La Crosse, WI continues to be one of my favorite small market cities to visit (Fargo, ND, Manhattan, KS, and Springfield, MO are also right up there) and I've been chasing a dealer in the area for the past few years to come on board with our company. I'm closer than I have been and that makes me happy because that means more trips to La Crosse in the future. One of the reasons why I like La Crosse are the number of interesting restaurants in the area. One of those is a place I've eaten at three or four times in the past, Buzzard Billy's.
Buzzard Billy's is part of a group of restaurants under the MSD Innovations, a Waco, TX-based restaurant partnership between brothers Andy and Dan Massoth, Chris Mayo and Tracy Maughan. The group opened the first Buzzard Billy's Armadillo Bar and Grill-o in 1993 as part of downtown Waco's revitalization. The restaurant was named after fictitcious cowboy named Billy and his untimely encounter with a buzzard.
Three years later, the MSD group was looking for another restaurant to open in a community that was working to restore their downtown area and that brought them to La Crosse. They found a building in downtown La Crosse that had been built back in the 1860's as a hotel, but was slated to be demolished in 1996. The group bought the building and refurbished it into a restaurant on the main floor with a bar on the second floor. Buzzard Billy's Flying Carp Cafe with the Starlite Lounge, a 50's-style lounge, opened in September of 1997. Two years later, a Buzzard Billy's location in Des Moines' rejuvenated Court Avenue district opened in the basement of a building that was also slated to be demolished. A year later, a fourth Buzzard Billy's opened in downtown Lincoln, NE in an area that was also going through an urban renewel.
The group became enamored with Des Moines and the number of possibilities that the city had to offer for restaurants and bars. Along with three workers at the Des Moines Buzzard Billy's location, they formed a new company - Full Court Press - to develop and run restaurants and bars in the downtown Des Moines area. Some of the restaurants they're famous for are the Highlife Lounge (click here to see my entry on the Highlife Lounge), Hessen Haus, El Bait Shop, Fong's Pizza, and the Royal Mile, just to name a few.
I had eaten at the Buzzard Billy's in La Crosse about two or three times previously, and I had eaten at the Des Moines location a couple times before. (The Des Moines location just moved to a new building just south of the Wells Fargo Arena after the original location was flooded in 2008 and the group did not reopen right away.) Actually, I had stopped into Buzzard Billy's in La Crosse one summer evening about three years ago to have dinner. However, I walked into the wide open front door of the restaurant and all the lights were out and the place was empty. It was rather strange. I saw someone walking around by the bar area and I called out, "Hello?"
The young lady behind the bar came out and said, "Yes? Can I help you?"
I asked, "Are you open?"
She said, "Well, no. Our power went out about two hours ago. In fact, power is out all over downtown and the power company doesn't know when it will be back on." That put the kibosh on eating at Buzzard Billy's - or any other place in downtown La Crosse that evening, for that matter. I ended up eating at a Buffalo Wild Wings that night near my hotel in suburban Onalaska. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't the best. However, on this trip to La Crosse, Buzzard Billy's was open. I found a parking spot just down the street from the place on Pearl Street (see map) and went in.
The hostess that evening put me in a booth on the west wall of the restaurant and left a menu with me at the table. Buzzard Billy's is actually split into two areas - the bar area (above right) as you walk in on the left, and the main dining area (above left) that connects to the bar near the back. The decor is sort of "antique chic" with a number of signs and objects hanging from the walls and ceilings. The table top on my booth featured a number of old time baseball cards under a lamination. I actually recognized a couple that I had from my youth.
My server for the evening came over to greet me and I wondered what kind of beer they had. She pointed out a beer menu on the table that I looked over. I saw that they had a Leinenkugel seasonal, and since it was fall, I figured they must have the Oktoberfest on tap. "No, sorry," she explained. "We ran out of that over the weekend." I did find that they had Alaskan Amber on tap, one of my favorite beers.
The menu at Buzzard Billy's is immense. They have a number of appetizers (including the intriguing "Buzzard Eggs - chicken fingers stuffed with sliced jalapenos and Pepper Jack cheese and wrapped in bacon), soups, salads, burgers, Po' Boy sandwiches and Cajun-style pasta dishes. They have a number of blackened fish and chicken items on the menu, as well as a blackened prime-rib that I've wanted to try in the past. Buzzard Billy's has a handful of fried dinners including fried catfish, fried walleye and even fried alligator (it tastes like chicken - seriously!). They also have a number of traditional Cajun/Creole dishes as well as in-house Louisiana specialties as Chicken Tchoupitoulas, Chicken Atchafalaya, and Alligator Grand Chenier - strips of farm-raised alligator meat sauteed with green onions and mushrooms in a mild Cajun sauce.
I was more interested in the Cajun basics that night - a bowl of seafood gumbo followed by a helping of Buzzard Billy's jambalaya. The seafood gumbo came out and while it had a nice spicy bite to it (helped by a little more Tabasco sauce), but I found the shrimp and crawfish were overcooked and mushy. I've done crawfish and shrimp in my own gumbo and I cook them separately and never put it in until just before serving the gumbo. I'm guessing the shell fish were simmering in there for some time. But that wasn't that big of a problem. The gumbo was still pretty good.
Not long after I finished the hearty bowl of gumbo, the jambalaya showed up. The heaping bowl of jambalaya featured large chunks of ham, chicken and andouille sausage mixed with tomatoes, green onions, celery, green peppers and rice. And it tasted fine. I zipped it up with a little more Tabasco giving the already snappy taste a boost. On a cool night this was the perfect meal. After the large bowl of gumbo, I knew I wouldn't be able to finish the whole dish, so about halfway through I concentrated on finding the chunks of sausage (which was very good), chicken and ham. It reminded me much of the homemade jambalaya that I hadn't made in quite awhile. (Click here for my homemade jambalaya recipe.)
I almost forgot to mention the French bread that came with the jambalaya. It tasted like it was homemade as it was warm, soft and chewy. It helped to use as a scoop to put some of the tasty morsels of chicken, sausage and ham onto the fork. It was very good.
The meal I had at the La Crosse Buzzard Billy's was a pretty fair deal. A bowl of gumbo, the jambalaya (which was very good and very filling), and a couple pints of beer came to just over $21 bucks. With a $4 buck tip to the waitress, who was very attentive, the bill came to around $25 bucks. It was a lot of food for the money. I don't think I've ever had a bad meal at either the La Crosse or Des Moines Buzzard Billy's. And I do need to go back and check out the new Des Moines location at some point. For Cajun food, I can't say that it's the best I've had. But Buzzard Billy's is certainly above average.