Hoo boy. I’ve met my spice match, in the form of a blackened catfish fillet at Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou in Springfield.
I just want to make it clear that I’m not a total wimp when it comes to heat. I’m somewhere in the middle between my Irish ancestors, for whom cracked black pepper is exotic and scary, and people who enjoy food that makes them sweat as they consume it, like a certain spouse of mine. But that blackening spice kicked me hard in the taste buds.
Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou is as close as you’ll get to Louisiana in downtown Springfield. It’s a hole in the wall next to the city bus station with a handful of tables and no liquor license, but that’s all part of its charm. The food’s great. The BYOB option is a blast. The party atmosphere is enhanced by the lively zydeco music and the brightly colored bathroom mural of Pelican State landmarks. There’s also another location farther north in Williamsburg, with a full-service bar and brunch on Sundays.
But it’s not a place that makes any concessions for those who can’t handle its spice and flair. They’d probably kick me out on my pansy ass if they knew I couldn’t hang.
My two friends and I cracked a bottle of chilled Cortijo rioja blanco and ordered up two appetizers: the crawfish boulettes and the Bourbon Street cheese bread. The boulettes were deep-fried balls of crawfish tail meat, Creole spices, green onion, bell peppers, garlic and thyme, served on top of a pool of tangy remoulade sauce. They were excellent: soft, airy and really flavorful, spiked with chunks of crawfish and colorful jewels of pepper. The creamy remoulade was heavy on green onion flavor. Really delicious.
The cheese bread had just the right amount of garlic and was topped with corn, peppers and herbs. The corn added a nice sweetness to the savory spice flavors.
Then the meals came, and I was staring my new archnemesis in the face. I should have known. The catfish was crusted
with so much spice that it looked incinerated. One bite and I was gasping for water. Except we didn’t have any, even though we’d asked for it when we placed our entree orders. We had to go to the edge of the kitchen to flag down a waitress. In the meantime, I was chugging white wine to put out the fire. Not a procedure I’d recommend, kids.
The catfish meal came with a side of crisp steamed vegetables (squash, green beans, carrots), rice with jambalaya sauce and two moist hunks of cornbread (yummy.) The sides helped to quell the heat a little.
My friend enjoyed her barbecued pulled pork entree, which was served as large chunks of pork instead of shreds. The meat was tossed in “bayou black” sauce, which was sweet and tomato-based. It went well with the cornbread.
In the past, I’ve tried Mamou’s fried oysters, which were better than some whole-belly clams I’ve tasted, and the Big Mamou Chef Wayne: crawfish, shrimp and vegetables sauteed in a delectable lobster brandy cream sauce and served over rice and puff pastry.
Bottom line: Big Mamou is a ton of fun. If you’re looking for something to excite your palate, this is the place to go. But if you’re any more “Irish” than yours truly, then watch the spice.
Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou, 68 Liberty Street, Springfield, MA, 413-732-1011 and 15 Main Street, Williamsburg, MA, 413-268-8901. www.chefwaynes-bigmamou.com