A Boudin Runs Through It

A Boudin Runs Through It

Two chefs, 348 miles, and a bottle of antacids in search of the kind of truth found only in a sausage casing.

March 20, 2019
● 11 min read
A Boudin Runs Through It

A Boudin Runs Through It

Two chefs, 348 miles, and a bottle of antacids in search of the kind of truth found only in a sausage casing.

March 20, 2019
● 11 min read
By Richie Nakano 

Buc-ee’s on I-10 couldn’t exist anywhere else but Texas.

Thirty gas pumps stand at attention out front. Snacks, knick-knacks, and smoker-grill combos line the inside. If you were on the road and needed some jerky, a soda, and a sign that said “No Dancing On The Tables With Spurs” then Buc-ee’s is your place.

They also boast some of the most spacious and clean bathrooms I’ve ever seen. I know this because I’m vomiting my brains out in one.

I’m on the road with Ryan Lachaine, chef of Riel in Houston, Texas, headed east for Cajun Country. We’re following an unofficial trail dedicated to boudin—one that supposedly boasts over 80 boudin shops along the way, guided tours of which run upwards of $300 a day. Sure, you can find boudin at trendy, Cajun-inspired restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, but it’s the dense concentration of boudin shops and the proud traditions and recipes handed down for generations that makes the self-determined path the best place to experience it. It’s road food, with no frills hiding its true nature. Our plan is to stretch out the five and a half hours between Houston and New Orleans into two days, stuffing our faces with boudin links and chicken fried boudin balls along a sort-of carefully planned out route. 

We’re doing this because, given the current state of affairs in our country, sometimes it helps to hit the road—plus, Ryan needed a couple of days off from his barely year-old restaurant. And yes, staying up until 4 am drinking the cheapest bourbon at that restaurant was, at best, irresponsible. As I stagger out of the Buc’ees bathroom, sweaty and bleary-eyed, Ryan hands me a bottle of water. The message is clear: get it together. We’re late, and we have many, many sausages to eat.

Boudin, if you’re unfamiliar, is sausage. If you were to take a pork-heavy Cajun dirty rice, stuff it into a casing and cook it, that’s boudin. The history surrounding boudin stretches back to the early 1700s, where German and French immigrants, settled in the deep in the bayous, tried to make the most of a freshly slaughtered hog and the pantry ingredients on hand.

Despite its history, the boudin trail isn’t some kind of rite of passage for fledgling Southern chefs; much of the region’s best boudin can be found in gas stations and convenience stores. Everyone has their opinion about where the best links and boudin balls can be found, so the discovery of a new place often only comes via word of mouth or on janky internet message boards for the truly fanatical. You don’t get an “I Survived The Boudin Trail” T-shirt once you’ve driven it. (Though—you should, as I would soon come to believe.)

Our general plan goes like this: At each place, we’ll get a plain link and a smoked link, and a couple of boudin balls if they have them, and maybe a bag of cracklins. The smoked is the popular option amongst the boudin bloggers, which yes, is a thing. Their websites have a delightful 2004-era internet quality to them. If the place has something special, like a pistolette, we’ll get that too. The call of boudin can take you veering off onto side streets, into residential neighborhoods, and can even take you far south, towards the coast, but for now, a long stretch of Highway 10 lies between us, Lake Charles and Baton Rouge, populated with huge billboards for personal injury attorneys and alligator farms.

Hitting the road with Ryan comes with several advantages. He knows the route and has his go-to boudin stops. He drives a very big, very comfy, very Texas pickup truck. And lastly, he has a stamina that outpaces mine in the best of times. When I asked him to drive me into a sausage-filled swamp, dude didn’t even check his calendar first.

The road headed out of Houston is lined with chain restaurants, Whataburgers, and a smattering of colorful vape shops. (After it feels like we’ve been driving forever, I ask Ryan where we are. He just says, “Houston.”) Houston sprawls. Even when it looks like you’ve left the city and the suburbs are becoming more and more sparse, yep—you’re still in Houston. In August of 2017, when Harvey made landfall, the bit of highway we’re currently passing over was fully underwater. The significance of driving the connecting line between a city recently decimated by a hurricane to another city formerly decimated by a hurricane hangs over us, and there’s silence in the car.

The I-10 runs right through Acadiana, where we’re headed. Starting at the western edge of Louisiana, extending south to the coast and west to New Orleans, Acadiana is a beautiful place that’s considerably less True Detective season one than I was expecting. As we cross the state line, we pass oil refineries, school bus graveyards, and gator farms. It’s my first time in Louisiana, and in my mind, all of the places we’re going to hit will be charming little shacks and smokehouses. I stare out the window and wait.

