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Monday, April 22, 2013

Is it time to give Walk-On's another try?

Walk-On's Tuna Tini
Like most Baton Rougeans around my age (31), my first memories of Walk-On's weren't pleasant.  They were unfairly compared to The Chimes before they even opened their doors, but once they did, nothing worked.  One time, at a business meeting while in grad school at LSU, I ordered some sort of stuffed shrimp dish.  It seemed like nothing more than prepackaged, frozen and battered morsels that I could likely find at Sam's Club imported from India and served over a mound of soggy waffle fries.  My friend Caroline, a grad school acquaintance, decided to take her family to Walk-On's after her graduation.  I felt embarrassed for her.  And sad for her family that they had come in from Tennessee expecting amazing Louisiana cuisine only to get stuck in the basement of culinary despair that was Walk-On's.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip
A funny thing happened though.  Walk-On's had great success.  The company grew.  They served their unimaginative food and sold a lot of beer.  Their location clearly worked for a college area sports bar.  And the owners, Jack Warner and Brandon Landry, knew that the food left more than a little to be desired.  They sought to improve it.  Several times they revamped the menu.  Several times they brought in consultants to work on the food aspect of the business.  Quality improved, but consistency floundered.  People would come in one week and eat an excellent crawfish etoufee dish, then they'd be back the next week and want to throw it against the wall American Beauty style.

When the company decided to expand into Lafayette, they knew the food had to be better.  After all, Lafayette is the Cajun capital of Louisiana, and they couldn't afford to open up there and have the same start they did in Baton Rouge.  The Lafayette Walk-On's got a new menu.  While certainly not totally different, it featured new dishes, revamped entrees, and more attention to finer details.  Despite their reputation in Baton Rouge of having food more along the caliber of a Chili's, Lafayette embraced Walk-On's from the beginning.  The sports bar provided at least adequate food to go with the adult beverages, and truly all accounts that I heard about the restaurant were that the food impressed.  I questioned if it was the same Walk-On's.  In many ways, the answer was no.

Abitarita with Abita Strawberry
When Last In Concepts, the parent company that manages Walk-On's, Schlittz and Giggles, Happy's, and Roux House, decided to make a move into New Orleans, they knew the Walk-On's brand would work perfectly right outside the Superdome.  Again, to enter a market like New Orleans, one of the greatest food cities on the planet, they knew the menu needed some upgrades.  People told them that they'd never make it in the Big Easy.  People claimed their food just didn't have the fortitude to survive.  But last year ESPN named them the number one sports bar in America.  That title got bestowed upon the New Orleans location, and people like me, people who celebrate the food and beverage culture of Baton Rouge, were left scratching our collective heads.

Not only had Walk-On's always been a place that I wasn't proud of, but I nearly felt embarrassed about calling it a Baton Rouge restaurant.  We're better than that.  Or I'd like to think so.  So how could it be doing so well in Lafayette and New Orleans?  How could this restaurant that I don't care to patronize be winning awards in other cities?  Of all Baton Rouge restaurants to expand out of BR and successfully integrate into our cultural neighbors, how did Walk-On's do it?  What am I missing?

Truth be told, I've never been to the one in Lafayette.  I've stepped foot in the New Orleans location, but that's about it.  I think I drank a beer and left, not wanting to eat anything from Walk-On's in a city like New Orleans.  So I don't know how to compare those locations to the Burbank and Coursey spots.  However, after the revamped Lafayette and New Orleans menus, the two locations in Baton Rouge are now, as of March 2013, fully on board with the upgrades.  For the first time, all four Walk-On's have the same menu, and I set out to see if it really improved.

Duck and Andouille Gumbo
Joined by an esteemed group of colleagues, I recently sat down with Jack Warner, Brandon Landry, and Scott Taylor, one of the engineers of the redesigned menu.  We got started with a smorgasbord of appetizers which proved that Walk-On's isn't playing anymore.  The Tuna Tini highlights something a little different for them.  Sushi grade ahi tuna gets dusted with blackening seasoning and seared on the outside while left raw on the inside.  The Tuna Tini is rimmed with tuna squares and filled with a tropical slaw that boasts mango and avocado.  The Spinach and Artichoke dip, their number one selling appetizer, is creamy and delicious.  It might not be perfect for everyone, but those who love it will keep coming back for it.  We also had the improved cheese fries with the crispy waffle fry base and loaded with cheese, banana peppers, and true chunks of bacon as opposed to the bacon bits they started off with a decade ago.  Their Boom Boom Shrimp is an obvious and calculated play on Bone Fish Grill's Bang Bang Shrimp.  I don't mind that.  Inspiration comes from everywhere.  What I do like is Walk-On's commitment to now using all Louisiana seafood.  The boneless wings in the sweet and spicy BBQ sauce were pretty spot on, as far as boneless wings go.  Perhaps the real winner of the show was the blackened alligator.  MattyC, one of my fellow diners, claimed that it may have been the single best piece of alligator that he's ever tried.  The 100% tail meat chunks most certainly satisfied everyone at the table.

