Uncle Darrow’s–A Chat with Norwood Clarke, Chef Owner of the Westside Cajun Eatery
Uncle Darrow’s Cajun Eatery is a restaurant near the corner of Washington and Lincoln Boulevard that you might want to frequent this week. Uncle Darrow’s did everything they could to move ninety tons of supplies from Los Angeles to Houston after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, all on a volunteer basis.
One might miscategorize the deep frier pedigree and modest floorspace for fast food but this establishment is a scotch more bigger on the insides of your mouth than between the walls. Let me cut and paste a portion of a five star write-up: “rich, complex jambalaya, savory gumbo, delicious red beans and rice as well as fried catfish, po’ boys, cobbler, sweet potato pies and everything else you’d expect from a Cajun/Creole restaurant.”
Linda, no Bitty in the BK Lounge, recommends a chicken link patty with the casing off, grilled, on french bread fully-dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mayo and mustard (for me no mayo) and a side of greens. I sense a soupçon of amusement in tempting me with homemade banana pudding on a spoon. She has powerful warm sympathies for my Yankee bias, and if I think Cajun can’t possibly be low carb, she won’t put de gris-gris on me. But that modified Economically Disadvantaged Young Man Sandwich is in no way disenfranchised in taste. I rip it apart with my bare teeth. High in protein, reasonably low in carbs if you ask.
Charity aside, Uncle Darrow’s is a bonafide West Side rarity and a unique part of the LA culinary pallet. For those of us in the neighborhood, it is a fabled canteen that truly does distinguish itself from a BK. There’s live entertainment on the back porch every Thursday and Sunday. Joe Banks blows two trumpets at the same time while his side men, T. Tadson and Chris Jones, back him up on guitar and bass. Joe Banks has 75 Grammy award-winning songs to his credit and was among Motown’s original session musicians. He’s performed with Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, all the heavyweights. And he’s open to jam with anyone who wants to sit in.
Owner Norwood Clarke greets me in person at the door, as he does for everyone. He’s a southern gentleman with a grass roots strategy of getting word out via YouTube commercials, Twitter and Facebook. Everything he says underscores the burden of being a good man in a harsh and duplicitous place, evidenced by a touch of gray in his scruffy beard and wrinkles around sharp eyes. Racing from thought to thought, the entrepreneurial chef strains against the weight, or perhaps the outrage, of a restaurant functioning at 25% capacity that should be franchising. The “no pork, no beef” Louisiana soul food has won salutations from politicians, celebrities and passersby, but the downsides of price (my meal is $9-ish), portion size and cooking time may be keeping people back.
MFV: How did you get started?
NC: Man… We started making candy for all the Nordstrom’s in California, Minneapolis, Markets in Beverly Hills. That was our flagship product, “Uncle Darrow’s Cajun Macomb Candy”. And it’s amazing how it evolved from candy to pop corn to pies. We used to bake for Starbucks. We did five desserts for Starbucks for four years. And how we got into this business, somebody we trusted sabotaged us and almost put us out of business. We had no desire to get into retail. Our thing was manufacturing and distribution. And, you know, I’m a country boy from Louisiana. Look at our relationships, look at our businesses… it’s friendship, people we trust. I can do a deal with a handshake and a smile. But unfortunately you can’t do business like that anymore, man.
So we opened our first location February 4, 1994 on Venice Blvd near Culver City. A lot of our business was Sony Pictures, Culver Studios, Fox, Paramount… a lot of Lakers, a lot of [Los Angeles] Sparks… a lot of professionals used to come through there… and being there after eight years and nine months, we had a problem with the landlord. It was a systemic problem, the landlord respected our money but didn’t respect us. And I’m a country boy, man, I’m not going to pay you and be disrespected. We opened this location December 26, ’99. We had both locations going simultaneously. In ’02, we decided to shut [the other one] down because we just couldn’t tolerate the landlord anymore. This is the only location that we have now. It was a situation where… looking at our clientele, the Dodgers, the Lakers, John Larroquette… a lot of celebrities come through here, individuals like yourself come through here. This is what I mentioned earlier, this is the American Dream, man. Here we are, what started with a family concept evolved into this.
