LaPlace, Louisiana is nestled between two culinary standouts – the Creoles in New Orleans and the Cajuns in Lafayette.
Sharing music and blending flavors from both sides, LaPlace Louisiana Cookery in downtown Hillsborough is a piece of home for owner Joe Tullos.
“I had a unique experience because my mother was Creole, from New Orleans, and my dad was Cajun,” he said. “So you get those two very different cultures. My mother’s family was a lot more metropolitan and the other was really pretty rustic.”
Before LaPlace, the space was called Gulf Room Cafe, a caribbean restaurant with an eclectic menu filled with difficult-to-pronounce names, Tullos said.
Tullos and Matt Fox, owner of the Wooden Nickel and co-owner of LaPlace, decided to create a place that was “more accessible,” and that would maybe “strike some kind of culinary resonance with people,” and after seven years as Gulf Room Cafe, LaPlace took its place, opening its doors around March of 2014.
Tullos grew up in LaPlace and has a childhood filled with stories like one where he had to help finish making andouille with his friends’ father before being allowed to play football. The style of food was everyday life; their schedules were fashioned to make time for food preparation, eating, and enjoying music.
Music is what eventually brought Tullos to Hillsborough, a town with a population similar to LaPlace. He played music with many friends in Hillsborough and eventually moved with his wife and three children.
“Cook what you know, do what you know,” Tullos said. “I’m not going to be a mechanic anytime soon, but I do know this food better than most people.”
With rich and hearty gumbos, homemade sausage and the classic flavors of many Louisiana favorites, the food is steeped in stories, culture and history.
“The basic elements of the food is French, Spanish, African American, and Native American,” Tullos said. “Understanding the subtleties between those things are kind of important I think.”
The Acadian Sampler is a dish of three specials: chicken and andouille gumbo, crawfish etouffee and beans and rice, all pulling from the French culture dating back to the 1600’s.
“I like to think of it as semi-casual dining in a fine dining atmosphere,” general manager Sean Garrett said. “It’s a fine dining service, but with a relaxed atmosphere. You can come in with a date and be fancy, or you can come in after work, sit down and have a beer and a po-boy.”
The restaurant sticks with authentic flavors, but doesn’t stray from creativity and experimenting with new combinations of flavors and cultures. Chalkboard menus around the room show daily specials and harbor a list of aptly named cocktails – both originals and new drinks invented by the bartenders themselves.
A popular menu item, the catch of the day, is best blackened with a cajun spice, served in maque choux, a combination of corn, onions, green peppers, jalapenos, a creamy and comforting dish.
“Frankly, it’s peasant food,” Tullos said. “That’s the reason I’m having so much fun teaching [the cooks] how to do it, because it’s about how you layer flavors. You can’t just take all the stuff and throw it into a bowl and boil it for 3 hours, you know, it’s how you take the rustic ingredients you have and turn it into something that’s going to be multilayered in flavors.”
On a recent Thursday, Louis Armstrong could be heard in the background, accenting a delightful sizzle from the kitchen: the Louisiana tradition of music and food.
“The only thing we’re really good at is music and food,” Tullos said. “Food and music have always gone together for me. I’ve never been able to separate the two.
“It’s ingrained, it’s in all their lives. It’s the only place I’ve been before where people will be eating lunch talking about where they’re going to eat dinner,” he laughed. “Food is… maybe one of the most important things to Creoles and Cajuns.”