How is it that some of this nation's most brilliant food hails from such rash-and-damp-armpit-inducing spots? Perhaps dealing with Louisiana's moist heat builds a kind of character we will never attain here in the Northwest.

After spending a week in New Orleans, I began to relate swollen ankles with the deeply satisfying textures and flavors of Cajun and Creole cooking, and the mind-boggling friendliness with which these foods were served. I have never had more cabbies advise me to just "go to a bar and drink beer," or more strangers give out heartfelt advice on the street. These were the upsides of the inner-thigh heat rash.

Just a few weeks ago, Jemil Johnson, the chef behind the Ragin' Cajun and Southern Hospitality restaurants, opened his latest venture, La Louisiana, a new jewel in the crown of good eats on East Cherry Street. Its street presence is so subtle, I felt a little sneaky entering the dark, cool secret oasis of a dining room. More upscale than neighboring 3B's BBQ and Catfish Corner, La Louisiana offers sit-down dining that gives Capitol Hill's Kingfish a run for its money. Soon to feature a full bar, La Louisiana offers some delectable renditions of Cajun and Creole favorites served by a very professional, attitude-free staff that seems genuinely invested in every diner's experience.

The Barn Yard Pimp ($9.95) is fried chicken revisited. It's rubbed with fresh thyme and spices--lightly battered in the spirit of fried catfish, then delicately fried--and served up with a choice of vegetables (I sampled some heavenly greens, perfectly cooked and flavored with subtle fire and turkey) and an interesting range of rather superfluous dipping sauces; but why dunk that delicious bird (in albeit addictive) chipotle mayo? This proudly exemplifies the heights thoughtful fried chicken can attain.

In fact, everything I tasted was well executed. The thrilling Creole Combo ($15.95) supplied my very hungry dining companion, Sugar Shack, with filé gumbo (a lighter, yet no less complex, variation on this dark, smoky favorite bursting with the freshest shrimp, crab, and sausages), creamy red beans and rice (maybe the best, most balanced I have ever consumed), peppery jambalaya doing some fresh new dance on the tongue, and the dish that rendered our table speechless, crawfish étouffée.

There are no words. Go there and eat. Go soon before the line twists down the block. Or get takeout--the po' boy selection looks very promising, as do the salads combining fried catfish with greens (an excellent hangover cure).

La Louisiana
2514 E Cherry (Central District), 329-5007.
Sun-Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri-Sat 5-11 pm.

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