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South by Northwest: Zydeco remains a predictably unpredictable gem 

click to enlarge Flavor piled high at Zydeco.
  • Flavor piled high at Zydeco.
Flavor piled high at Zydeco.
Like so many of the best things in life, Zydeco isn't exactly as it seems. You wouldn't guess that behind a modest façade tucked away among car dealerships on Business 97 you'd find a country-Zen dining room awash in sage tones and minimalist art or the subtly swanky lacquered terra cotta bar dotted with colorful specialty cocktails sitting beneath hanging droplet lights. And the food, too, is unexpected: high-flown in execution yet completely down to earth in concept and attitude. And rather than offering Cajun cuisine, as the name suggests (it's actually a tribute to a family dog), the menu is American with a pan-southern emphasis. All around, Zydeco is a series of happy paradoxes, combining northwestern refinement with robust southern flavors, urban sophistication with southern hospitality, and upscale fare served up in impressively southern portions.

With so many attractive options on the menu, we decided to consult our bartender/server, Chris, who was both knowledgeable and incredibly helpful, as was every other staff member we came in contact with. It was a smart move. We ended up going with his recommendations across the board, all of which were spot on.

The wine list was unpretentious and easy to navigate with a good selection from Oregon and California, a smattering from around the world, and several bottles under $30. Organized by grape, most of which would be familiar even to the novice, guidance wasn't really necessary, though like everything else, the California Zin that Chris suggested was terrific.

For starters, as soon as you sit down, order the barbecue shrimp with southern grit cake ($11) and enjoy it while perusing the menu. As you might imagine from a place so predictably unpredictable, it doesn't resemble any barbecue shrimp you've ever seen, but it's astoundingly good. Bathed in a smoky, peppery brown sauce, the heap of shrimp over a creamy polenta-like cake was almost enough for a full meal. The grilled artichokes ($8)- two large artichokes halved and grilled-were tender and delicious, served with two dipping sauces, one butter and one mayo-based. Another good option is the Acadian Flatbread baked with Monterey Jack and your choice of three toppings such as mushrooms, olives, and andouille sausage ($10), which they also feature at 28, Zydeco's sister restaurant/lounge downtown.

When it came time for entrees, we, again, did as we were told. Zydeco's signature dish, grilled redfish ($25) in a Cajun cream sauce topped with crab meat and served with sautéed spinach and mashed potatoes was rich in flavor, but relatively light at the same time, and definitely lived up to its reputation. For a meatier dish, we were trying to decide between the jambalaya, the wild mushroom pork tenderloin, and the baby back ribs. After a few pertinent questions - hunger level, flavor preference - we were steered toward the baby back ribs ($22), a great choice. Slow-cooked and seasoned with a wonderful dry rub, which you can buy for home use, the meat was - and this is no figure of speech - actually falling off the bone. I asked for the barbecue sauce on the side, which was tasty and not too sweet or too heavy, but not really necessary. Served with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables, the dish was at least two meals' worth.

For dessert, the Almond Wet Cake ($6) is a crowd favorite, or to close out a gluten-free meal (Zydeco has a full menu of options for those with this particular dietary restriction), try Mom Jan's flourless chocolate cake. On every front, Zydeco anticipates and caters to diners' needs, even ones they didn't know they had - like free homemade doggie treats to take home and environmentally sound microwave-safe cardboard doggie bags. And with portions like this, you'll likely need one. Every aspect of the experience at Zydeco was a pleasant surprise.

Zydeco Kitchen & Cocktails
1085 SE 3rd St., 312-2899
Mon.-Sat. opens 4:30 p.m.

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