Tupelo

A sweet convergence of Cajun comfort and perfect pies
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  September 9, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

0909_tupelo_main
PECAN HILL: Tupelo specializes in modest-priced Cajun comfort, but serves dynamite pies, such as this pecan pie.

Tupelo | 1193 Cambridge Street, Cambridge (Inman Square) | 617.868.0004 | Open Tuesday–Saturday, 5–10 pm, and Sunday, 5–9 pm (shorter menu) | AE, DC, Di, MC, Vi | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Up one step to dining room; Bathrooms up several stairs
Sweet storyline here: Magnolia's goes along for years serving inexpensive Southern-style food, then Hungry Mother opens to vast acclaim, perhaps stealing a few foodies away. So Magnolia's is sold to its pie supplier, the estimable "Petsi" McLeod, and reopened as Tupelo. Are the desserts now wagging the jambalaya? Well, if you only have time for one course, the desserts — with Toscanini's ice cream and French-press coffee — are perhaps the one to have. But at these prices it's a harmonic convergence, if not hoodoo as white magic.

We begin with moderately sweet yellow cornbread and water poured into quart mason jars, as if in warning that a Cajun palate rules here. New chef Rembs Layman has family in Louisiana, so that is the point of reference, from the gumbos to the Dixie and Abita beers on the drinks list. (It's possible that the yellow cornbread is a Louisiana reference, as well.)

Certainly no holding back on the fried oysters ($8), which are big enough to be gulf oysters, and full of flavor, not even counting the mustardy remoulade dip. Southern spicy turkey meatballs ($6) are likewise Cajun-inspired, with the broth hotter than the large meatballs. My least favorite appetizer was "Deviled crab salad served with garlic toasts" ($7), although it was really just like crab cakes without the starchy filler and the frying.

The New Orleans gumbo ($9) is a best buy, thickened with both a Cajun roux and okra, and drawing flavor from pulled chicken and spicy andouille sausage. It is traditionally served with rice. If you ask for hot-pepper sauce, you get an assortment, from mild-mannered Pickapeppa up to the scary habanero levels of Melinda's.

Jambalaya ($16) was a daily special with crabmeat, a milder sausage, rice, and chopped vegetables. The drier style is the argument for jambalaya as a paella, since New Orleans was the capital of Spanish North America when the Cajuns first got there.

If you tire of hot spice, there is a daube of beef. We caught a rare special on steak frites ($16), which looked and tasted like hangar steak, but whatever it was, was exceptionally good. So were the frites, seasoned and a little greasy but fresh to the table.

A side dish of cheese grits ($5) was a little loose to my understanding, more like breakfast-cereal grits. Red beans and rice ($5) is reportedly a family recipe from Louisiana. Our night it was as sweet as Boston baked beans, which is not usually how red beans and rice ought to taste (usually they're more like pepper and smoked ham hock).

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