It's a treat to find authentic Cajun food when I travel and while I was in Louisville recently I came across Joe's OK Bayou. I truly love Cajun food and I wanted the whole Cajun experience, so I decided to try a little bit of everything at Joe's when I was in there recently.
Joe's OK Bayou was started 14 years ago by Joe Wheatley, a native of Morganfield, KY. Wheatley attended the University of Kentucky and worked for a small Cajun food restaurant in Lexington. When his parents would visit, they would always go to the Cajun restaurant to eat. Wheatley's parents, Malcolm and Leslie, became well acquainted with the owners of the Cajun restaurant, learning some of the recipes the owners brought with them from Louisiana years before. In 1993, the Wheatley's opened their own Cajun/Seafood restaurant in Henderson, KY, on the Ohio River just south of Evansville, IN.
In 1995, Joe Wheatley opened his first Joe's OK Bayou in Louisville. He featured a full Cajun menu and decorated his small restaurant like an authentic Cajun shrimp shack. As things were getting going for Joe in Louisville, his parents sold their restaurant in Henderson and opened a new restaurant - the Feed Mill Restaurant - in their hometown of Morganfield, KY, just south of where Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana all come together at the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio Rivers. The Feed Mill featured a more diverse menu including steaks, chops and barbecue in addition to the Cajun specialties the Wheatleys were becoming famous for.
As Joe's OK Bayou grew in business, Joe Wheatley added on to the original location in Louisville. In 2005, he added a Joe's OK Bayou in Lexington, KY; and a year later he opened a third location across the river from Louisville in New Albany, IN.
The original location was not far from the hotel that I stayed at during my trip to Louisville. In fact, Joe's OK Bayou is located in the same little shopping complex that Perfetto Pizza resides (see map). I was rather surprised to realize that both places were so close together. The Colonial-style exterior of Joe's gave way to an interior that resembled a restaurant that you'd find in the heart of the Louisiana bayou.
There are two parts of Joe's OK Bayou - the front dining area that has a nice bar that was packed with people, and a rear seating area that was much larger than the front. I'm guessing that was the expanded part of the restaurant. I sat at a table in the front part of the restaurant and was given a menu by the waitress. I also ordered up an Abita Amber, a wonderful beer from Louisiana they had on tap.
As I said, I really wanted to try a little of everything. And they had it all on the menu. Shrimp, gumbo, crawfish, oysters on the half-shell, all types and different Cajun dishes. My head was spinning trying to grasp what I could get. They had softshell crabs, gator tail and crawfish etoufee on the menu. I couldn't figure out what I really wanted to get.
One of the specials they had that evening at Joe's was oysters on the half-shell. I ordered up six of those while I looked over the full menu. When they were brought out to me, I was surprised to see six of the meatiest and fresh oysters this side of any seaside town where I've eaten oysters. They were great. I was in feverish anticipation of other items they had on the menu.
After I finished off the very good oysters, I got the waitress to come by and explain some items on the menu. The portions looked huge, especially if you ordered a dinner which came with two sides. The smallest size of crawfish they had to offer was two pounds. I asked if they could just send out a pound of crawfish. She was pretty set in that it had to be two pounds. All right, I saw that she wasn't going to budge on the negotiations, so I ordered up two pounds of crawfish (there's really not a lot of meat on a crawfish, so two pounds of crawfish is like a quarter pound of meat - if that). I also ordered up a bowl of gumbo - no cup size was available. And I ordered up some jambalaya, a small order. (Many of the items such as gumbo and jambalaya are offered in up to quart-sized "to-go" containers.)
The crawfish was the next to come out. They were a little fishy tasting and were more than likely frozen crawfish from China, but they still had some meat to them. The Cajun spices helped them out, but I'd had better crawfish before.
Next, came the gumbo and the jambalaya. Both were generous portions of food. I tried the gumbo and thought it to be OK, nothing special. I've made better gumbo at home. Although there were ample amounts of andoullie sausage and chicken in the gumbo, it still didn't have that "pizazz" that I look for - even when I doctored it up with some Tabasco sauce.
Then I tried the jambalaya. Ugh! I'm sorry, but the jambalaya at Joe's tasted like it had been on the stove top for three days, simmering. It was dry and flavorless, hopelessly overcooked. Even Tabasco couldn't help the taste of the jambalaya at Joe's. I was highly disappointed.
While the meal started out very promising, as it went on it went downhill - and fast. I was very happy with the service, the waitress was overly attentive and kept checking on me at the appropriate times. But other than the oysters, the boiled crawfish were average, the gumbo below average and the jambalaya was almost inedible. I was hoping to get a great meal at Joe's OK Bayou and from all indications they must do some pretty good business. But if my meal is an indication of the day-to-day food they have at Joe's, the people of Louisville are still not being served very good Cajun food.
I'm going to have to adopt a new policy in that restaurants that I didn't care for, I may have to give them a try again. It's obvious from the amount of people that were in the place that evening, along with the longevity of the place, plus they've opened two other locations, that Joe's OK Bayou must be pretty good. Maybe I did get a bad batch of jambalaya or not the best gumbo they've ever made. I know some food critics will give a restaurant two or three chances before they declare it to be good or bad. I just don't have the time to do that since I don't get to Louisville all that often. But I will try Joe's again just to make sure and I'll let you know.
(Update - I have been back to Joe's OK Bayou and once again the food was just... OK. As far as Cajun goes, it's pretty pedestrian. I'd look for another Cajun place in Louisville - if there is one - before I'd go back to Joe's.)