There's little incentive to steer off Airline Drive into Guillory's tranquil neighborhood, and a drive past the red-brick building with the faded Barq's sign divulges little more. A close-up look at the exterior, though, reveals a curious hand-stenciled menu board cataloging an abundance of prepared foods and meat specials. Another sign, one of bright plastic with a smiling sun and the suspiciously spelled words Krispy Krunchy Chicken, is dubious but also curious.
Inside, the thirtysomething grocery is the spitting image of a gas stop in Cajun country. A glass butcher's case to the left displays housemade sausages, ghostly white pork seasoning, bone-in ham, garnet-red ribeye steaks, and so on. There's even a house boudin. To the right, where the grocery gondolas once stood, are five tables; dead ahead is what's known in convenience store lingo as a fry deli.
Fry delis are to convenience stores in south Louisiana as cheese sections are to truck stops in Wisconsin, and Guillory's fry deli is a glowing representation of its genre. A Midwesterner (for example) would need to bite through the fry deli's greaseless, evenly browned spheres, cylinders, puffed triangles and crimped half-moons kept warm under heat lamps in order to identify the foods beneath the batter -- and even then they'd be half-guessing. A Louisianian, though, knows instinctively, maybe from birth, which is the boudin ball, the egg roll, the Natchitoches-style meat pie, the apple turnover and the sweet corn.
That said, anybody could recognize that Guillory's bravely spicy boudin balls shot through with herbs, and crawfish pies fattened with rice and aromatic vegetables, are exceptional. Fried sweet corn is a genius idea; sadly every ear I try is lukewarm and its kernels gummy.
And then there is the Krispy Krunchy chicken, a product that beats so many odds. Asking battered and fried chicken to maintain fresh-out-the-fryer crispness when detained under a heat lamp is like asking the Mississippi to sit still, and yet during none of my tastings at Guillory's had the chicken's flawlessly tanned, spice-mottled batter turned flabby. It remained, if not crisp, then at least crusty -- like next-day Popeye's eaten straight from the fridge, only hot.
The real clincher, though, is the chicken itself. Too often fried chicken is all about the fried; if the meat tastes at all, it just tastes cheap. Numb. In contrast, Krispy Krunchy chicken is exceedingly moist and deep-down seasoned, as if it's been injected with a marinade like Louisianans inject turkeys the night before they fry them. And that, says Krispy Krunchy founder Neal Onebane, is exactly how it works.
That's also the rub. More than 200 stores across Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, like Guillory's, serve Krispy Krunchy chicken. They receive the chicken unfrozen in vacuum-sealed bags, having been mass-injected at a Tyson plant in Mississippi with what Onebane calls Krispy Krunchy's "flavor profile (essential oils of cayenne and other seasonings)." Store workers then coat the chicken in Onebane's secret-recipe breading mixture and fry it. At Guillory's, they fry in canola oil.
Slow Food could blacklist me for this, and food journalist associations may bar my membership forever, but I found Krispy Krunchy chicken scrumptious despite its mass production and corporate associations. A three-piece combo dinner runs $4.29; I'd pay double to try the chicken straight from the fryer.
If my affection for Krispy Krunchy needs further justification, consider its origins: a Pop-N-Go convenience store in Lafayette. That's where Onebane, around 1990, developed his breading recipe and founded the company, which eventually led to mass-marketing. "It's a real Cajun product," he says.
Myron Gauthier, Guillory's owner, is also from Acadiana. He's so Cajun, in fact, that when I asked about his wonderful, dirty-brown jambalaya, which brands the back of your mouth like only Cajun-applied pepper can, he replied sincerely, "I season my food with a lot of seasoning vegetables, but it's not peppery hot." Gauthier, who learned to cook from his mother, uses Krispy Krunchy's product because he likes it.
His own specialty is beef tamales; at Guillory's, they hand-roll 80 dozen a day. These are regional Louisiana beef tamales, not to be confused with Mexican tamales; Gauthier modeled his recipe after the original Manuel's Hot Tamales (now based in Mid-City), though his are firmer, less greasy and have more pronounced corn flavor. He runs seasoned ground chuck and yellow creamed cornmeal through a sausage stuffer, which molds the tamale filling into long hot dog shapes. It's safe to say that if you haven't tried these hot tamales smothered with beef chili and grated cheddar cheese on Alois J. Binder bread, there's still reason to live.
The Hots Delight po-boy is another original; a confusion of hot sausage patties, beef chili, pickled jalapenos, fried onions and orange cheese sauce, it makes you want to run out and get a hangover.
Can you imagine? This grocery is a real mind-opener.