Recently on NPR, I heard Terry Gross declare — with her trademark quiet, soothing authority — that Cajun food was dying. I didn't know it was dying, which, as a food writer, is a bit jarring. These are things I am supposed to know.
Not only did I miss the apparently meteoric rise and peak of gumbo, I failed to notice an allegedly drastic decline. And so, urgently, I tightened the Velcro straps of my food-hunting shoes and chased Cajun all the way to the Outer Sunset to see how far off extinction really is.
Cajun Pacific is two blocks from the beach, and the neighborhood is wrapped in a thick coat of brine-soaked fog most of the time. It's both my favorite beach weather (I'm of Scottish stock and prone to sunburn at dusk) and prime climate for eating Cajun.
On a bleak and blustery day, a plate of rich, piquant and creamy crayfish is good in the way hot toddies and warm bread pudding in the dead of winter are good.
By the way, there's bread pudding here, and there always has been. The spot is 14 years old, something you might guess from the old, sun-bleached menus under glass tabletops. Capping every menu from the last decade and a half is the bread pudding with whiskey sauce. I recommend getting three.
A few things have never left the menu, which changes routinely. Among them is the gumbo, which, after 14 years of getting it perfect, is just about there. The bowl is a rich melange of andouille sausage and chicken in housemade stock, all thickened with a very dark roux. Fog be damned, the soup sings.
The soft-shell crab arrives delicately fried, a good and simple snack for sharing. Though seafood holds the stage here, duck breast and veal chop make wild plays for attention. The duck, pan-seared, is perfectly, subtly crisped, hugging an inside that's meltingly rare. Housemade heirloom tomato marmalade garnishes the veal, adding a sweet, enlivening twist. They are friendly dishes, testaments to Cajun Pacific's adeptness with the same recipes in the well-worn, open kitchen.
The fried oyster po'boy — a mix of crunchy lettuce, crispy fried oysters and a thin swipe of creamy remoulade on house-made French bread — is a bit sparse and dry, and seems shy and humble compared to other offerings.
Although it's a meat-centric menu, vegetables are well-cared for. The "stuffed Mirliton" turns up as a poached chayote squash, stuffed to the brim with a rice-based salad in hearty Creole seasoning. For a grain-filled squash, it's about as bold and filling as a turducken.
Then there's the crawfish and pasta, with crawfish tail meat in a Creole-spiced cream sauce that will keep you at a table forever. Sadly, tables are scarce and staff will remind you of it.
Like most everything at Cajun Pacific, the dish has character and musicality. If this fare represents what 14 years tastes like, we ought to rethink the relevance of trends.
If there's a case for Cajun food falling out of favor, you won't find it here. But you may find me, neck-deep in bread pudding, watching the sun go down.Cajun Pacific
Location: 4542 Irving St. (at 47th Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 504-6652, www.cajunpacific.com
Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Thursdays, 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $8-$24
Recommended dishes: Creole crawfish and pasta ($21), pan-seared duck breast ($21), andouille sausage and chicken gumbo ($8), bread pudding with whiskey sauce ($6)
Credit cards: All major