Down on the Hwy. 96 bayou

Down on the Hwy. 96 bayou

Manuel’s Cajun Country Store is not quite as famous as The Loveless Motel. Nevertheless, it has earned a spot on our short list of quasi-corny, unintentionally hip little out-of-the way places that fill their own distinct culinary niches. (Prince’s Hot Chicken, Bobbie’s Dairy Dip, Mary’s Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que, La Hacienda Taqueria, Bill’s Catfish, and Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House all come to mind.)

Located in Milton, Tenn., an unincorporated dot on the map that’s 10 miles outside Murfreesboro, Manuel’s is not the sort of place you dash off to for a quick bite to eat. The field trip from Nashville to Milton, which boasts 200 people and its own post office, is 50 miles each way, and it can be considerably longer if you miss the turn-off for Hwy. 96 East, as we did.

Manuel’s is open for lunch only on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but it stays open through dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. If you’re traveling from Nashville, you’ll want to take the weekend-evening excursion, since that’s when Manuel’s presents live fais do do (that’s French accordion music) on the front porch from 6-9 p.m. Bring your folding chairs to set up on the sidewalk or on the street out front; don’t forget to bring along a cardboard hand fan for stirring up a breeze.

Inside, however, is where you’ll find the food action, in one of three separate dining rooms. Virtually every inch of the rambling, endearingly run-down store/cafe is hung with some sort of Louisiana/Cajun/Mardi Gras-related souvenir. There are photos of musicians and politicians, and there are plastic alligators, religious icons, masks, and beads. Inevitably, crawfish figure largely in the decor. At the door you can pick up a pamphlet that helpfully defines a few Cajun terms and expressions.

Table service is the custom at Manuel’s. We were seated quickly and started perusing the menus that were inserted between the red-checked oilcloth and the protective covering of slightly sticky clear plastic.

Not surprisingly, the deep fryers stay busy. Among your choices from the hot-oil bath are catfish filets, shrimp, frog legs, gator, oysters, and chicken fingers. Other options are okra shrimp gumbo, red beans and rice, shrimp etouffée, and crawfish etouffée.

Before they’re submersed in the fry bath, the shellfish, frog legs, and gator strips are rolled in a flour-salt-pepper mix, and the catfish is treated with the traditional cornmeal coating. Through long experience I’m sure, Manuel’s has found the perfect temperature for deep-frying. Everything emerges crisp, moist, and somehow not too greasy. I wonder, though, if there is a problem with shrinkage. The catfish filets are on the small side (although the serving size was generous), and the shrimp and frog legs were downright skimpy—especially since Manuel’s prices are not inexpensive. Shrimp, frog leg, and gator plates are $11.99; oysters are $13.99; catfish is $7.99. Each dish comes with a standard mayo-vinegar cole slaw; subpar, precut, pre-frozen french fries; and bland, missile-shaped hush puppies that appealed to no one.

We tried an order that was half shrimp and half crawfish etouffée, and we much preferred the latter, mostly because the crawfish were so superior to the itty-bitty rock shrimp. Crawfish are hard to come by in these parts—or in any parts outside Louisiana, for that matter. And once you do get them, it’s a royal pain to peel them and pick them apart in order to extract the delectable tail meat. Quite frankly, it’s a process that doesn’t balance out too well on the labor-expended vs. pleasure-extracted scale. Much better to let someone else handle the dirty work.

Nevertheless, Louisianans eat about 50 million pounds of crawfish a year, and Manuel’s are brought in from Baton Rouge. There are plenty of the little critters in the crawfish etouffée, and its gravy is thick and substantial, though not especially rich in flavor. (Bring on the hot sauce.) You will not find slices of okra in the shrimp okra gumbo, but there’s no mistaking its presence. I suspect it’s been cooked down first to the slimy goo that, along with the roux base, thickens this dish. I missed the addition of spicy sausage that enlivens some gumbos, as well as the hot red peppers that are common to others. The red beans and rice, on the other hand, was nearly perfect, with a good thick gravy and great texture on the beans. (All etouffées are $11.99, and gumbo, depending on the serving size, is $4.50 or $9.99. Red beans and rice is $3.50 for a cup or $6.99 for a large bowl.)

Manuel’s cooking is authentically Cajun, in that it is not hot or spicy. Instead, you can stoke the fire as hot as you want it, selecting from the array of condiments on every table, ranging from a shaker full of cayenne to bottles of the house-brand Super Sauce. We liked the C’est Bon Hot Sauce the best. It’s a thick and fiery concoction made in Bridge City, Texas, and consisting of jalapeño peppers and tomato sauce. Most of the sauces are for sale from the shelves of Manuel’s grocery store, which also sells coffee with chicory, canned beans, and market staples such as paper towels, bug strips, and motor oil.

When it comes to desserts, there are two homemade cakes—chocolate and banana split—to choose between. I’d pass on both of them and head instead to the al fresco concert out front, where you can also engage in some pretty fascinating people-watching. Then, after your food has settled, and if you’re still craving something sweet, you can stop at the Dairy Queen as you head back to the interstate.

If you can’t imagine gumbo without a cold beer, brace yourself. As peculiar as it seems to anyone who has traveled through Louisiana, which boasts drive-through frozen alcoholic beverage stores, absolutely no hooch is allowed inside or outside Manuel’s, not even if you bring it yourself. You’ll have to make do with iced tea, soft drinks, and coffee.

But the food is not the only reason for a trip to Manuel’s, even though, if you’re craving crawfish, it can be a big motivator. This is not the place to eat cheap—dinner for four adults and three children came to $121.23. (A 15 percent gratuity is added on to parties of six or more.) But, if you find yourself on a Friday or Saturday night looking for something a little different and you have the time to spare, by all means, take the opportunity to partake of a little cultural exchange in a very unlikely crossroads.

Manuel’s Cajun Country Store is located in Milton, Tenn. Take I-24 East to the Murfreesboro/Hwy. 96 East exit. Follow 96 East, being careful not to miss the right-turn cut-off just past the O’Charley’s. (Otherwise, you’ll wind up on an endless stretch of Highway 231.) After about 10 miles, you’ll spot the small sign announcing Milton. Then take the first right. Manuel’s is just off 96 East. Manuel’s is open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wed. and Thur.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Live fais do do from 6-9 p.m. Fri. and Sat. MasterCard and Visa accepted.


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