Bridging the gap between the past and future of Louisiana’s favorite fast food
BY JASON VOWELL JUNE 23, 2021
I was somewhere around Krotz Springs, on the edge of Acadiana, when the hunger began to take hold. Blasting down highway 190 with my headlights pointed in the direction of the Big Easy, I had skipped the continental breakfast at my Super 8 motel in Mamou and shot straight into the heart of the Louisiana boudin trail—a mad dash through Lafayette, Scott, Breaux Bridge, Opelousas, New Iberia, and every small town slaughterhouse in between.
I hit Billy’s and Don’s, Babineaux’s and Bergeron’s. I hit The Best Stop and Billeaud’s, Chops and Charlie's, Kelly’s and Kirk’s. I bought boudin at Johnson’s and Jerry Lee’s, Juneau’s and Janise’s, Redlich’s and Richard’s.
I was on the mission of a madman: to hunt down and procure dozens of links of Louisiana’s finest regional delicacies, then fly like a bat outta Hell back to New Orleans for an evening of culinary debauchery. I’d assemble a crew of diverse, discerning palates, and we’d try as we might to taste as many links of boudin as we could stuff in our bellies. The mission? A monumental task: for our own satisfaction alone, we would attempt to answer the burning question … Who really does make the best boudin?
I was on the mission of a madman: to hunt down and procure dozens of links of Louisiana’s finest regional delicacies, then fly like a bat outta Hell back to New Orleans for an evening of culinary debauchery.
The trunk of my car looked like a meat market counter: coolers stuffed with still-steaming sausages—spicy boudin, smoked boudin, wet boudin, dry boudin; boudin with big hunks of pork, big hunks of liver; whole rice or mashed, smashed, and ground—all bound up in a casing that either possesses that signature snap when you sink your teeth into it or is best enjoyed as a tube for squeezing.
I remember thinking, “I feel a bit lightheaded. I should pull over.” So, I spun the tires into the gravel lot at Kartchner’s Grocery for something to take the edge off, to quell the growling beast in the pit of my stomach.
Kartchner’s looks a bit like one of those saloons you see in old Western films: weathered railroad wood exterior and sun-bleached four-by-four pillars. The little warning bell jangled loudly when I pushed open the door. A wave of anxiety swept through me as a room full of locals, all munching away on boudin balls the size of their fists, swung around to glare in my direction. I must have looked starved. Famished. And probably a little out of place. A stereotypical city boy off the beaten path.
The little warning bell jangled loudly when I pushed open the door. A wave of anxiety swept through me as a room full of locals, all munching away on boudin balls the size of their fists, swung around to glare in my direction.
Like so many other Louisiana backroad butchering establishments, the walls were lined with buzzing coolers displaying the faded logos of long-extinct fizzy drinks. Their flickering tubes of charged vapor illuminated row after row of specialty meats: chickens stuffed with crawfish dressing, bacon-wrapped venison backstrap, rabbits rubbed crimson with Cajun seasoning, chunky smoked andouille, whole turduckens, a seemingly endless variety of sausages.
Intoxicated by the smell of spices and wood smoke and hot grease, I bought a couple steaming links of boudin, with some heavily seasoned cracklin’s for good measure, and tore back out onto the highway, squeezing the innards of a perfect link into my open mouth like Popeye squeezing a can of spinach. With a wave of euphoria, my strength returned. Wiping my hands on the front of my shirt, I cranked the radio with greasy fingers, rolled down the window, and zoomed through the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, past the swamps filled with equally hungry gators, my sights set on the lights of the Crescent City.
If you ask ten people in Louisiana where their favorite boudin is made, you’ll likely get seventeen answers. That’s why my comrades in battle arrived at a stalemate during our marathon taste test that fateful night, a hung jury moaning in agony, soon to burst from tasting, debating, and absolutely reveling in every moment of our quest for the best. Between sips of good bourbon, we all agreed on one thing: boudin may, quite possibly, be the world’s most perfect food.
Intoxicated by the smell of spices and wood smoke and hot grease, I bought a couple steaming links of boudin, with some heavily seasoned cracklin’s for good measure, and tore back out onto the highway, squeezing the innards of a perfect link into my open mouth like Popeye squeezing a can of spinach.
