Magnolia's Authentic Southern Dining
JUST HOW MANY CRAYFISH TAILS does Bessie Johnson pile into a portion of crawfish etouffee? Oh, somewhere between a heap and a bunch— but it’s loads more fun to eat this old-style Louisiana dish than to audit its star ingredient.
Crayfish or crawfish? It depends on where you call home, and perhaps your family’s private vocabulary. At her new restaurant in Market Creek Plaza on Euclid Avenue, Johnson lists crawfish under just about every menu category except dessert, but many of her fellow Louisianans call these freshwater shellfish “mud bugs,” while other Americans favor “crawdads.” The French say ecrevisses, as well they may, since they provided both the word “etouffee” and the culinary underpinnings of the Cajun-Creole cuisine to which the dish belongs.
But etymology pales beside a mound of the creamy orange crawfish stew ($15), for which the most appropriate word is “yummy.” The unusually vivid color of the sauce owes to tomatoes and Cayenne pepper. Piquant from the very first bite, the effect is spicy, but not intense. Simmered at a leisurely pace and lavishly spooned over white rice, the etouffee gradually reveals layers of flavors, some belonging to the minced celery, bell peppers, onions and garlic stirred with flour and fat to make a roux, the foundation sauce with which many Louisiana dishes commence.
The names of the Johnson family—Bessie, her husband Charles and their children, Tracee and Robert—became familiar a dozen years ago, when they opened Bessie’s Garrett on Prospect Street in La Jolla. While rather good, that restaurant lasted just a couple of years—San Diegans dislike second-floor locations—but the new Magnolia’s Authentic Southern Dining should prove more durable. The name carefully describes the scope of a menu that Bessie herself cooks: The gumbos and jambalayas of New Orleans ($8 to $13) share the list with Southern favorites like fried chicken ($11), pork chops smothered in garlic-onion gravy ($13) and deep-fried catfish served on a plate piled with hush puppies, French fries and cole slaw ($13). The list acknowledges soul food with “Jus’ Chitterlings” ($10), or fried hog intestines, and takes a turn at “fusion cuisine” with crawfish enchiladas ($14) that Johnson garnishes à la louisiane with red beans and dirty rice. Why “dirty”? Because the rice is sautéed with minced vegetables, giblets and sausage.
“I like the music,” said a guest, listening to the jazz that eased from the bar through the dining room one Friday night. Magnolia’s was full, and nobody seemed in a hurry—except the waitress, who brought a couple of courses at such a rapid rate that on a subsequent visit, the meal was ordered one course at a time. The menu cautions “Good food takes time,” to which should be added, “So take time to enjoy it.” Our local tradition of consistently friendly—but often inept— service is loyally upheld by this new eatery. The décor recalls a French Quarter courtyard, with a trio of mirrors framed in shutters and above these, a mezzanine painted like a balcony, with magnolia blossoms entwined among the wrought-iron railings.
There’s a tasty irony in the fact that a weight-loss salon is next door. Although the menu surprises by offering vegetarian variations of certain dishes—there is a portabello mushroom etouffee ($13), and the same mushroom is offered as a grilled entrée with side dishes ($13) and stuffed in a po’ boy sandwich ($9)—Magnolia’s invites major self-indulgence. Starters tend to be deep-fried, as in chicken wings and catfish fingers (each $7) and oysters ($8.50 for six). New Orleans– style barbecued shrimp arrive from the broiler rather than the deep fryer, and sizzle in a spicy, herb-rich butter sauce the menu designates as “bread-sopping” ($9). The hefty po’ boys ($8 to $10) groan with fillings of fried shrimp, crayfish and catfish, all laden with spicy Cajun-style mayonnaise.
Even the seafood Caesar salad, a good variation on the local favorite, is made with fried crayfish or shrimp ($10). Salads can be shared, or enjoyed as filling meals, especially given the hot, crumbly, messy and thoroughly irresistible corn muffins served alongside. Considerable work goes into the construction of the friedchicken salad ($8), which assists the bird and lettuces with cucumbers, Cheddar cheese and hard-boiled egg. But which do you eat first, the chicken or the egg?
Cold, boiled shrimp with rémoulade sauce is one of this writer’s personal favorites; the spicy New Orleans variation on the classic mustard-mayonnaise of France ranks near the top among American culinary inventions. Magnolia’s, however, serves this as a salad ($8.50), and the greens frankly interfere with the perfect marriage between shrimp and sauce.
ON THE OTHER HAND, the combination filé gumbo ($9 for a “small” bowl, $13 for one that will keep you quite busy) is just perfect, the broth thick and dark and absolutely jammed with shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage, plus portions of crab in the shell. A crab-cracker allows guests to enjoy every succulent morsel.
If the fried chicken is good in a salad, it’s even better as a plate ($11) garnished with cornbread dressing and a side dish chosen from among collard greens, candied yams, black-eyed peas and other items. There are well-seasoned, pan-fried pork chops ($13), as well as hard-to-find treats like smothered chicken cooked with sweet peppers and brown gravy ($11). The jambalayas, or rice casseroles, are made with sausage and either shrimp ($13) or chicken ($11) and can have the same virtues and faults as Spanish paellas—lots of flavor but rather heavy textures.
Pairing wines with such boldly flavored foods can be difficult, but Magnolia’s list makes a solid connection with Gloria Ferrer Chardonnay ($23). This goes nicely with the crayfish etouffee and should do as well with the other seafood dishes.
Keep the neighboring weight-loss salon in mind when considering the “Sweet Somethings,” as the menu coyly designates the serious portions of homemade sweet-potato pie, bread pudding and peach cobbler (each $5.50). All hit the mark—but the list begs both a question and a comment: “Why no pecan pie?” and !!!
Magnolia’s serves lunch and dinner daily except Monday at Market Creek Plaza, 342 Euclid Avenue in San Diego. Reservations are accepted at 619-262-6005.