MFV: I saw the article on the wall. Your move here was controversial. Locals thought you were “moving uptown”…
NC: We got ostracized because no one knew the untold story of why we left that Venice location. Being in the community, and I live in the community that we moved out of, [people said] you guys are going west, you could do the same thing here, you’re abandoning the community, and this that and the other. I would never abandon the community I live in. I still live in the community. It became intolerable that these individuals who we leased from didn’t respect us. And I have a problem paying people who don’t respect us.
MFV: What was the name of that management company that didn’t respect you?
NC: It was a family business. I don’t want to go into that. We’ve been to court twice behind that nonsense.
MFV: What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
NC: I’m a seafood junkie, man. I love the catfish, I love the oysters, I love the shrimp. The soft shell crab po’boy is phenomenal.
MFV: All original cuisine?
NC: My family used to cook for the Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Over twenty-seven years, my family cooked for the Commander’s Palace. The back story about the Commander’s Palace for people who don’t know is [that it’s] a legendary establishment that’s been around since the 1800s, and this is where Paul Phud Hon trained, this is where Emela Gossy [not sure on spelling–mfv] trained… I used to work for the Hilton family as well, in New Orleans, and so I know a little about this particular food. What we decided to do with the Uncle Darrow’s Cajun/Creole concept is to give you that flavor of Southern Louisiana without beef, without pork, without lard.
MFV: Chicken, turkey…
NC: We also have some vegetarian dishes. The red beans and rice are vegetarian. The collard mustard turnip greens blend called the Bayou Blend, that’s also vegetarian.
MFV: Is that like a gumbo or something?
NC: No, that’s greens, like spinach. A vegetable. So those are vegetarian. A soy patty po’boy made from soy…
MFV: A soy patty po’boy?
NC: A veggy patty po’boy…
MFV: Does anyone know about this!
NC: (laughing) Now you do!
MFV: I was about to say a lot of people see New Orleans food as too fat for their diets.
NC: Well, my thing is we can grill chicken. We don’t have to do everything fried. The oil that we use to fry the fish is vegetable oil, a soy-based oil…
MFV: So you can get chicken over lettuce no carbs…
NC: Everything is custom-made here, man.
MFV: People on diets don’t have to be afraid of this restaurant!
NC: (laughing) Exactly.
MFV: So would you ever put an ad on Craigslist looking for an umbrella to be donated, to give the place a little more ambiance…?
NC: We would love to jazz up the place.
MFV: Maybe through donations…
NC: A possibility… the challenge that we have at this particular location is with transients camping out, this that and the other. You see how we recess off of Lincoln Boulevard, which is a great hideaway for a lot of individuals, and so our thing right now, we try to keep it as open as we possibly can to mitigate that type of problem…
MFV: Do you help the homeless? Do you feed them?
NC: You know, we can’t feed them all, but we’ve done our share.
MFV: Do you think that gives this place a bad reputation?
NC: We have a lot of families that come through here. Mothers, fathers, parents want to keep their children safe, as safe as they possibly can. And they’re not going to want to go to a place where there’s a lot of transients or vagrancy.
MFV: Does Uncle Darrow’s do catering?
NC: Yes we do, yes we do.
MFV: What can someone expect?
NC: Well, we can do the fish, we can do the red beans, we can do the jambalaya, we can do the mac and cheese… you know, we can do the stir fry vegetables cajun style, and that’s vegetarian, so there’s a potpourri of things we can do in terms of catering. We go to the venue.. we fed 600 Culver City employees on Saturday for Employee Appreciation Day.
MFV: How many truckloads of food was that?
NC: Well, we cooked everything on site, man.
MFV: You brought your own grills and everything!
MFV: Do you hear that, tape recorder!
NC: (laughing) Our thing is, we customize. We tell folks that the best way to appreciate and enjoy Southern cuisine is by having it fresh.
MFV: You’re willing to take grills into the field!
NC: If the price is right.
MFV: The future of Uncle Darrow’s… Are you looking to expand?
