Dining Out: Tupelo
The main course I couldn’t get enough of was the gumbo ($9). This wasn’t the most extravagant or best gumbo I’ve had—I order it where I see it, and have had several versions in its home city—but compared with the surf-‘n’-turf gallimaufry that many chefs make, it was admirably restrained, with andouille sausage and pulled chicken. And it was definitely soupy, thickened with okra and oil-based roux (oil being all the Cajuns could afford, Layman pointed out; Creoles make their roux with butter) and flavored with lots of garlic, Worcestershire, and Tabasco. One bowl was plenty, though I wanted more.
I did keep ordering bowls of red beans and rice ($5), which had more garlic and Tabasco, as well as a paste-like heft that’s gone out of fashion but here reminds you it should come right back. The side of cheddar grits ($5) was too bland and buttery for me to get through more than a few bites; do try the hominy mashed potatoes ($5), though, based on a Chris Schlesinger recipe in which the floury, slightly corn-y texture of the hominy cuts the richness.
Most of the mains fall into the sloppy-friendly, good-value column. Catfish is typically pretty mealy and low on taste, but Layman uses that same good dredge for the fish ($14.50) as he does for the oysters, this time with Cajun seasoning, and it sold me, as did the tangy vegetables that accompanied it on the plate. The daube of beef ($15) was basic brisket braised in red wine and tomato, served with hominy mashed potatoes, horseradish cream, and greens, all of it so nicely stewlike you really couldn’t go wrong. But the beer-and-champagne-battered crêpes ($12), filled with spinach and smoked mozzarella as a main for vegetarians, were stodgy, and the bourbon-maple barbecued chicken with cheddar grits ($14) came off as little more than a good glaze on uninteresting poultry.
Desserts (all $7) go back to proven Petsi territory, which means do not miss anything with a pie crust. I was happy with the banana pudding with homemade vanilla wafers, mostly because the kid in me can never resist it, though a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, low on fruit and with a tough crust, was less convincing. But Petsi’s got pies down. The coconut cream with bittersweet chocolate and peanut butter is something you’ll want to resist, and won’t be able to.
You can tell that Tupelo is a beginner’s restaurant. The nice young servers couldn’t quite keep up with sudden crowds, the rooms didn’t seem spotless, the tables and crockery are cafeteria-level, the kitchen pacing can come in stops and starts. Yet this place was instantly popular for a reason: friendly food at very friendly prices. Go for a New Orleans fix—and for fun.
Critic CORBY KUMMER—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.