Good food can change people’s lives. The first time I tasted the much vaunted Creole cuisine of New Orleans, it was a revelation. It is nearly impossible to imagine a more festive food, as it derives its distinctiveness from a variety of ethnic and cultural forces.
Thankfully for us, Creole cuisine, with a liberal sprinkling of love, has brought two people together who make a great team of restaurateurs. While working in the now-defunct CafÃ© Creole, Gardner Welch met a woman named Lola Jane. Such was the attraction between the two lovebirds that while on a break between shifts at the restaurant they ran off to get married. Being spontaneous, they were also responsible, and returned to the restaurant that night to finish their shift before taking a makeshift honeymoon.
Before long, the couple set off to fulfill their dream of owning a Creole restaurant — which they did in October 1996. With food every bit as good as their old employer’s, Lola Jane’s Crawfish Inn serves wonderful Creole food at rock-bottom prices. I can only muster two complaints. First, their distance from USF — practically next to MacDill Air Force Base — makes frequent visits difficult. Second, there is nothing better than a cold beer while feasting Creole style, and Lola Jane’s lacks a license. But Gardner and Lola more than make up for this with their excellent food.
If the quality of the food is a pleasant surprise, the prices (especially when compared to CafÃ© Creole’s) are downright shocking. A hefty sampler includes jambalaya, Crawfish EtoufeÃ©, red beans and rice, coleslaw and a roll for a mere $6 or $7. All other entrees are in the same price range.
The restaurant itself is small and unassuming, with a hand-painted sign denoting its “mom and pop” status. The Welches live in the back of the building when they’re not toiling in the restaurant. Much of their business consists of to-go orders from nearby residents and hungry soldiers from MacDill. The only seating is at picnic tables in a screened-in porch. When in the neighborhood, I often pick up orders to-go for later consumption.
The sampler platter offers a great example of what makes Lola Jane’s so good. The jambalaya is perhaps the best I’ve had, and that includes my several forays into New Orleans itself. The Welch duo adds flavor to the mixture with blackened chicken wings and drumsticks. The Crawfish EtoufeÃ© is rich with “mudbugs” and vegetables, and the beans and rice brim with Andouille sausage and red beans. The coleslaw is better than most, with more oil than mayo.
The gumbo is based upon an excellent roux stock, but there is a bit too much okra in it for my taste. Be sure to ask about daily specials, as they are usually excellent. On one occasion, chicken breast could be seen simmering in a rich brown gravy crowning delicious dirty rice, and served with a fine salad of baby greens.
The food tasted virtually homemade, with none of the cloying salt or seasonings sometimes found in bigger restaurants. The seasonings complement the flavors of the ingredients rather than covering them up.
I would be remiss if I did not mention dessert. New Orleans is rightfully noted for its decadent desserts, and Lola Jane’s does not neglect them. The pecan pie with blackstrap molasses has a dark, rich taste not found elsewhere. No Creole dinner would be complete without bread pudding for dessert, and the Welches deliver on this front as well.
The greatest difficulty Gardner and Lola Jane have found is keeping up with the demands of the public. They form the complete staff of the restaurant. When I interviewed Gardner, he made sure I did not write for a major paper. The Welches are afraid of drawing too large a crowd and being unable to keep up. They recently cut hours in an attempt to make their business more manageable. They serve lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. You can get dinner Friday or Saturday, from 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
We have no shortage of great food here in Tampa, but honest Creole food can be difficult to find. Look no further than Lola Jane’s when you crave a bite of the Big Easy.
Lola Jane’s Crawfish Inn is located at 5712 Mac Dill Ave. S. Contact Lola Jane’s call 805-0312.
Check out Feed Your Head again on April 23.