Big E is Back

The popular soul food chef's new venture brings New Orleans to South St. Paul

If you follow Concord Street south from downtown St. Paul on your way to Bourbon Street Steak House, the area starts to look so desolate that by the time you pass the shuttered roadhouse La Esperanza you may have given up hope of finding the restaurant. But then the winding path opens onto a landscape of office parks and industrial buildings, out of which rises an old stone castle. It's the site of a nightclub called Valentino's, and, oddly enough, the comeback of chef Eric Austin, the "E" in the former Big E's Soul Food, renowned for its crispy fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, and baby-tush-soft buttermilk biscuits.

First, a little background. Big E, who is indeed a sizable presence, both in girth and personality, worked in numerous kitchens around the Twin Cities (Loring Cafe, Minneapolis Cafe, Cafe Un Deux Trois, Dixie's) before opening his titular neo-soul restaurant in 2002. Lines snaked out the door of the tiny, five-table eatery, where Austin prepared Southern home cooking with the professionalism of one who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. All was well at Big E's, until a place called Soul City Supper Club opened right next door, with 150 seats, a liquor license, and a bumpin' dance floor. Austin took on partners to compete, but they soon clashed, and Austin walked out. Seeking ironic revenge, or perhaps just a paycheck, Austin went to work for his former competition next door. With Austin providing his name and menu, the two feuding E's—the New Big E's Soul Food (which was actually the old Big E's, just without Big E) and the new spot, which, according to its hastily tacked-up sign, was now called Chef E's Soul Food and Blues—were the source of much confusion. For the second time, Austin clashed with his partner and walked out. Shortly thereafter, both E's were shuttered, and Austin's troubles showed up in one of C.J.'s Star Tribune gossip columns.

After putting some distance between those disappointments by working on a cookbook and a couple of television pilots, Austin has resurfaced in South St. Paul, to replace the restaurant Tre Vina with a New Orleans-style concept. The 1887 building, known as the Stockyards Exchange, originally housed businesses associated with the area's livestock auctions and meat processing. But when those activities were squeezed out by urban sprawl, the building was converted first to a hotel, then the restaurant/club. Despite the inner-city influx, the place hasn't lost its rural roots. One night, outside the front door, a crew from radio station B96 ("Blazin' Hip Hop and R&B") unloaded gear from its van, as a strong eau de barnyard wafted past.

Big E takes a little R&R: Eric Austin at Bourbon Street
Fred Petters
Big E takes a little R&R: Eric Austin at Bourbon Street

Location Info

Map

Bourbon Street Steak House

200 N. Concord Exchange
South St. Paul, MN 55075

Category: Restaurant > Steakhouse

Region: South St. Paul

Details

BOURBON STREET STEAK HOUSE
200 N. Concord Exchange, South St. Paul
651.209.6854; Visit the web site
appetizers $8 to $15; entrées $9 to $36

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Inside the bulky, Romanesque building, the rooms are decorated with dark wood; thick, patterned carpets; and a pressed tin ceiling. With the installation of colorful bulbs in the light fixtures and Mardi Gras masks on the walls, the first-floor restaurant seems to have made a fairly seamless transition from Italy to New Orleans. While Big E's food tended to be casual, greasy-finger fare, Bourbon Street takes its cues from some of the famous Brennan family restaurants in New Orleans, such as the Commander's Palace, where Austin once worked. In lieu of fried chicken or collard greens, there are steaks and seafood entrées that reflect Austin's formal French training, in addition to several Louisiana favorites. "I still have my Southern-boy roots," Austin says, "but I stuck my pinkie up a little bit."

Another difference: Big E's lacked a cocktail list, but Bourbon Street has several drinks in the sweet-and-fruity genre, such as a syrupy iced tea spiked with Maker's Mark, and a tiki-type concoction of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, and Grand Marnier topped with dry-ice-fueled smoke tendrils. But when our first plate of Austin's food arrived, I wondered if perhaps my drink had been stronger than I'd realized: Was an order of fried green tomatoes really just three measly little discs? Couldn't eight dollars provide enough purchasing power for at least a whole tomato? With some embarrassment, I rationed my friends one slice apiece and took a bite of my own. The breading seemed thick, the tomatoes mushy, and I didn't care for the Creole sauce. Uh-oh, I thought. What happened?

Fortunately, it was the meal's only hiccup. The remainder of my experience felt as if Austin had picked up just where he left off. If Southern cooking really is, as Austin says, a "Rubik's Cube" of ingredients, mixed and matched to create different dishes, then he seems able to solve it with one hand tied behind his back. The "Nawlin's" jambalaya was chock full of crawfish, shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, and juicy roasted corn kernels, with just enough heat to leave a lingering warmth, like a sip of Southern Comfort. The étouffée was a ruddy, creamy roux of shrimp and crawfish, flecked with vegetables and seasoned with warm, dusty spices. With seasonings so much brassier than most American fare, you can't help but wonder if you somehow missed a day in U.S. history and the South actually seceded from the rest of the country.

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