There's a category of restaurants around town that I've started calling "Viet Orleanian." Typically run by first- or second-generation Vietnamese immigrants, they specialize in bargain po-boys, seafood platters, gumbo and, usually, yakamein, the unglamorous soup known for its hangover-fighting abilities, which may be in demand during this first week of Lent.
These places don't have much curb appeal, but they can furnish a satisfying lunch with distinctly local flavor faster and cheaper than just about any other type of eatery, and they're everywhere. The addition of one more in this category is not exactly momentous news, but since it opened last spring, C&A Seafood has been upping the game in some small but significant ways.
Housed in a former gas station, remodeled with a stucco exterior and a sort of timber grotto out front, C&A from the start featured a big case of boiled seafood, with beautiful shrimp layered with bay leaf, chopped-up Dungeness crabs and piles of crawfish. A diner can make a pretty solid lunch from a half-pound of those shrimp and a 99-cent tallboy of Big Shot soda from C&A's wall of beverages.
But what grabbed my attention was the recent addition of spring rolls — fresh, clean-tasting rice paper wraps, bundled by the cash register as grab-and-go snacks. For as long as I've visited these Viet Orleanian cafes, I've wondered why they so rarely incorporate Vietnamese food into the selection. A few places, like Bywater Market (4400 St. Claude Ave., 948-8998) and Eat-Well Food Store (2700 Canal St., 821-7730), do a side business in Vietnamese dishes, but it takes some searching to find these options.
The owners of C&A Seafood also run Dream Berrie Cafe, a Baton Rouge frozen yogurt shop that offers a lengthy menu of pho, rice platters and bun noodle salads. So the template is there, and the simple addition of spring rolls at C&A is a trial balloon for a potentially more diverse menu here.
As things stand now, C&A is a reliably good pit stop for boiled seafood (call ahead for large orders or live sacks), and a bank of yogurt dispensers was recently added.
The seafood gumbo is exemplary of the Viet Orleanian style, with a full and lemony flavor, as if the roux crossed paths with a seafood boil. Fried seafood is good, especially the shrimp, which can sometimes approach the size of chicken wings. Roast beef is the unexciting deli-sliced variety, though there's something to the thin, salty gravy that makes it like a glistening glaze.
And then there's the yakamein. Dark and oily, with lots of green onion and fried onions floating on top, filled with plump shrimp, it's simple but satisfying and restorative. Still, spooning the stuff out of C&A's super-sized take-out containers, I can't help but pine a little for the pho this kitchen could be making alongside it.