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Coozan's Conquest 

Cajun cuisine at its down-home finest

Ah, what a joyous thing, when a restaurant you love is fruitful and multiplies. That's what has happened with Coozan's. I fell in love with it at its first location on South Academy and now it has expanded onto 8th Street. And the food is better than ever.

I don't even know where to start, because everything I had was so good. This is Cajun cuisine at its down-home finest, with no fancy frills but with a bam! that would make Emeril proud. The crab cake appetizers are especially fine. Three plump, golden brown crab cakes are doused in a rich, creamy Cajun sauce with a delicate but solid kick of heat that accentuates rather than overpowers the sweet, delicate crabmeat. We were reduced to mopping the sauce off the platter, anxious to get every drop. The Gator Bites are available fried or blackened, and we opted for blackened. The Louisiana cooks know exactly what they are doing, and blackened means coated with fiery spices and grilled to perfection, not physically blackened by poor cooking. The texture resembled something like chicken, and the flavor was equally mild.

I have a hard time believing you could go wrong by just closing your eyes and pointing at a menu item. The seafood or chicken and sausage gumbos are equally delicious. The seafood gumbo is naturally a little bit sweeter, filled with plump, fresh crawfish, shrimp and crab, while the other has slow-simmered chicken and spicy Andouille sausage. But I'd throw them both aside in a minute for the corn and crab bisque. After my first spoonful, I drew the bowl closer and glowered at my dining companions, not wanting to share a single drop of this thick, creamy ambrosia. Corn, onions and fresh crab come together in a soup that would make angels weep aloud and dance with joy.

Of course, those same angels might prefer a salad, in which case I would highly recommend the grilled seafood salad. You get a large bed of impeccably fresh salad greens, topped with perfectly grilled catfish, crawfish and shrimp. While you wouldn't normally associate salads with Cajun food, this one will expand your horizons.

Coozan's also excels with standard fare like red beans and rice, jambalaya and po-boys. Many places serve red beans and rice that make you wonder what the fuss is all about. Sure, it's inexpensive and filling, but so? At Coozan's, you'll be scraping the bowl for each grain of rice that's been soaking up the dazzling juice from the beans. So too with the jambalaya, studded with chewy, juicy shrimp with a little more attitude in its heat and depth. The po-boys are just about the best excuse for a sandwich ever invented, and you get fried catfish, crawfish, oysters, gator or shrimp (or one of several other options) exquisitely fried, not greasy, on a chewy loaf of French bread dressed with shredded cabbage, tartar sauce, tomato and onion. Of course, I should also mention the stuffed shrimp, where big, meaty, sweet shrimp are loaded with a creamy crabmeat stuffing, rolled in corn flour and fried to perfection.

If you are a fan of touffe, this is your haven. The cooks at Coozan's start out with a rich, copper-brown butter roux (which takes both practice and patience to achieve), and add onions, bell peppers and celery. It's carefully seasoned, spicy enough to make you sweat but so darn good you have to have more, and then loaded with crawfish or shrimp. If you're like me and can't make a decision, you can order Half and Half. Half the order is fried, the other half is touffe over rice. So you can get fried shrimp with crawfish touffe and walk away a fully satisfied human being. Or you can get a gigantic baked potato, with huge chunks of potato topped with shrimp or crawfish etouffee and cheddar cheese, and wonder why anyone would ever do anything else to a potato.

What makes every dish at Coozan's stand out is the fact that each one is painstakingly prepared following original recipes. That means the two gumbos have different bases, and the jambalaya, touffe and red beans and rice are all seasoned differently, not with one big dash of generic Cajun seasoning out of a bottle. The individual flavors play a symphony on your taste buds, anchored by the holy trinity of Cajun cooking: bell peppers, onions and celery. From that foundation, you have nowhere to go but up.

Of course, you won't find any onion, celery or pepper on the dessert menu. But you will find an enormous, rich slab of warm bread pudding with rum sauce, guaranteed to be too big for a single person to eat. The pecan pie, homemade daily, is also phenomenal, to the point of a certain someone ordering a piece and then refusing to share it with his wife and two adorable daughters. It was an immense piece, too, with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. I guess I should have shared that crab and corn bisque.

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