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

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).

The drinks problem may be well-enough addressed by the ice water in mason jars, often refilled. A watermelon sangria ($6) taken off the menu last week was surprisingly good, with watermelon juice taking the part of the usual fruits in a white sangria style. There is a wine list, but few wines can stand up to this cuisine. Luckily, both of Louisiana's celebrated breweries are well represented. Dixie, a historic brewery destroyed in Katrina, has kept it's century-old name alive with contract-brewed runs. Abita Brewing Company, in Covington, was up and running again in a few months, and I tried their Jockamo IPA ($4). This is a strong ale and might be too bitter on its own, but is ideal with the food at Tupelo.

Coffee ($2) is served in French press! This may not excite you, but it has two very important advantages: you always get a fresh cup of decaf (decaf does not hold), and the variety of Rao's coffees lets you pick and choose. Tea ($2) is likewise served correctly.

And, at last, desserts. Tupelo employs a pastry chef, but pies are still king. Banana cream ($7) is topped with meringue like a chiffon pie, and is so wonderfully Southern and delicious. Pecan pie ($7) is a more perfect match of crust, filling, and crunch, with added ice cream (vanilla or bourbon on my night). I took the bourbon, which was lightly flavored but a fine foil for pie. A double-chocolate cake ($7) was terrific, despite lack of pie crust. We got ice cream with that one, too.

Service on an early weekend night (no reservations except weekdays) was fine, even as the place jammed up. The dining room has copper-topped tables, bordello-red wainscoting, and bright yellow paint above, with a lot of New Orleans paintings and murals concentrated over the small bar. They could use the best background music in the world — our party was on the way to House of Blues to see Dr. John and the Neville Brothers — but don't. Modest-priced Cajun comfort and dynamite pies will have to be the attraction.

Robert Nadeau can be reached

  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle, Food and Cooking, Foods,  More more >
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