It hits you the moment you step out of your car, before you even can walk across the parking lot to the red storefront on Jefferson Highway, the smell of smoke, slowly rendering fat and char — the unmistakable aroma of smoked meat. During crawfish season it might be the scent of Zatarain's boil and citrus. But no matter the time of year, one thing is always clear: At Tres Bon Cajun Meats, there's no place you possibly could be but Louisiana.
Owner William "Billy" Newton opened his River Ridge shop in February so his 73-year-old mother, Elaine Jeansonne, who hails from Avoyelles Parish, wouldn't have to drive two hours to find cracklings and boudin links. Part country store, part meat market, the shelves at Tres Bon are lined with Louisiana products and the freezer aisles are packed with cornbread-stuffed chicken, smoked quail and bacon, hot links and various iterations of andouille and alligator sausage.
"Elaineisms," quirky sayings and pithy quotes from Newton's mother ("if you hang with dogs you're bound to get fleas"), decorate the walls. A small wine, liquor and craft beer selection rounds out the setting.
It's a place where you could just as easily pick up a bag of cracklings and hit the road as take a seat in one of the simple tables scattered throughout the store. The casual, no-frills setting belies the extraordinary quality of products that are stuffed, steamed, smoked and fried behind kitchen doors.
Peppery jambalaya arrives studded with spicy chunks of andouille sausage, while boudin links in taut, salt-flecked casings carry a nice snap and give way to a smooth rice and pork blend. Everything is made in house, including the meats Newton smokes out back over a mixture of pecan, cherry and apple woods. The brisket and pork don't carry the heavier mesquite or oak flavor characteristic of some of their barbecue brethren, but instead let the natural flavors imbued by heat and smoke do the talking. The result is tender, mild-tasting meat that shreds effortlessly — the pulled pork, in particular, has a soft, almost milky quality. On one visit the chicken tasted like it spent too much time over the smoker; it was flavorful but dry.
Newton isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, but there are personal touches that stand out. Potato salad (Elaine's recipe), for instance, is a creamy medley studded with black olives and crispy bacon bits, packing in equal parts brine and smoke, uplifting the classic picnic dish to new heights. Condiments also are a notch above the standard variety. There's a creamy garlic mayonnaise (great with the tennis ball-sized boudin balls), briny whole grain country mustard and a jalapeno remoulade that packs a subtle heat — a perfect match for the beef brisket. The house barbecue sauce (made with 20 ingredients from a recipe Newton refuses to divulge) is a delicious, red pepper-flecked elixir with an almost jelly-like viscosity, and is sweet, but not cloyingly so.
Cajun egg rolls, which fall victim to heat lamp purgatory in some places, taste fresh and crispy, the thin shell flaking off to reveal a spicy mix of andouille sausage, boiled shrimp and cabbage interspersed with red peppers and carrots.
It's hard not to be tempted by the vacuum-sealed packs of homemade jerky that line the counter: The honey Sriracha bacon is the perfect sweet-savory treat, a mix of sweet, spicy and deeply smoky cured pork belly. But the best way to part with a meal here are the cracklings, puffy pieces of skin and fat that melt in your mouth and soak grease holes through the paper bag in your lap as you make the journey back home.