PICTURED: Fried chicken and waffles with berries and cream.

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Cajun Kitchen Café
301 E. Main St., Ventura

As a college student living in downtown Santa Barbara, Cajun Kitchen was the go-to breakfast spot. If I had family visiting, we’d head to the café near the corner of Mission and De La Vina — early, to beat the crowds — for an impressive but affordable meal. Most weekends, however, it was the hangover hangout, where my friends and I would attempt to stave off the excesses of the night before with spicy Louisiana sausage, tender cornbread and biscuits, omelets in every combination imaginable and multiple cups of hot coffee. Cajun Kitchen offered a great patio, a menu for everyone — be they carnivorous, vegetarian or vegan — and plenty of protein, carbs and fat to replenish bodies depleted from a night of revelry.

By the time Cajun Kitchen opened its location in Downtown Ventura, I was a mortgage-ridden professional and parent. My nights of debauchery had been replaced by midnight feedings; my days were spent managing the 9-to-5 grind. I took joy and solace in the fact that a touchstone from my unfettered youth was there for me on the occasional weekend morning. The omelets, hashes, pancakes and more that I’d enjoyed during my college years had lost none of their flavor or appeal.

My family (four of us now) eats at Cajun Kitchen on a regular basis. And I have found that the menu offers enough variety that we rarely return to the same dish twice. Steve’s Special — a concoction of scrambled eggs and chili — was often my go-to back in the

Cajun Kitchen’s beignets.

day. But of late I’ve found myself drawn to the restaurant’s breakfast burritos (meat, veggie and vegan varieties — I’ve tried them all), Benedicts (everything from classic to vegetarian to seafood), omelets and scrambles.

We often start with an order of the beignets — soft, light, pillowy pieces of fried sweet dough that are worlds better than a donut and a wonderful way to begin an indulgent weekend breakfast.

My teenage son recently tried Cajun Kitchen’s chicken and waffles. The waffle was tender on the inside, crispy on the outside, and just a little sweet — everything a waffle should be. The whipped cream and strawberries (with sides of butter and fresh maple syrup) only added to its appeal. The fried chicken couldn’t have been better prepared (so light, crispy, tender and juicy!) but the seasoning left something to be desired. If Cajun Kitchen can up the salt and pepper, this dish would be flawless — like most everything else on the menu.

Omelets are light, fluffy and full of the most flavorful ingredients — from fresh vegetables to rich cheeses to a variety of meats. Pancakes are soft and tender as can be. For a Cajun place, the Mexican specialties are on point; the chile verde is particularly good. All the eggs Benedict versions are great, with well-married ingredients and a Hollandaise sauce that is silky smooth with a lemony zing. The burritos are enormous and deeply satisfying, and even better when smothered in chili.

File gumbo with corn bread.

So enamored am I of Cajun Kitchen’s breakfast that I’ve never actually had any of the lunch items — which include the usual burgers and sandwiches but also jambalaya, po’ boys, etouffée and other Southern specialties. Thus, I recently I went off-script with a bowl of filé gumbo. It was a beautiful dark brown from the roux, filled with chicken and spicy sausage. The flavors were intense and the spice was both big and long. Perfect for a cold winter lunch, especially with a generous side of cornbread.

My hedonistic youth has passed, but my love for Cajun Kitchen abides. It’s still a comfortable refuge from the world, with good food that fuels me for whatever comes next. The more things change, the more they stay the same . . . and in Cajun Kitchen’s case, that is a good thing.