God love a good resurrection. Especially one with alligators.
Two years had passed since Louisiana native Todd Dorman opened BooDad's Beach House Grill at the site of Sand Pits Beach Volleyball, which he created in 1998. Like those who'd rented the restaurant half of the business from him prior (see: Sharkey's, Porky's, Oscar's East), Dorman was struggling on the food side.
But rather than stick his head in the sand, he ran an ad for management help. Which is how he met East Texas native Rick Good, who boasts 35 years in the business, 20 of those with big chains like Cracker Barrel.
Good isn't into the soulless streamlining of can-and-bag kitchens as much as he is tightening up recipes and refining quality. Any empire he builds will rest on a from-scratch foundation, sans the help of microwaves.
"I'm an old corporate GM. I'm never happy," he says. "The day you get complacent and quit pushing to improve is the day you're done."
And so began constant tweaking of Dorman's family recipes, more rigorous training, higher pay for experienced cooks, lower menu prices, and now — just a year later — an expansion into Manitou Springs with a slightly craftier concept that may later launch more than a dozen stores nationally if Good stays on target.
That's not a revamp, it's a rebirth.
I could tell something was different immediately in Manitou, where in the old PJ's Bistro you can dine amid Mardi Gras-friendly yellow, green and purple walls or on the Zydeco-tuned scenic patio. The plates before me sported big, layered flavors, good textures and proper Southern grit and charm. I was only one week removed from my latest visit to New Orleans and enjoying my jambalaya and étouffée at BooDad's more than at the famous NOLA spots that see daily tourist lines out their doors.
Thinking back to our "Volley-bawl" food review of the original BooDad's in June 2012, I played through a stunned, WTF, I'm-not-going-crazy-am-I internal monologue between bites. But gators don't lie. Nor, apparently, do fried pickles, battered dynamically like most fried items here in a cornmeal mix with several seasonings that include visible chopped parsley leaves.
BooDad's keeps its recipes close, only offering that its remoulade, or "Boo Sauce," features 17 different inputs, from capers and mayo to Cajun spices. It shows up everywhere on the menu as a topper or dip, including with those gator bites, which eat more like fried oysters than chicken nuggets.
To anyone who's chowed gator before and quipped, "Tastes like chicken": That's because you were likely eating tough, chewy tail meat from a national distributor. BooDad's buys the soft "tenderloin of the gator" from closer to the tooth and direct from the Bayou, often selling out between five-day delivery windows.
Legit Andouille sausage hails from the region as well, helping round out the commendable and meaty house gumbo with traditional Choctaw filé powder and a thick roux not reduced to a burnt flavor, but bearing a nice lingering spice heat. The jambalaya, too, bursts with holy-trinity-base backbone and character, and the étouffée (ours topped with a sear-kissed, buttery strip of catfish) finishes with a hauntingly fine and faint, acidic white wine wisp. Good later reveals it's "a little twang" of clam juice and Sauternes (French wine gifted sweetness by noble rot).
"It's like barbecue sauce in Texas or green chile in New Mexico," he says. How you like your classic Cajun or Creole stews "depends on how your momma made it."
Thus, his and Dorman's moms are all right by me.
For another glimpse into the direction BooDad's will soon take, order the lavish, crab-stuffed catfish topped in étouffée, as Good wants to up his fresh fish quota to replace bar-typical items like wings on the menu. New desserts and cocktails and a whole new breakfast service also will come soon on the west side, possibly to be mirrored out east.
Be assured that items like the blackened crawfish po-boy will stay. It's executed beautifully on a soft chewy roll and paired well with fried okra, a great slaw or stupid-good and surprisingly spicy red beans and rice — perhaps the best I've had.
The house Muffaletta gets a lesser-seen warmed treatment on focaccia, with the textbook vinegar nip from an olive salad spread. Only the oddly flavor-mute Bayou Burger left us wanting more personality, which is pretty much what we said about it in 2012.
The only other stumble's easily avoided, if the cooks can remember to actually warm the dense pecan pie in the oven before serving it, and to dust off any Parmesan crumbles that might have rained in from a nearby salad in the pantry station. Our service was otherwise informed, quite friendly and attentive.
Regarding drinks: The smaller space means fewer beer options than out east, but enjoyable Abita Andygator Doppelbock flows on tap, and Rockyard Brewing contributes the likes of a likable seven-chili black beer. So with growth, selectivity must remain.
Considering that's what's working with this expansion and update, the selectivity is a good thing. To the BooDad's of the past: Later, alligator.