I had eaten at Yats Cajun and Creole restaurant in Indianapolis a few years ago and I thought the food was pretty good (see that entry here). On a recent trip to Indy, I had booked a room in the far southern Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood and I got into town late in the day. I was hungry and wanted something quick. Not far from my hotel at the corner of E. County Line Road and US Highway 31, across from the Greenwood Park Mall is a Yats location. (see map) I pulled in just moments before they were scheduled to close.
My initial visit to Yat's on Massachusetts Ave. (known as "Mass Ave." to the locals) just north and east of downtown Indianapolis was about six years ago. I had the gumbo on that visit and it was very good. I was sort of looking forward to trying something else on their limited menu of Cajun food.
I did some digging into the background of Yats for this particular entry on Road Tips and found that the owner/founder of Yats seemed to be a pretty interesting guy. Joe Vuskovich (pictured right) is a Louisiana native who learned the tricks of Cajun food as he worked in his family's oyster boat business. Yearning to strike out on his own, at the age of 19 he opened his first restaurant - Visko's Seafood - in Gretna, LA just across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans. Helped out by family members, the young Vuskovich soon opened a second restaurant - The Steam Room - in New Orleans. Both restaurants were so successful that he was named the 1979 American Express Restaurateur of the Year, given out annually by the National Restaurant Association.
However, still being a young guy, Vuskovich felt that he was getting burnt out on the restaurant business. He ended up moving to Palm Beach, FL and taking up the game of polo. It had become somewhat of a passion for him in New Orleans and he decided to go head long into the game in what is arguably the polo capital of North America.
Vuskovich had an older brother who was a doctor in Florida who decided that he wanted to move to Lexington, KY and follow his passion for race horses. Joe Vuskovich decided to follow his brother up to Kentucky and began to grow herbs and spices in a green house where he would grind and package the Cajun spices and sell to restaurants and restaurant supply houses. It was in Lexington where he met his wife, Regina, who became his business partner.
Vuskovich opened his first Yats restaurant (the terms "Yat" is a New Orleans native's way of asking "Hey, were you at?" Only it comes out sort of like "Hah, where yat?") in Lexington in 1996. They continued to grow their herbs and spices to sell to Cajun restaurants. It was a good thing they didn't give up their Cajun seasonings business because the people in the heart of the Blue Grass State didn't take well to Vuskovich's authentic Cajun cuisine.
(Pictured left - Joe and Regina Vuskovich. Photo courtesy Indy.com)
In 2001, the Vuskovich's Cajun seasoning business faced a crossroads. A couple of their largest wholesale accounts went out of business and they'd lost a handful of restaurants that they would pre-packaged specific Cajun spice blends. On top of that, they were faced with a renovation of the dilapidated buildings the Vuskovich's had to grow their herbs and spices in. Trying to figure out something new to do, they took off toward Chicago to see what opportunities they might get into next. However, an overnight stop in Indianapolis showed the Vuskovich's that this mid-sized American city could use an authentic Cajun-style restaurant. The couple instantly fell in love with the place and opened their first Yats location on College Ave. in Broadripple (see map). It was a no-frills, counter service only restaurant that served the authentic Cajun specialties that Vuskovich grew up with in Louisiana.
The first three months were slow and the Vuskovich's wondered if Indiana was more of a "meat and potato" state. However, a good review of the place started to bring people in. Suddenly it was the hottest restaurant in Indianapolis. They opened their second location in the Mass Ave. Art District area of Indy and then opened locations up in Fisher's on 96th St. (see map) and down south in Greenwood. I understand the Vuskovich's are looking to put in a location in Bloomington near the Indiana University campus.
The Yats locations in and around Indianapolis are only open until 9 p.m. through the week and it was about 8:45 when I walked in. The menu in the restaurant is located on a chalk board near the front counter and it can change daily - and even hourly. When I got into the restaurant, it was practically empty of customers and a number of items on the board were crossed out. "We were pretty busy earlier," the young guy behind the counter explained to me.
One thing that Yats is famous for is their Maque Choux (roughly pronounced Mock Shoo), a traditional Southern Louisiana dish that combines corn, bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes, onion and celery that are braised in bacon fat, then cooked with a chicken stock before chicken, crawfish and/or shrimp are added later on. I was sort of upset to find that they were out of the Maque Choux that particular evening. "One of our more popular dishes," the young guy told me.
With not much on the menu to choose from - and I'm sure these guys were getting impatient with a late straggler walking in - I ordered a half and half order of red beans with andoiulle sausage and rice, and another Yats specialty, chili cheese etoufee with crawfish. They basically take chili cheese sauce, add crawfish in with it and spread it over rice. A half and half order is $7.95 and comes with a couple slices of Yats homemade butter toasted bread.
They don't have beer at Yats - about the only minus I can see in the place - so I just had water with my meal. It wasn't more than a couple minutes when I head the cook in the back yell, "Red beans and sausage, chili cheese etoufee half and half!" My plate was sitting on a ledge across from the soft drink dispenser which, in turn, was next to a shelf with all different kinds of hot sauce with little tubs that you can pour the sauce into. Since no one else was in the restaurant at that time, I just grabbed a bottle of Tabasco to take back to the table with me.
The chili cheese etoufee was, well, interesting. To look at it sitting over the rice, it didn't look too appetizing. But the etoufee had a smoky cheese taste to it. Bite sized chunks of crawfish were interspersed throughout the mixture and with the help of Tabasco it was a pretty enjoyable concoction. I wasn't certain what I liked better - the red beans and sausage or the chili cheese etoufee. Both were good, not outstanding, but completely serviceable as a fast, authentic Cajun style offering.
And it was filling. I was having trouble finishing what I had on the plate. Both portions were more than enough for that late in the evening.
As I was eating my food, another couple came in to order food. "You guys still open," the guy asked the counter man.
"We're still open," he replied. "As long as the 'open' light is on and the door's unlocked, we're open!" He was a very likable guy, to say the least.
Suddenly a man walked in and he was there to pick up a to-go order. After he got his order, someone else came in to pick up another to-go order. I heard the cook in the back said, "We always seem to get busy right before we close."
I really liked Yats gumbo on my first visit to the Mass Ave. location a number of years ago. On my second visit to the Greenwood location I found the food to be good, above average compared to other Cajun places I've been to. It was quick and completely authentic Cajun food served in the heart of America. I can see why it has become such a favorite restaurant for those who live in Indianapolis. It's no-frills approach offers absolutely no pretension on the part of the Vuskovich's who, from the research I came up with, appear to be some fun-loving people. That fun-loving ideology is what helps make Yats so good. The menu may be limited, but it's guaranteed to be fresh each day. One of these days I will go back and I will try the Maque Choux. That is, if they aren't sold out that particular day.