True tastes of the bayou are surfacing throughout the South, and Cajun Steamer Bar & Grill is happy to take the blame.
For years, original co-founder Jeff Thompson has been pouring his Cajun heart and soul into the growing chain of restaurants, but he admits that it all began from his own selfish interest.
When Thompson moved to Birmingham from Louisiana in the early 1990s, his first order of business was to assess the local dining scene. That’s when he discovered a glaring void that made it virtually impossible for him to call Alabama home.
“There was no Cajun food at all, and I just can’t live without my crawfish!” Thompson said, laughing through his thick Louisiana drawl. “It was either do something about it or go home. This was a deal-killer.”
Thompson took matters into his own hands, setting up a modest roadside stand and selling crawfish from the back of a trailer hooked up to his truck. It was anything but fancy, but his winning formula of fresh seafood sold at reasonable prices proved that the market was ready for authentic Cajun cuisine.
“It was pretty simple – just a couple of tables and some umbrellas – but you wouldn’t believe how excited people here got over it. It was as if I had introduced them to a whole new culture, like they’d never had crawfish before – not the fresh kind anyway,” recalls Thompson. “That little stand still brings back fond memories for me; it still brings a smile to my face when I think about all the people I met. That’s when I could start calling Birmingham home.”
Two years later, the economy forced Thompson to put his culinary dreams on hold and focus on a more lucrative different business opportunity in residential homebuilding. But his patience paid off after about three years, when he and a business partner “went all in” and leased the space to build the restaurant he had long dreamt of opening. To this day, Cajun Steamer’s original Hoover location – which stands just a few miles from the land on which his roadside stand once operated – remains especially close to Thompson’s heart.
“When I saw it, I knew it would be perfect for my concept. The spacious patio out back and the style of the building itself had New Orleans written all over it,” Thompson said. “I met my wife and some of my closest friends at that restaurant and it became everything I had hoped it would be. That’s why I try to model each new location by the original. Because that’s where it all began.”
A fellow Cajun master chef and friend from Lafayette, Louisiana, helped develop the menu and created signature dishes like crawfish enchiladas and voodoo chicken. Today, Cajun Steamer Bar & Grill offers a wide array of Cajun classics and original creations, prepared in authentic, made-from-scratch fashion, complete with casual dining prices and daily lunch specials.
The extensive menu features gumbos, jambalaya, boudin and etouffee, as well as raw and char-grilled oysters, crawfish and Po-boys. In addition, a wide variety of grilled fish and shrimp entrees stand alongside hearty land options and seasonal favorites. It’s a classic Louisiana kitchen, complete with homemade beignets and bread pudding for dessert.
In the ten years it’s been open, the Hoover restaurant has continued to foster a loyal following of raving fans. Thompson opened a second Birmingham location three years later, and introduced the concept to the Nashville market in 2009 with a location in Franklin, Tenn.
This June, Cajun Steamer’s first franchised restaurant opened in Longview, and a fifth location in Huntsville, Ala., is set to open this fall.
“Opening that first restaurant feels like a lifetime ago, but my commitment to bringing the best of the Cajun dining experience to our guests in each of our markets has never wavered,” said Thompson, who now serves as director of operations and cuisine for the company. “A lot of people said we were crazy in the beginning and – I’ll never forget this – they kept telling me ‘You know, only about 12 percent of restaurants actually make it.’ I said, ‘You’re probably right, but I’m going to have a good time doing this anyway.’ That’s proof that it pays to ignore the naysayers!”
“It’s been an exciting ride for us. I like to think the towns that have welcomed us so far have fallen in love with our food, our atmosphere and our genuine Cajun hospitality,” said Thompson. “We couldn’t be more pleased with our first new franchisee in Longview and we look forward to bringing more on board as we continue to introduce the Cajun Steamer brand to new fans across the South, and beyond, in the years ahead.”
Cajun Steamer serves lunch and dinner, and offers a full bar and catering services. To view its full menu, visit CajunSteamer.com.