BY PAUL ROUPE
When you think of Southern cuisine in California, Modesto probably won’t be the first place that comes to mind.
Better known for George Lucas than jambalaya, the city now has some of the New Orleans spirit stuffed into a restaurant on 13th Street, giving food lovers a flavor that is lacking in the Central Valley.
Mark Nelson, a personal injury attorney based in Modesto, loved visiting New Orleans and admired the city so much that he decided to bring some of it back home with him. He opened The Bayou Bar & Grill on April 1 2017, and when it arrived there was nothing like it anywhere around.
Sure, you could probably track down a Po’Boy sandwich or some gumbo if you were patient enough and had some extra gas in the tank, but to have a Big Easy themed restaurant that combines vibe and unique regional dishes in one spot is a bit different.
Starting a business that focuses on a style of food most Valley residents might not be familiar with may seem like a gamble, and for a while after the doors opened it looked like just that.
It took some time for the Bayou to find its identity and to establish itself as more than just a gimmick. The masks on the walls adorned with feathers and rhinestones, the colorful beads draping the chairs, the tall slender jazz figurines that greet visitors upon entrance, all of it means nothing without authentic Southern cooking to back it up.
At first, The Bayou wasn’t doing as well as Nelson had hoped, so he knew that changes had to be made if it was to be successful. That’s when he hired Heather DeShaw, who has 15 years experience in the culinary world, to take over as general manager in December. A new chef was hired and a new menu was released and business began increasing.
“I can’t express how much of a team they are,” DeShaw said of the staff. “If you don’t love your job, it’ll show in the food.”
And the food is definitely the reason patrons keep coming back.
“A lot of people think that because we’re landlocked in the Central Valley we don’t have access to fresh items, but those trucks move over the hill (from the Bay) pretty quick,” DeShaw said.
They get fresh fish lists every day, showing what’s stocked on the docks in the morning. The Pacific Ocean is a rich source of shrimp, and they get renewed shipments of seafood at least twice a week. Their oysters have a much longer journey though, making their way here from the eastern coast of Canada.
DeShaw says she gets compliments from New Orleans natives on how the Bayou captures the soul of Southern cuisine. Some have even compared their beignets to the famous Café Du Monde’s, a Big Easy feature since 1862.
And it’s the menu, simple yet strong, which is at the center of it all: Po’Boy sandwiches, fresh oysters, chicken or shrimp jambalaya, gumbo packed with shrimp and andouille sausage, alligator bites, and a new Mardi Gras salad with house-made cranberry rum relish that DeShaw says is awesome.
“The flavor profile is amazing…it just dances all over your mouth,” DeShaw said.
In addition to providing great grub for those who come in and sit down for a bite, The Bayou also participates in events that can showcase their talents as well as raise awareness for causes.
The One Table Community Dinner, which takes place on May 6 at 15th St. and the McHenry Mansion, helps benefit United Way of Stanislaus County.
The Bayou Bar & Grill will serve their appetizers, and the more than 300 guests who attend and eat at the block-long table will also get to sample the flavors of other local chefs.
They are also volunteering for Pirate’s Day, held for Modesto Junior College students, where they will give a taste of their menu to those who no doubt could use some free samples.
With word of mouth spreading like Louisiana hot sauce, it’s no wonder The Bayou figures to be part of the downtown culinary landscape for the foreseeable future.