THE SPOT FOR UNCOMPROMISING CAJUN, CREOLE FOOD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fat Lulu's, 1818 Maryland Ave., (410) 685-4665. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch and dinner, Saturdays for dinner only. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Prices: appetizers, $3.95- $9.95; entrees, $9.95-$15.75. ***1/2

Driving past Fat Lulu's you'd probably never dream of stopping there to eat. From the outside it looks like a neighborhood bar with a funny name, nothing more. It's in a block of Maryland

Avenue that's being gentrified, with intriguing little antiques and oddities shops; but at night the area is pretty deserted. (You may remember the spot when it was the Kilkenny Irish Ale House and before that the Rev, known locally for its live music. The new place has live music as well, mostly jazz.)

We drove down the alley next to Fat Lulu's where there's supposed to be "secure parking" in the fenced lot; but there was no security guard there as promised and no other cars, so we backed out and parked on the street.

Once inside the restaurant, we immediately cheered up. Not that the outside is exactly seedy, but the dining room-bar comes as a pleasant surprise. Original brick walls have been exposed, the pressed-tin ceiling freshly painted. A large, carved wood bar dominates the tiny room; but there's space in back for a few tables, an aquarium, potted palms and, for some reason, recessed shelves filled with books. Contemporary prints line the walls. It's eclectic, relaxed, cozy and yuppified just enough.

But there's no yuppifying the food, which is uncompromising Cajun and Creole cuisine. Fat Lulu's should have a warning sign on the door: THIS FOOD IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. It's not like going to your favorite Chinese restaurant and asking if it can make the spicy Sichuan beef mild. The fire can be dampened on a few of the dishes, but most are the result of long cooking with plenty of red-hot spices. Eat it and weep.

We started with Cajun "popcorn," which is a must. The crawfish tails -- hot, crunchy-crisp bites -- are fried in cornmeal batter and arranged on a delicate pool of Creole sauce tinged with mustard and wine.

"Poor man's jambalaya" is also a must: a small plate of seasoned rice with celery, bits of chicken, sausage and just an edge of fire. The red beans and rice with ham are also outstanding; it's a hard choice.

For the truly asbestos-tongued, there's the Cajun version of Buffalo wings. You're going to love the flavor of the meaty little wings, but flames will come out of your ears. And the Cajun version doesn't have celery or blue cheese dressing to ease the pain.

About the only first course we didn't get to try that evening was the gumbo; the kitchen had run out. (It's not an extensive menu.)

One of my yuppie friends -- OK, "muppy" for middle-aged -- asked for a salad. The waitress explained gently that they don't serve salads; you would have thought she had told him the sun had stopped rising. That's what I mean about Fat Lulu's not being for everyone.

But you can get a gorgeous piece of beef fillet, pink and tender, blackened in a cast-iron skillet with enough spices to set your hair on end, then napped with a delicate, buttery sauce. (No help there; the sauce was fiery, too.) Tiny crawfish decorated the steak. You want your vegetables? Eat the zucchini rounds that garnish the plate.

Fat Lulu's has a shrimp Creole bursting with big shrimp. The tomatoes, celery, bell peppers and onion sauce over the good rice is highly seasoned, but this is about as mild a dish as you're going to get here. It was the favorite of the Louisiana native I had brought as a guest.

If I had known better, for the sake of variety I wouldn't have ordered a second dish with the same vegetables. But the chicken etoufee, with its boneless breast stuffed with andouille sausage and corn bread, tasted great. We could have tried instead the broiled half chicken with spiced peach gravy or the panned chicken with five-chili relish and Fat Lulu's own pepper sauce. Mmm, that sounds like a nice, bland choice.

I haven't told you about the corn bread. I'd come here for it alone. The waitress called it peach corn bread, but you'd never guess it has fruit in it except that it's extra moist and just faintly sweet. I loved that corn bread.

Fat Lulu's has 13 beers on tap and 16 bottled beers, but only one dessert. It was a good dessert, though: a moist, not-too-sweet chocolate chocolate chunk sweet potato cake.

Obviously we had a great evening, with excellent, low-key service and fabulous food. But your experience may not be so positive if you read this review, get in your car and head for Fat Lulu's this very night. The place is small, and I doubt if it's set up to handle crowds. Don't blame me if you wait two hours for a table and then another hour for your food. And don't say I didn't warn you if you can't stand the heat.

Next: Foster's

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