Around Acadiana, the plate lunch is tradition. Locals gather at restaurants for a Styrofoam box stuffed with a stewed protein and served with sides of vegetables and starches. You might say it’s a distant cousin to what the rest of the South calls the “meat and three.”
Unheralded among Acadiana’s culinary stars, the plate lunch is finally getting its due this weekend.
From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sugar Mill Pond in Youngsville will host the first Plate Lunch-A-Palooza, a festival celebration of the unsung victual, accompanied by live music from performers like Louis Michot and Chubby Carrier. The event gathers together 16 of the top lunch lines in Acadiana into one savory locale.
So what makes a good plate lunch? How do you even define it?
Toby Rodriguez, chef at Lafayette's Acadian Superette, says a plate lunch boils down to nostalgia.
“If you grew up eating it, then it can end up being a plate lunch,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s what people are doing every day for lunch. They’re accessing nostalgia. It’s soul food.”
“Are three tacos on a Styrofoam plate a plate lunch?” Rodriguez continued. He shook his head. “Naw.”
Perhaps an example is in order.
For this weekend's event, Rodriguez is sending out a variation on his smothered seven steak, gussying it up with fresh pork sausage, cooked down in a pork and beef gravy and served over steamed white rice. Rodriguez adapted his mom’s seven steak recipe, adding twists learned from years of running boucheries. It's named a seven steak after the shape of the bone.
For the plate, Rodriguez likes to say he “invests in his gravy.” He uses a rich boudin stock, leftover from processing the Superette’s house-made boudin, to coax tenderness out of the shoulder cut’s fatty sinews with a long, slow cook.
His sides are well-contemplated to accompany the steak’s richness: purple-hulled peas, creamed into a starchy mess, and sweet potato hash for a pop of sugar.
Take the abstract of that dish and you have the essential plate lunch: meat plus vegetable plus rice and gravy, the unsung hero of Cajun cuisine.
“Rice and gravy is way more localized than anything else that we eat here,” says Rodriguez. “Yeah, we’re known for jambalaya, and we’re known for gumbo, and we’re known for boiled crawfish, but all three of those things are special events. You don’t eat gumbo on a daily basis. Rice and gravy is something that always goes overlooked.
"Rice and gravy is the Harry Nilsson of our cuisine.”
If you haven’t heard of Harry Nilsson, that’s sort of the point.
Folks out here spend a lot of time celebrating dietary staples. Gumbo cook-offs, boudin festivals and crawfish boils abound the Acadiana culinary landscape, particularly in the fall, but the celebration circuit has largely overlooked the plate lunch. How it’s taken so long to put the cuisine on the festival pedestal is baffling.
There are many usual suspects on the plate lunch scene: meatball fricassee, pork roast, shrimp and crawfish half and half, catfish courtbouillon, even meaty spaghetti cooked with a spicy Cajun and/or Creole accent. Lunch houses curate weekly, rotating menus that command cult followings among lunch crowds.
Wisely, the festival’s curators have elected to cap the ladling at a snack’s size to leave fest-goers plenty of room in the tank to take in the rainbow of gravies and saucy stews. If you've ever had a plate lunch, you'll know why. Usually priced under $10, one lunch can easily weigh over a pound.
It’s a miracle anyone gets anything done in Lafayette after lunch.
Featuring $5 signature plates from Vermilionville's Restaurant La Cuisine De Maman, Nunu's Fresh Market, Papa T's Cafe, Acadian Superette, Johnson's Boucaniére, Abacus, Cochon Cannery, Dix Daiquiris, The Cajun Table, Braza Grill, Ton's Drive-In, Dark Roux, Laura's 2, Chop's Specialty Meats, The Kitchenary and Crickey's Kitchen
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Sugar Mill Pond Town Center, 101 Waterview Road, Youngsville
COST: Free to attend. Food, drinks and merchandise available for purchase.