang, “things like the etoufée sauce, the demi glace and of course the roux (a flour/fat mixture that’s a hallmark of this cuisine), which we cook slowly until it’s a dark brown. We also make all our own sausage: the Andouille, hot link and breakfast sausage.”
In addition, Lang noted “we’re very committed to offering vegetarian and vegan dishes. The beans and even the collard greens are meatless, which goes against the grain of a traditional Southern kitchen.”
That approach of fusing authentic Cajun/Creole tastes with some West Coast twists has gained Bon Temps a loyal following throughout the years, “and a lot of our regulars come in here every day,” said Lang.
When they do come in, those longtime patrons know exactly what’s on the menu; it really hasn’t changed at all since Bon Temps opened, and there aren’t any plans to do so.
“All the feedback I get from people is, ‘Don’t change it,’” said Lang.
Enough said laissez les bon temps rouler!