Cajundilla with Red Beans and Rice
A round of Duck and Andouille Gumbos came out to the table and we were all told that we had to try it.  It looked dark and rich and smelled incredible.  After one taste I knew that they had put some work into this gumbo.  In fact, Jack told me that the inspiration came from a particular New Orleans restaurant.  The duck meat is most certainly present, though I would have liked to find a tad more andouille.  Still, the complex smoky flavors and rich nuttiness of the roux all came through into a pretty stellar bowl of gumbo.  We also tried the Cajundillas, a name that they have trademarked, which are like quesadillas but filled with chicken, andouille, boudin, onions, and cheese.  That dish got served with a side of red beans and rice.  I was asked to guess where the inspiration for the beans came from, and with one look I knew the answer had to be Popeye's.  And I, of course, picked correctly.  That dish, with the uniqueness of the Cajundillas and the pretty satisfactory interpretation of the Popeye's staple, could be one of my go-to orders on the menu while watching a game.

Selection of Salads at Walk-On's
Jack and Brandon told me a story about how when they started the restaurant, they didn't even want salads on the menu.  They wanted a sports bar, and they felt there was no room on the menu for food that their actual food eats.  Well, times have clearly changed, and salads are now important to them.  We sampled four of their salads including the chicken and berry, tuna, shrimp, and cobb.  Each salad had its unique flair.  They've all morphed from the original Walk-On's salads with iceberg and dressing.  Now there are decent lettuce mixes and fresh ingredients.  The chicken and berry salad really impressed Gabby from Brew Ha Ha who joined the eating adventure.  It is proof that you can go to Walk-On's and eat reasonably healthy despite the south Louisiana sports bar vibe.

Burgers and Waffle Fries
We also got our hands on several of the burgers at Walk-On's.  The beef and buns have changed over the years, and now they seem pretty proud of the burgers they are putting out.  The new bun is a sweeter almost Hawaiian style bread this is pretty popular with burgers these days.  I like it, so I didn't complain.  Their stuffed burger, which has been around since the beginning, and the barbeque burger were both nice.  I wouldn't start putting them on the list for the best burger in town, but if I really craved a burger and wanted to hang out at Walk-On's, I wouldn't shy away from it like I used to.  Plus, the waffle fries are a great touch!  There were several entrees that we tasted as well including the Catfish Atchafalaya both blackened and fried, each topped with crawfish etoufee and fried crawfish tails.  There were a couple other sandwiches on the menu like the Blackjack Chicken, a Thin Fried Catfish Poboy, and the Ahi Tuna Wrap, which featured everything in the salad but in wrap form.

We capped off the evening with one of the most amazing ideas I've ever heard of in all my culinary experiences.  Krispy Kreme... Bread Pudding.  That's right.  Krispy Kreme Doughnuts turned into a bread pudding.  No, it can't be good for you.  And yes, it is a little on the sweet side.  Okay, a lot.  But damn.  Damn!  It is delicious.  And to me, it is nostalgic.  I remember as a kid stopping at Tony's Seafood on Plank Road for boudin balls then swinging into Krispy Kreme when the Hot Now sign flashed red neon into the night sky.  This.  This Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding.  This is something that Walk-On's could be known for. This could be a signature dish featured on traveling food TV shows.  This shows the forward thinking of a national food trend that's happening with collaboration between brands, to be proud of and show off a product that paved the way.  Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding.  Yes, indeed.

Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding at Walk-On's
The overall meal at Walk-On's truly impressed.  There are undoubtedly significant upgrades to the menu compared to the last few years and especially if you date back to when they first opened.  I'm most impressed with the assortment of appetizers.  True to the small plate or tapas trend, you can now go to Walk-On's with a group, watch a game, order a bunch of appetizers to share, and have a few cold beers.  Speaking of beers, I'd love to help them out with that.  They had no IPA on tap, not even the Juke Joint IPA from Tin Roof which is brewed literally right down the street from them.  Still, the food can actually draw people in now.  And even if you are not ready to be drawn in yet, I at least admit that I'll no longer shy away from Walk-On's as a venue to watch a big game or hang out with some buddies.  I also respect Jack and Brandon for recognizing that they had a problem and wanting to do something about it.  Growth has meant change for the company, and that change for the better is now in their two Baton Rouge restaurants.  I'm not saying it is fine dining by any means, but if you're looking for a casual, family friendly restaurant or a local sports bar, it is time to give Walk-On's another shot.