Though most visitors to Lafayette might sooner associate the area with our more famed Cajun and Creole culinary fare (jambalaya, crawfish, and gumbo), it is the rice and gravy-centric plate lunch that fuels the people of Louisiana’s Acadiana region. Consisting of meat, a gravy-covered starch, a pair of vegetable sides, and a simple piece of bread — and often all served on a single plate — the plate lunch emphasizes speed, affordability, and caloric heft.
A close cousin to the meat-and-three restaurants found throughout the South, the history of Lafayette’s plate lunch houses is rooted in the marriage of rustic, homestyle cooking with the convenience offered by the buffet line. In the late nineteenth century, cafeteria-style lunchrooms appeared throughout America, introducing patrons to self-service, the steaming lunch counter, and the ubiquitous plastic tray.
In South Louisiana, rural meat markets were likely the first to sling portable plate lunches to a hungry working-class crowd. Instead of disposing of their scraps and other unsold cuts, butchers smothered these meats in a rich, roux-based gravy for tomorrow’s lunch. With the addition of rice — a regional commodity and staple of local tables — and a stewed vegetable or two, the plate lunch was born.
Growing up in his great-grandfather’s butcher shop David Billeaud remembers learning how to grind meat for sausage, prep pork chops, and debone steaks as soon as he was tall enough to reach the butcher’s block. He’s taken that expertise to T-Coon’s, his plate lunch restaurant, located in central Lafayette. There’s meatball fricassé, smothered pork, and smothered beef, all immersed in a peppery, brown gravy. Appearing alongside these everyday standards, daily specials round out the menu.
At each and every plate lunch house scattered throughout Lafayette, variety is crucial. The menu at Landry’s Café resembles a labyrinthine board game of weekly standards, daily specials, side dishes, and additions. There’s stuffed pork roast offered every week, stuffed brisket every other week, and cornbread dressing every third week. Hamburger steak is prepared five ways, boosted by a variety of toppings for each day of the work week. For sides, there’s white beans, red beans, and black-eyed peas. Smothered veggies, salads, and casseroles. One can go dizzy just thinking over what to order.
And while rice and gravy is at the center of all plate lunches, without gravy, rice ain’t nothing but a grain. The gravy at Laura’s II comes several shades darker and a pinch spicier than most. Molasses in color, this gravy recipe dates back to the late-1960s, when Laura Williams Broussard began selling takeout lunches from the backdoor of her own home kitchen. Today, Madonna Broussard carries on her grandmother’s legacy at the aptly named Laura’s II. The steam table displays a panoply of items that have been fried, stewed, barbecued, smoked, stuffed, smothered, covered, and maque chouxed.
At the Creole Lunch House, owner Merline Herbert sees the plate lunch as nothing less than life-affirming, a celebration of South Louisiana’s legendary joie de vivre and the blissful comfort that an assortment of foods and flavors can provide. “It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” she says. For first-time visitors, Herbert, after greeting you with her trademark grandmotherly smile, might fix up what she calls the Rookie Plate, a sampling of just about everything. For her regular customers its meatball fricassee on Mondays and Wednesdays. Stuffed baked chicken on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fricasseed chicken dished up everyday. And rice and gravy served everyday.
For a listing of plate lunch restaurants as well as behind the scene images and stories of some of Lafayette’s oldest spots handed down through the generations visit LafayetteTravel.com/PlateLunch.