A love of dark-roasted coffee seems to be one of the things that the Acadian people brought to Louisiana when they migrated from what is now Quebec, and Louisiana is justly famous for its dark-roasted coffee, either with or without chicory, a plant that was added to coffee to stretch it out during the Civil War, when Union blockades made coffee difficult to get. New Orleans has produced several famous dark coffee brands, including French Market, Cafe Du Monde and Community, the last of which has become popular in other states as well. But Lafayette’s Mello Joy Coffee, which bills itself “The Original Cajun Coffee” is not as well known, although it was founded in 1936. While for 40 years it was the favorite coffee of Cajun country, it rapidly disappeared after 1976 when the original owner sold it to a regional competitor. In 2000, Mello Joy Coffee reappeared in Louisiana when the company was reborn under new owners, and its popularity rapidly returned. However, as I had checked stores in Lafayette, I could not find any bags of Mello Joy whole beans, only the ground coffee. So I called the company headquarters and learned that the whole beans are sold only on the website, or at the distribution warehouse, which they allow individuals to visit if they want to purchase beans. As I was heading out of town to go back to Memphis, I stopped by the warehouse to purchase the beans. They come in four-pound bags at $21, nothing short of a steal (contrast the average Starbucks whole beans at $13 for 12-ounces). And it’s really good, I might add. Mello Joy also, incidentally, has got to be the only coffee with their own musical group, the Mello Joy Boys, who are an alter ego for the legendary Lost Bayou Ramblers.
To be a moderately-sized city, Lafayette has a fairly large number of music stores, including two independent record shops owned by the same owner. The E & S Music & Video Store is owned by the same owner as House Rockers, and specializes in rap and R & B music. Unfortunately, when I swung by there on Friday morning, they hadn’t opened yet.
E & S Music & Video
214 E Willow
Lafayette, LA 70501
Lafayette is probably second only to New Orleans when it comes to great cuisine, and the city has lots of breakfast choices. But I was especially intrigued by a downtown restaurant called The French Press, which has been called one of the best breakfast restaurants in America. The relatively small cafe occupies a historic building in the downtown area, and has an attractive and inviting atmosphere. Swamp pop music plays from the speakers overhead. The menu is New American and rather trendy, with few traditional breakfast options, opting rather for benedicts, chicken and waffles and grillades. I’m not a huge fan of boudin, but I tried the Cajun breakfast sandwich and it was for the most part really good, although I could have done without the aioli that came on it and that wasn’t mentioned in the menu. As one might expect from a place called The French Press, the coffee was absolutely incredible. Prices are not cheap, but not outrageously expensive either. Altogether it is a trendy and experimental spot for culinary adventurers, but not the place if you just want bacon and eggs or an omelette.
When I walked into the Acadiana Center for the Arts for the James Hunter show, I was amazed at the size of the crowd milling around in the lobby, where they were selling beer and wine. James Hunter being British, I had not expected that there would be all that much familiarity with him in Lafayette, but whether there was or not, the theatre was nearly full, seemingly mixed between people who were die-hard James Hunter fans like myself, and people who routinely support all Acadiana Center for the Arts events regardless of whether they know the artist or not. And as amazing as James Hunter is on records, he is an even more amazing and enthralling performer, as he is friendly and witty and enjoys interacting with his audience. His band is impeccable, with the kind of tightness and precision that James Brown demanded of his performers. Most of the songs were originals, and the one or two covers he did were obscure,including one from the old Five Royales. I was moderately disappointed that he did no songs from the People Gonna Talk album at all, but that album is, after all, eight years old, and there was too much good music to be disappointed for long. After a brief intermission, Hunter did a much-abbreviated second set, and the show had ended by 9:30 PM.
It was amazing to me that I found free parking in downtown Lafayette directly behind the Acadiana Center for the Arts, where the James Hunter concert was being held. As I was walking to the center’s entrance, I was even more amazed by the beautiful sunset in the west over Lafayette’s Rue Vermillion.
Any American of my age or older undoubtedly remembers Borden’s dairy products, and their classic mascot, Elsie the Cow, her cheerful face sticking out of a sunflower. But I wasn’t at all prepared to encounter a Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe along Johnson Street near downtown Lafayette, Louisiana, and was even more surprised at its classic, vintage 1940’s look. Actually, the Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe was opened in Lafayette in 1940, and by some accounts was the first Borden’s retail outlet in the United States. Whether it was the first or not, there is no dispute about it being the last. Briefly owned by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, it was sold a few years ago to private owners who have restored it and who keep it operating.
I had not heard of Ruffino’s on the River in Lafayette before, but I had discovered it while planning my trip, and was attracted by the menu and the waterfront setting, so I decided to eat dinner there before the James Hunter concert. When I arrived at the restaurant, I immediately noticed the stash of wood outside the main entrance, which is always something I like to see, as it shows that the restaurant uses a wood-burning stove to cook. The outdoor deck had a beautiful view of the Vermillion River, so I chose to sit out there in the sunshine. I tried the Fish Katie, which was a fish fillet with a cream sauce made with lump crabmeat, and it was absolutely amazing, as were all the accompaniments. The food, the setting and the service was impeccable.
Lafayette’s Northgate Mall is a dying mall, if not a dead mall, which is somewhat peculiar, as it is much closer to I-10 and I-49 than is the Acadiana Mall on Johnson Street which has fared so much better. But aside from a couple of hip-hop clothing shops and a barber shop, the one thing that keeps people going to Northgate Mall is Lafayette’s venerable House Rockers Record Shop, a neighborhood institution where people come for zydeco, soul, blues, gospel and local hip-hop. At a time when so many record stores are closing, House Rockers seems to be thriving, even in a mall that isn’t.
House Rockers Record Shop
1800 NE Evangeline Thruway
Lafayette, LA 70501
There are cities larger than Lafayette, Louisiana that don’t really have a decent sneaker boutique, but fortunately Lafayette has one of the South’s best, a store with the unlikely name of Politics. Politics has the T-shirt lines you would expect, like The Hundreds and 10 Deep, and shoes for any color scheme, but they also have lots of local mix CD’s, many of which are free for the asking. From their base in Lafayette, Politics has now branched out to New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and is planning a different kind of more upscale clothing store in Lafayette as well. Politics is definitely worth a visit anytime you’re in Louisiana.