One of the hardest cuisines to find a decent version of in LA is Cajun. Having had a job which required me to roam around the entire state of Louisiana for two years in the early '90s, I developed a deep love and respect for Cajun food. Not the refined creole dishes of New Orleans, but the rustic, fried seafood, jambalaya and gumbo of the Cajun country. The object of my deepest affection back then was the fried crawfish po boy, but given that mud bugs just don't make it out of Louisiana all to often, the best you can hope for west of Houston is a half way decent fried oyster po boy.
In the best version of this delicacy, the oysters are fresh and plump, flash fried and slapped on a bun with lettuce, tomato and mayo. Then, you add hot sauce to taste, which for me, means enough to saturate the bread and blend with the mayo, turning it the color of Russian dressing.
For a few years after moving to LA, I relied on the fried oyster po boy at the Venice Boulevard Uncle Darrow's shack for my fix. Unfortunately, that location closed years ago, and while there is another Uncle Darrow's in Marina Del Rey, I simply never make it out to Marina Del Rey.
On my recent LA gelato tour, I found myself hanging out in Altadena to sample the wondrous Bulgarini Gelato and needing someplace to eat after knocking down some goat milk gelato or olive oil yogurt. I didn't find a lot of options in Altadena, but just over the Pasadena border is Big Mama's Rib Shack.
Big Mama's is not an impressive looking place. More of a lounge than a shack, it has the feel of a run down night club. A massive TV greets customers at the front of the restaurant, and the place is divided in half with two separate decors. The left half of the room has some stylish touches, tables and a bar, but the right side features worn out booths with ripped fabric and a carpet in need of a serious cleaning.
As the name indicates, Big Mama's is a barbecue joint and the menu tends to emphasize the barbecue options. But when I scanned the menu, my eyes landed immediately on another section, tucked away on the side: Jambalaya, file gumbo, fried seafood, and a whole list of po boys...Louisiana food. One of my rules of life is that if an oyster po boy appears on a menu, I will order it, although in California, usually it will disappoint.
The Big Mama's po boy was an unassuming creature. A smaller version than is typical, featuring just two large oysters, but biting into that po boy was one of those moments in life you treasure, when you realize that you have found something truly and unexpectedly wonderful. The first bite revealed a crisp, nicely spiced cornmeal crust encasing a beautifully cooked, huge, juicy oyster within. It included the typical lettuce and tomato, though with a bit of onion and mustard as well. I grabbed the hot sauce, splashed some on to make that perfect bite and sat back, dreaming of shacks on the bayou, the decks of which I used to lounge on eating something like this. It was one of those flavors that takes you back. I was so happy that I came close to ordering a second one right on top of the first, but I try not to overindulge in such ways as I slip into middle age.
The hush puppies were good, but nothing else we ordered was worth noting. Despite the fact that Big Mama's bills itself as a rib shack, the ribs were unexciting and the catfish had that musty, dirty taste they get when they aren't prepared quite right or aren't the best quality to begin with, but none of that mattered. For now, I've found the best LA oyster po boy that I've had in years and within just a few miles of one of the best gelato shops anywhere. This was my definition of a find, and a balanced meal to boot.
Big Mama's Rib Shack
1453 N. Lake Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91104