NC: We want to franchise, man. We have people from all over the world that come to Uncle Darrow’s, and what’s interesting about this: people like good food. It doesn’t matter where it’s from so long as it’s good and the taste is there. It’s all about the flavor. Our food is free; you just pay for the flavor.
MFV: I have two criticisms.
MFV: You’re portions are too small for the price.
NC: Well, considering that seafood is very expensive… now, where can you go in Southern California and get two pieces of catfish, fresh, two pieces of shrimp, two sides, and corn bread or french bread for $9.99? Catfish Supper, you get six pieces of catfish, grilled or fried, and two sides, and bread for $12.99.
MFV: Where does catfish come from?
NC: Off a farm in Louisiana, a fresh water farm.
MFV: So you have to bring it from Louisiana?
NC: That’s fresh. It’s not frozen, man.
MFV: The second, it takes a long time to make the food…
NC: Well, the whole thing about it, if you get this stuff fresh… we’re not In-N-Out Burger, we’re not McDonald’s… it’s not a fast food restaurant at all. Every meal is cooked too order. This is why we have celebrities come through here, this is why we have the Lakers, the Dodgers, the Sparks, the Clippers come through here, this is why professionals come through here…. those who can appreciate a good quality meal.
MFV: I do love the spices.
NC: This is comfort food, man! People come in here and exhale. This is where you escape from the real world. You hear the music in the background? You can’t find that quality of music anywhere in the city for free.
ON HURRICANE KATRINA
MFV: You were very affected by Hurricane Katrina.
NC: I lost two relatives, Katrina-related, myself along with eleven others. We were gone for seven days. We took ninety tons of supplies from here to Houston… we had bottled water, insulin, we had clothes, we had bedding… It changed my life. We had the big rigs, man.
NC: Semi’s, exactly. All volunteers from the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, rallying to this particular cause. We did more than the government did. We went to several different places. We started out at the Astrodome, then connected to the Salvation Army distribution center in Pasadena, Texas, which had been donated by Walmart. They had a big facility there giving away clothing and toiletries and other things to the survivors of Katrina. The day after that, we went to a big church in Houston where they had shelters. We dropped off some [supplies] there. On our way back to California, we stopped at San Antonio, Texas at Kelly’s Air Force Base. There were 50,000 evacuees sponsored by the Salvation Army. If I had my last dollar to give to a non-profit other than the one I started called Reunite America, I would give it to the Salvation Army.
NC: It was incredible. I had a chance to interface with a lot of these evacuees and survivors of Katrina and the first thing I asked them was, “How are you being treated here?” And they said the people have been compassionate beyond belief. I had a chance to walk through the facility. The place was clean as a whistle.
MFV: Did this change your opinion of America?
NC: It was a mind-boggling reality check for me, personally, because of the fact that America gave like America never gave before, man. Americans are patriotic and [what I saw was] they are very, very willing to give from the heart, in causes like that. It is unfortunate that we don’t get that type of support from the government because of the bureaucracy. And I tell people that. To me, government is too big. If you allow the average John Q. Public to go out there and work hard and do the right thing, they will do the right thing. But all this stuff gets in the way. What I recognized when I went on this pilgrimage, man, this relief effort, is that everyday people just giving up their time and resources to help people less fortunate, you know, we’ve gotten away from that. If we as Americans can just get back to basics and say, look, government, just get out of our way, let us be resourceful… unemployment is staggering… 17% in the African American community… it’s hard to make a living. Our business is down because of the unemployment situation.
MFV: So what are your politics?
NC: I believe politics is Us against Them. If you allow people to take more responsibility of their own lives, they can make a tremendous difference in this society. But when you’re dealing with politicians who never ran a business, who’ve never been in the trenches, they don’t know what the average entrepreneur has to go through. [I work] seven days a week, depending on what has to be done. The other morning, I was up at 4 o’ clock in the morning because we were doing an outdoor venue and we had to be ready to get to go.
MFV: Anything to say in parting?
NC: I just want to invite all the folks who read your blog that they’re welcome to Uncle Darrow’s, and to thank those who are aware of us for helping us to achieve the American dream. We try to pay it forward.
Photo from MR38’s Flickr