- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

Don't expect the absolutely, positively authentic real thing at the Louisiana Express, the down-home little restaurant on the unchic side of Bethesda Avenue in Bethesda. The owner is from Germany, the chef from El Salvador, and the waiters come primarily from other Central American countries. But it's close enough. Be prepared for some mighty finger-lickin'-good food.
The restaurant is eat-in and take-out, and has home and office delivery. Everything comes to the table piping hot, freshly made. Service is brisk and capable. Our Salvadoran waiter's accent was uncannily close to the distinctive N'awlins speech.
Louisiana Express is a simple, clean little place; tables are covered with green oilcloth, glasses are plastic, white wicket fencing separates areas in the small dining room, the available beers (including Dixie) are identified by their logos on the large mirror on one side of the dining room.
The lemonade is fresh, a blackboard lists the daily specials, portions are large and the prices are right. It's a great place to take children, and there are always families happily munching on catfish beignets, po' boys and spicy french fries. A beignet is a French version of tempura, deep-fried ingredients dipped in batter, but not with cornmeal.
The fries, by the way, are unusually delicious, and a small plate ($1.25) is enough for three or four adults. They are served "regular" or "Cajun spicy." We tried the latter and found them reasonably spicy, but they wouldn't knock the socks off in Breaux Bridge. The spice comes mostly from a mixture of herbs and pepper. Don't overlook them.
Appetizers are mainly deep-fried beignets of catfish or redfish. On a recent evening, alligator beignets were added to the specials of the day shrimp and crab balls, and Cajun eggrolls, made of chicken, andouille sausage or crab. At the suggestion of our waiter, we ordered the catfish beignets. They were wonderful: hot, thickly crusted with cornmeal, deep-fried but not greasy, the delicate fish a nice contrast to the crusty outside. They are served with a fine house-made remoulade dipping sauce. These are not bayou or river fish but born and raised in ponds, and fed a diet of crushed corn, so put away any prejudices against the scavenger cats.
Soups are thick and rich. An okra gumbo is a mild vegetable soup with rice and chopped okra giving it texture. Crawfish bisque it's not a cream soup like a lobster bisque is a rich, thick and quite spicy dark tomato-based soup with lots of oregano and crawfish.
Remembering the delectable barbecued shrimp we've enjoyed at Pascal Manale's in New Orleans, we ordered a small portion of spicy barbecued shrimp without the bed of rice on which it is customarily served. The six large shrimp were tender and juicy, and the "hot bbq sauce" actually a thick tomato sauce was good enough, but the dish bears little similarity to New Orleans barbecued shrimp, which aren't actually barbecued either but baked in a concoction of butter, pepper, lemon juice and garlic.
Main courses are primarily creoles, etouffees and jambalayas. An etouffee is a thick, stewlike dish where the main ingredient, such as chicken, sausage, shrimp or crawfish, is prepared in a sauce made with a dark roux, a combination of butter or oil with flour and broth). Creoles are served over rice with generally the same ingredients as etouffees in a spicy tomato-vegetable sauce. Jambalayas are rice dishes with vegetables, meat, spices and tomatoes, and are a distant cousin of a Spanish paella.
Blackened redfish, blackened prime rib and specials of the day, such as the soft-shell crabs that were sold out by the time we arrived for a recent late dinner, complete the menu with gumbo stews, rich, rib-sticking versions of the gumbo soup.
Chickens turn on a rotisserie at the back of the restaurant and are available for $6.50 for half and $13 for a whole bird, served either with vegetable jambalaya or a green salad. A bit overcooked and slightly dry, the chicken nevertheless is flavorful and probably best eaten early in the evening.
In true New Orleans fashion, the Louisiana Express serves excellent red beans and rice as a side dish and the cole slaw is made with broccoli. Po' boys are sandwiches on French bread and could easily serve as a main course. In New Orleans the bread has a soft crust, more like Cuban bread, while at Louisiana Express, it is crisp on the outside. The oyster "peacemaker" is delicious the sweet oysters barely cooked in their crisp cornmeal shell and combines oysters with lettuce, tomato and some of that excellent remoulade sauce. There's too much cornmeal around the oysters, but it is still a great combination. The hot, hot dog po' boy is a satisfying, juicy, thick andouille sausage with relish.
Other po' boys are made with catfish, chicken salad, steak and cheese shades of Philadelphia hamburgers, chicken breast or fried shrimp. The classic thinly sliced roast beef po' boy, slathered in gravy, which defines the genre in New Orleans, is not on the menu.
Save room for dessert, as Louisiana Express makes a mean bread pudding with whiskey sauce again sampled on the recommendation of our waiter. It's quite sweet but is a wonderfully comforting, smooth dessert with a crunchy pecan topping. There are numerous other desserts to choose from, including sweet-potato pie, pastry beignets like little doughnuts and several Bundt cakes.
Aside from the beers, domestic and imported, there's a passable California house wine (Julius Wile) at $3 per glass and a variety of drinks that should be popular with young diners: fountain sodas, juices, hot chocolate and fresh orange juice.
You'll have fun at this little neighborhood restaurant, and you won't go away hungry.

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