In his most recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan describes crackling — the scorched, brittle-like skin that comes off of a pig barbecued whole-hog over an open fire — as a “life-altering” culinary experience consisting of wood smoke, fat and salt mingled together into hot shards of pig skin.

As someone who has what I anticipate to be a lifelong devotion to Southern comfort food, I have no reservations about putting another animal species’ fatty cooked skin into my mouth cavity so long as it’s reputed to be tasty.

Enter Couyon Cajun & Po’Boys, the newly-opened Cajun restaurant inside of Eli’s Mile High Club that, at the time of their grand opening, offered cracklins at the top of their menu.

I visited Couyon on a weeknight shortly after their September 7th grand opening. The entrance to Couyon is quite literally a hole in the wall: a take-out window accessible by entering Eli’s and heading to the back area with the pool tables. There, beside a large hand-painted sign requesting that customers not crowd the window, amidst the dim indoor lighting and crashingly loud live punk act of the evening, you’ll be shout-greeted by either Louise Martin or David Hledik (pronounced “Leddick,” with a silent H), co-owners of Couyon and real-life couple, who will happily serve you cracklins and all manner of Cajun fare until 10:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and until 12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Couyon’s version of cracklins: thick cubed cross-sections of pork skin, fat and belly, braised and deep-fried and then served up with a trio of sauces including a North Carolina barbecue sauce, remoulade and Creole mustard. According to Hledik, the Louisiana style of cracklins (as opposed to North Carolinian crackling) includes both the skin and the subcutaneous layers, making cracklins more like something you might spear with a toothpick.

There was a paradoxically pleasurable and unsettling feeling to crunching down on chunks of fried pig fat dipped in remoulade sauce; it was so flagrantly a transgression of widely-held health standards that the experience necessarily crossed over into pure texture and flavor, a world in which guilt cannot reside. The cracklins were crispy on the outside, giving way to soft fat and a rich savoriness of the kind that belongs uniquely to pork — think fatty bacon, cubed and fried and dipped in sauce.

Couyon restaurant

Couyon’s cracklins. (Photos by Bonnie Chan)

I paired the cracklins with the Crispy Kitty, a fried catfish po’boy loaded with pickles, lettuce, tomato and remoulade sauce. (Remoulade, a mayo- or aioli-based condiment, is found on many of Couyon’s menu items. Of the nature of remoulade, Martin told me, “It’s made of everything, so it goes well with everything.”) The fish, which had a perfectly textured crust and just a whisper of spiciness, satisfyingly fell apart at the first bite of the halved po’boy.

The hickory-smoked pulled pork in the Pulled Piggy sandwich also fell apart in precisely the way North Carolina barbecue should. Doused in vinegar and served with slaw, pickles and remoulade, the portion was generously layered with savoriness, sourness and sweetness — every flavor, in fact, except neutrality. Both sandwiches also came with pickled okra and pickled honeydew melon; Hledik and Martin serve the sandwiches with a rotating side of pickled fruit depending on what’s in season.

If a Cajun restaurant seems discordant with Eli’s punk club/dive bar/tattoo parlor/record label raison d’être, then it’s certainly in line with Couyon’s own blend of flavor palate: Cajun (itself a blend of colonial French and Spanish, French Creole, Native American and Caribbean) mixed with North Carolinian and Asian influences.

Couyon — a Louisiana French word meaning “idiot” or “fool,” derived from French for “testicle,” couille — owes its North Carolinian flavors to Hledik, a chef who grew up in restaurants his entire life and who by now has worked all over the country in most areas of cuisine, from tapas to Old World charcuterie to molecular gastronomy.

“We wanted to have pulled pork barbecue [on the menu] and we feel the best method of pulled pork barbecue is East/North Carolina style,” Hledik explained. “In our opinion, that’s the way to go, with vinegar sauce. I’m from Southeast Virginia and it borders that area of North Carolina. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurant kitchens in that area and I’ve learned a lot from them.”

The tangy, spicy, salty and sweet Asian influence in Couyon’s flavors comes courtesy of Martin, whose father is Cajun and whose mother is Korean. Martin’s mother ran a Chinese takeout place in New Orleans, which helped to give Martin a culinary background that led her to open an Asian-influenced pop-up in New Orleans called Miso Hungry.

The pair moved from New Orleans to Oakland a few months ago, specifically to open their Cajun restaurant at Eli’s Mile High Club. Martin met the owner of Eli’s, a dedicated fan of New Orleans cuisine, a decade ago at Halloween in the Castro; when his chef left recently, he invited Martin and Hledik to help him realize his dream of opening a Cajun restaurant inside of his venue.

While Couyon’s entrance looks humble, its culinary ambition is enormous. All of Couyon’s charcuterie, pickles and sauces are made in-house; in fact, everything but the bread is made right in Couyon’s kitchen. Martin and Hledik source their ingredients locally from farmer’s markets, small meat markets, Asian produce markets, anywhere they might find fresh stuff, be it produce or pig liver.

“We’re proud of our homemade charcuterie because we make them from the bottom up,” Hledik said. “Sometimes we’ll be smoking meat for days on end. Depending on the actual charcuterie, usually it takes between a couple of days to a week of curing. We’ll hang stuff to dry for a few weeks before it’s ready.”

They also take care to exclusively use wild Louisiana gulf seafood in such staples as their shrimp po’boy. “It has a different aroma, a different flavor, it’s like a whole different animal entirely,” Hledik said. “You can really tell the difference.”

~~~~~~~

IF YOU GO:
Couyon Cajun & Po’Boys
WHERE: At Eli’s Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland
HOURS: 12 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 12 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday through Saturday
MORE INFO: http://elismilehigh.com/couyon-menu.pdf

~~~~~~~

Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

4 Responses

  1. Donna Egitto

    David Hledik use to cook some of the most memorable meals we have ever eaten when he was a chef in Va. beach.people here miss him and want him back.Very creative and those eyes!!!!

    Reply
  2. Bonnie

    Donna, that’s a hilarious remark about his eyes. I was thinking about inserting a line about Hledik’s big sweet eyes rimmed with mile-long lashes, but his eyelashes didn’t seem very relevant to his cooking.

    Reply
  3. Josh

    Yes, I was shocked at how good the barbecue sauce was, plus I got to read the most interesting article pinned on the wall about how Eli’s Mile High came to be.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.