Which is why Louisiana natives can get somewhat defensive, or let’s say a bit precious, about anyone messing with the recipe of traditional boudin. How is it that we get so up in arms about a foodstuff that is many times best served from the counter in the back of a gas station?
What is it exactly that makes boudin . . . boudin? Rice, seasoning, aromatics, and pork? Even a career mathematician would struggle to equate the seemingly endless variations that lie in those four building blocks. And aside from what is inside, reworking the boudin vessel is nothing new or the least bit controversial. Or is it?
Between sips of good bourbon, we all agreed on one thing: boudin may, quite possibly, be the world’s most perfect food.
Long ago ingenious cooks began swapping out boudin’s traditional casing for a roll though some peppery, wet batter and giving it a nice bath in the deep fryer until crispy and golden. Someone brilliantly realized along the way that a flour tortilla had more structural integrity, which in turn saved the front of many a shirt from ruin while eating boudin and driving. Next came boudin egg rolls, boudin pistolettes, boudin and egg breakfast biscuits. At some point, gooey pepper jack cheese became an enthusiastically embraced addition to the mix.
In the right hands, an already perfect dish can be made even better, elevated. Still, some of these sinful variations cause debates as heated as politics and football.
This got me thinking, and the beast in my stomach groaning once again. So once more, I put rubber to the road and set out to get my hands on some of the boudin variations that have had people whispering in hushed tones, while also—sometimes secretly—lining up to get their fix.
Just twenty six miles west of New Orleans, along the levee of the Mississippi River in Luling, Jason Gonzalez has been turning the idea of boudin on its head. In 2016, after being laid off from the Shell Oil Company, Gonzalez started cooking Texas-style barbecue at farmers markets and local breweries. He quickly amassed a following, and in 2020 opened his brick and mortar, Gonzo’s Smokehouse & BBQ.
Realizing there was a tragic shortage of good boudin in the area surrounding New Orleans, Gonzalez made it his mission to put his own signature spin on the sausage. So, he started experimenting with what he knew best: barbecue.
Gonzo’s brisket boudin, created by Texas barbecue extraordinaire Jason Gonzalez, is one example of pearl-clutch-inducing innovation in the realm of boudin-making.
What came next was an epiphany. Using the trimmings from his juicy, peppery briskets, Gonzalez started making smoked brisket boudin. Next came the beef cheek barbacoa boudin, then pork belly “burntend” boudin. Unsurprisingly, as his boudin menu grew, so did the line outside his door. Gonzo’s is only open on Fridays, but Gonzalez sells out every weekend.
To the north in Baton Rouge, Pastime Restaurant, a pizza hub that is celebrating its seventy-fifth year in business, has had to trademark their zany Boudin Pizza to keep competitors from stealing the idea. They pile hand-stretched dough high with chopped purple onion, green bell peppers, jalapeños, and lots of their special house boudin, then smother it all in a shredded-to-order three cheese blend. This signature creation is cooked in an old stone floor oven for an extra crispy crust. On any given day you can find politicians, celebrities, and LSU students hunched over a boudin pie.
What came next was an epiphany. Using the trimmings from his juicy, peppery briskets, Gonzalez started making smoked brisket boudin. Next came the beef cheek barbacoa boudin, then pork belly “burntend” boudin.
Eighty miles away, T-Boy’s Slaughter house in Mamou is a six-time Peoples Choice winner of the Lafayette Original Boudin Cook-Off. It is also home to one of the few links in the state that could help you lose a few pounds. T-Boy’s is one of the many shops around the region (including Hebert’s, Cormier’s, and NuNu’s Fresh Market) that has hopped on the keto diet trend and started offering a low carb boudin option made with cauliflower instead of rice. And if you can’t take a road trip to Acadiana, T-Boy’s ships their low carb boudin to all fifty states. This healthier alternative holds its own against the traditional boudin with its big hunks of pork and house-perfected spice blend.
While traditional boudin will always reign in Louisiana, we must be careful that we don’t let nostalgia confine our horizons too narrowly. We owe it to the next generation, and our taste buds, to be open to fresh interpretations. Whether it be boudin from a back counter in a gas station, an established and loved meat market, or the white table cloths of the French Quarter.
We have all the momentum. And with the right eye, you can see the delicious wave of inspiration rolling out from the past to the future, bridging the divide—one link of boudin at a time.