We pull into a parking lot of a... Market Basket.

There aren’t too many hard rules to boudin, Ryan explains as we head in. Some people smoke it, some poke holes in it and put it in a little water before they put it in the oven. There’s regular pork boudin with a little bit of liver in it, seafood boudin, crawfish boudin, shrimp boudin. It’s a perfect vehicle for using up every last piece of meat, bulked out with rice into the perfect road snack.

So no, Market Basket is not a charming smokehouse, but the shelves are stocked with all sorts of pre-made roux and étouffée. At the back of the store, instead of a typical meat counter, there’s a deli case stacked with a huge variety of sausages, both pre-cooked and raw, smoked and not smoked, plus a row of food warmers for boudin to-go. We get a regular and a hot link and go outside to a picnic table covered in cigarette ash. The boudin is warm and wrapped in white butcher paper slowly turning translucent from pork fat. I’m excited and nervous and still mildly hungover. If my emotions were a potpourri, the perfume of this moment would be onion powder, rain-soaked cedar, and a hint of fryer oil.

The boudin is long, about 10 inches or so, wrapped in a natural casing. The texture is softer than I had expected; the casing doesn’t snap so much as it tears apart. The flavor is good, mildly spicy, studded with rice and peppers, the meat paddled so much that kind of just blends into the background. I’m excited, and I scribble notes down to try to capture the moment, but Ryan declares it average and moves to get back in the truck. We’ve now set a boudin control.

The drive to our second stop, Sonnier’s, is about a five-minute drive across the interstate. The area is mostly residential, with some palatial plantation mansions, picturesque with moss hanging from the trees. Then, in the span of about a block, we’re passing trailer parks and smatterings of crashed (?) boats piled up together on the muddy shores. When we arrive, it’s closer to what I had imagined as a typical boudin shop: A fleur-de-lys hangs from the awning of a tin roof, bars decorate the windows, and an inexplicable wagon wheel hangs next to the front door. Ryan pauses for a second. “This place looks legit,” he says. In we go.

The interior is sparse and dimly lit with dusty fluorescent track lighting. The air is a smoky haze and a little chilly. There’s no music, no chatter, just a case filled with boudin and shelves lined with various seasonings and hot sauces. We follow our plan—one regular, one smoked, plus a bag of cracklins—and go to pay. The woman behind the counter hands me my change and smirks. “Where y’all from?”

“Uh, California. And Houston.”

Her reply makes it sound like she is not surprised to hear this. We see ourselves out.

This boudin is already markedly different from our first round. The smoked link is dryer, with more snap, while the regular boudin is steamed. I ask Ryan if we’re supposed to cook it more, like a take-home thing, and he shrugs at me. The flavors of each are fine, mild and meaty, but what stands out is the bag of pork belly cracklins. Each piece shatters with a good crunch of salty fat, atop bits of lean jerky. We each eat one, before—despite my protests—Ryan takes the bag away. There’s more boudin to eat, and we need every ounce of room.

Our third stop is about 20 minutes away, which is just enough to have a sip of water and rest for a second. This boudin trip is like some kind of cajun Oktoberfest with extra potato salad, and while we aren’t in abject pain yet, the list of places still to come has become daunting. Compiling the list was an unscientific process. Drawing between places suggested by chefs, and places suggested by the boudin blogs didn’t always yield a straight line. Why didn’t Boudin Link dot com like Ryan’s favorite place as much as he did? We exit the interstate and head down a quiet country road.

Rabideaux’s is the most polished of our stops so far. Up front, there’s a lunch counter and plenty of seating; in back boasts a huge butchery and processing operation for boudin and wild game. Ryan tells me the processing is how most of these places stay afloat—hunters who don’t know what to do with the giant deer they just shot bring it here to be cut up and vacuum sealed into neat easily freezable pouches. The menu is fryer heavy; fried fish, fried livers, fried gizzards, fried potatoes, fried corn on the cob, egg rolls, and even fried pizza, which, somehow, is tempting. We settle on the chicken fried boudin, each about the size of a baseball. Ryan orders two, a regular and a pepper jack, along with two pistolettes, delicate pastries filled with a sort of crawfish gravy. As I pay, the woman behind the counter looks us up and down and asks, “Where y’all from?”

Outside in the sticky Louisiana heat, a flyer taped to the window offers a reward for the return of two stolen guns. The boudin balls are good, but deep fried food comes with its own brand of guilt, one that’s compounded when adding sausage and rice to the mix. After the pistolette, that perilous, euphoric middle ground between being full and heart disease sets in.

