Man. Walking, walking, outskirts of College, La Mesa, searching for a kind of holy grail. Nothing less than the home of jazz and jambalaya. That’s what I was told, anyway.
Aah. Thar she blows! In this strip mall. “Bourré Southern Bistro.” Stuffed into a corner. (And actually, “stuffed” is what the word “bourré” means in French, turns out.)
6523 University Avenue, Rolando
So I walk in. Greeted by this classy lady sitting at a welcome box, surrounded by fleur de lis French decorations, varnished wooden chairs, tables with chocolate linen tablecloths, and red, silver, and blue bead necklaces clustered around table candles.
Half of the space is taken up with a stage. Music stands, mike stands.
“Jazz musicians come here to hang out and play,” says Gil Johnson, distinguished gent with white mustache handlebars climbing down to his chin. “People like Curtis Taylor, the trumpet player, Daneen Wilburn, Kamau Kenyatta.”
Quick Google... Wow. These guys are big. National. Gil says he’s having an evening next week. Other good players. “You’re welcome to come,” he says.
“Uh, cover charge?”
“No cover charge and no price changes on the food, and on those nights we have a license for wine and beer.”
“Do I have time for a bite right now?”
Because it’s almost eight at night.
“Oh, sure,” he says.
“And okay to eat just, like, appetizers?”
“Oh, sure, sure.” And he sends over one of the waitresses.
Wow, this feels new, and yet old school. Gil’s wife Gale sits on her high throne at the entrance, checking everything that goes on.
I scan the menu. Be careful. Limited lettuce tonight.
It’s mainly Cajun-Creole food, of course. Gumbo appetizer’s $6. “Classic New Orleans soup served with rice.” Louisiana meat pies, three of them, have a mix of ground beef, pork, and turkey sausage inside. Cost $7. Mini shrimp and grits costs $8, fried green tomatoes with a Cajun aioli sauce are $6, garlic parmesan fries are $7, and, hey, what’s wrong with red beans and rice at $4?
But when I find out the fries are sweet potato, I have to ask for them. Now I look for other bargains with desserts. Sweet-potato pie, Southern pecan pie, and peach cobbler all go for $6. Bananas Foster — sliced bananas sautéed in dark brown sugar with rum and cinnamon and vanilla ice cream — almost get me at $7. But...uh-oh. Cheesecake with mango sauce? Contest over. I ask for that ($7) and settle back with my glass of water. This ain’t a music night, so their liquor license doesn’t operate. Just as well, cash-wise.
The sweet-potato fries are delish with the parmesan, and almost filling as I nibble through them. But, man, star of the evening is the cheesecake. Or rather, that mango sauce.
Still, I come out knowing these items are not the real Cajun thing, like, say, jambalaya with chicken and sausage.
I tell myself: I’m coming back.
That was two weeks ago. Tonight, here I am again. They’ve got a blues-jazz group in. Robert, Robert, and Robert, aka RX-3, “a prescription for good music.”
I also check the outside menu’s main dishes. Selection seems straight from the Big Easy. Also very French. Also kind of up there. Chicken Orleans (“sautéed with white wine, lemons, and shallots,”) with garlic mashed potatoes, goes for $17. Bourré’s Southern Smoked Yard Bird, smoked, spice-rubbed, is $16. Entrée-sized bowl of gumbo is $12, catfish is $16, and a filet mignon steak topped with crab runs $23. There is cheaper stuff: po’ boy sandwiches with shrimp or catfish go for $10.95. Oyster loaf (are there really oysters in there?) costs $13.95. And a Mo’ Betta Burger, with ½ lb Angus beef patty costs $9.
Tonight, there’s even a short, red velvet theater rope outside. Lot of folks are converging. Must be the music.
Gale’s in her tall seat again. She welcomes me almost like an old friend. She says she and Gil are actually from Virginia. “But it’s Southern enough. We know this culture.”
Behind her, the place is abuzz with customers who seem like they’re meeting on club night. They seem to know the musicians, the waiters, each other. Multi-generations, too. It’s, I guess, middle-class La Mesa right here. “This is the downtown of your dreams,” says this one guy. “All of the music and food, none of the parking hell.”
Long and short, for starters I order a glass of house wine. Red. Seven bucks. Then I go crazy with a bowl of jambalaya ($14), and can’t resist that plate of three Louisiana meat pies ($7). So, bingo. Down $28 without even a sneeze.
The music starts just as I get my jambalaya. Blues, jazz, beaucoup beautiful sounds. Jambalaya’s good, robust, filled with sausagey flavors. And so it should be, at $14. The pies? Meats are also sausagey, but it’s that crunchy pastry that’s so good to eat and eat. Especially when you dunk them into the jambalaya.
But the main thing is the atmosphere here. It’s like a cocktail do at a little embassy from New Orleans itself. It’s restrained, until the trio strikes up again. Things start to happen. Kit, a lady sitting at the next table with her husband, leaps to her feet. She’s no spring chicken either. But she starts whirling like a dervish, solo, all around the room, between tables, ending up right there with the band. Band keeps playing. “Nine O’Clock Moon,” think the song is.
Ayee! Nine o’clock? I call Carla. Panicking. Buses up this end of ECB suddenly drop off around nine. Gotta get downtown.
She has so heard this before.
“Know what?” she sighs. “It’s downhill all the way from there to here, right? Just lie down and roll.”
6523 University Avenue, Rolando
Hours: 5–9 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday; 1–8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday
Prices: Gumbo appetizer, $6; three Louisiana meat pies, $7; mini shrimp and grits, $8; fried green tomatoes, $6; garlic parmesan fries, $7; red beans and rice, $4; Chicken Orleans entrée, with garlic mashed potatoes, $17; Bourré’s Southern Smoked Yard Bird, $16; catfish, $16; steak with crab meat, $23; shrimp or catfish po’ boy, $10.95; oyster loaf, $13.95; Mo’ Betta Burger (½ lb Angus beef), $9; sweet potato pie, $6; bananas Foster (with rum, cinnamon, ice cream) $7
Nearest bus stop: El Cajon Boulevard at Rolando Boulevard