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. I may be about 9,995 hours short at this point, but there are a couple of things I’ve learned: boudin is not good steamed. Seasoning it requires a heavy hand. The grind of the meat matters: Too large and the extra chewing makes for a rice-y, meaty mess in your mouth. Too fine, and it’s almost sandy. Despite its road reputation, there is an art to it. 

*

On the road towards Lafayette, it’s just us and a never-ending chain of semi-trucks. We talk about the food world and watch the tiny arrow that represents us crawl across Google Maps. To the north, Baton Rouge. To the south, New Iberia. Eventually, we arrive in Duson, the place with the highest concentration of boudin shops on our list.

Duson is tiny, with casino-gas station hybrids, dive bars, and a biker clubhouse that looks like a chill place to get murdered. Menard’s Cajun Grocery is a small shack situated on the side of a highway. The menu is huge for such a small place. There’s gumbo, fried chicken, po’ boys, and a wide array of sides, and as I peer into the kitchen, I see what has to be the biggest bank of fryers ever assembled. 

We get a couple of boudin balls and against my better judgment, a Dr. Pepper. I do not enjoy Dr. Pepper, not even a little bit, but the clerk tells me I have to wash boudin down with Dr. Pepper at least once (“It’s called a Cajun breakfast.”). The boudin is fresh out of the fryer, with gooey, perfectly melting pepper jack in the center, and the sausage is bursting with flavor.   

Maybe it’s just that we haven’t had boudin in like 20 minutes, but it’s good. Really good. And there’s something pure, however cliche, about standing in a gravel parking lot next to a busy highway, eating boudin out of the back of a pickup truck. I add another note to my still-not-even-close-to-10,000-hours quest: Fancier places do not produce better boudin. The tastiest boudin balls are fried hard, the flour coating peeling back and leaving dark brown fissures in between the golden brown ridges.

And I’ll be damned: Dr. Pepper has just the right balance of spicy sweetness to cut through the sausage. Later, we realize there was probably a healthy dash of MSG in the flour. When I call to confirm this, they tell me the recipe is a secret and hang up.

*

Soon after all of the roads have turned into rues and we pass a mailbox made out of a John Deere riding mower, we arrive at Ryan’s go-to, Best Stop: right off the highway, with a giant picture of Jesus slapped on the door. (“Plus, he adds, “The other boudin spot near there, Billy’s, always has too long of a line.”) More of an actual lunch place and less of a shack, the boudin balls here are smaller, more sensible. It’s the most crushable, if you will, of the boudin so far. Against all odds, we finish everything.

 At this point, the sun is low in the overcast sky, and the traffic on the highway has swelled. The hangover is gone but my body is screaming for something, anything else. Broccoli. Green juice. Pepto. The hours blur. We’ve been at this 12 hours? Or has it been 14?

We stop for green things in New Orleans. “We gotta go see this dude about some boudin,” Ryan says from across the table. “My friend says this guy does boudin all natural, no MSG, lots of offal, some kinda heritage recipe. I guess it’s on the menu for like, $17.”

I poke at my kale salad and wonder if that misses the point. I wasn’t sure we needed fancy boudin.

Eating off the back of a pickup truck on the side of a highway isn’t something you’ll see listed in travel blogs, or featured in someone’s Instagram. It’s just not picturesque—and that’s the beauty of it. The accessibility. The trail itself is not packed end to end with “perfect” boudin.

Boudin is first and foremost a utility. There’s something about doing a boudin crawl that felt disingenuous in the way a taco crawl in LA or a pizza crawl in NYC doesn’t. I call up Michael Gulotta, chef of MOPHO and Maypop in New Orleans, to see what he thinks.

“I've grown up eating boudin my whole life. If we were traveling, that was the best thing to get,” he says. He tells me about a dinner he did up in Texarkana recently. “We stopped at a random gas station somewhere North of Lafayette and got boudin. It was awesome because it's not perfect. I think a lot of times when chefs recreate it, we try to make it too perfect. And this isn't—the liver’s a little grainy, it's a little too salty, It's a little too spicy, but you keep eating it.”

Perhaps dissecting the boudin trail does it a disservice. Had we savored the links and cracklins, washed them down with a cold Dr. Pepper and continued on our way, it probably would’ve brought us closer to what we were seeking. The boudin trail is not tidy or neat and doesn’t exist to be boasted about. 

“Next year let’s do this same trip, only crawfish,” Ryan says. I pop another antacid.

 

*


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