As part of a blog dedicated to sharing with you some of my favorite parts of Southern life and culture, I’d be remiss if there weren’t visits to special shops selling one-of-a-kind items, or outstanding design. Hunting and the outdoors are important parts of the Southern culture that I love, so I enjoy sharing those with the blogging world, too. And small towns with good people and good food are the hometowns of most Southern memory or at least idealized memory. This post is the result of an afternoon well wasted in pursuit of all three.
Monroe and West Monroe, LA, are twin cities on the Ouachita river in north-central Louisiana. They’re about an hour and a half west of Jackson, an hour and a half east of Shreveport, and about one meal’s distance from either Dallas or Tuscaloosa if you’re driving I-20. West Monroe is home to one of the most famous Southern families of recent years, the Robertsons, of Duck Dynasty on A&E. Monroe is an old cotton port town that’s fallen on rough times but is in the midst of something of a recovery. On either side of the river are beautiful old houses, high levies, and the dead, decaying infrastructure of an agricultural economy that’s long gone. West Monroe has cast its downtown as “Antique Alley,” and all of the old stores of main street are now well-managed antique stores, with some good old guns and watches mixed in among the furniture and other relics. Monroe’s downtown is having a harder time of it, with taller buildings and warehouses that don’t lend themselves as well to light retail. Still, there’s life stirring. More on that later. By the way, it’s “MUN-roe” to the locals.
The most famous local citizens are the Robertsons, and they’re every bit the local celebrities you might expect of legitimate international celebrities. The stars of Duck Dynasty are pretty easy to spot, with long hair, huge beards, and the occasional bandanna. Locals will tell you that they go to the gym with one or another of them, buy shoes along side one or another of them, and church with the whole family. I stood in line behind a member of the family at Chick-fil-a just down the road from their warehouse. If you’re into celebrity watching, visit West Monroe. They may be camo’d, but they’re easy to spot.
Just as the stars themselves are accessible and part of the local community, the Duck Commander headquarters is too. A half-mile off I-20, it looks just like the warehouse and duck call factory it is. You can park next to their tour buses and see the awning that required police cherry picker rescue in one episode. You can walk right up to the warehouse and watch them at work. Tourists come all day, and the parking lot during my visit had a number of Harleys just passing through, as well as plenty of kids getting photos with the signs and cardboard cutouts. Judging by accents and overheard conversations, though, I’d bet most of the visitors were relatively local.
This is the part where a blog would usually discuss the latest Spring fashions at the small boutique they visited for the post, so I’ll mention that Duck Commander has a pretty cool waxed cotton baseball cap that matches a Barbour well. They also have a full range of Duck Commander and Buck Commander merchandise: hats, t-shirts, DVDs, stickers, mugs, trailer hitch covers, etc. The factory store is a gift shop for the TV show, mainly, but they do have some calls available. Not many, but some. One thing worth mentioning is that even though this building is shown in 12 million households each week on TV, there was no rude urgency about anybody shopping in the small store. I’ve rarely heard the word “ma’am” used politely so many times in such a short period. I bought a DVD of some of the early duck hunting videos and went on my way.
After a visit to Antique Alley, during which I decided that I really didn’t need an antique Omega bumper automatic, even if I really wanted it (I was probably wrong about not needing it.), I crossed the river to downtown Monroe. In an ancient brick cotton warehouse beside a decrepit railroad bridge is what has to be the only destination restaurant in north-central Louisiana. Cotton is the creation of chef Cory Bahr, a native of Monroe, the winner of Food Network’s reality show Chopped in 2012, and the 2011 King of Louisiana Seafood. It’s not the kind of place you expect to find among the boarded-up windows of downtown Monroe, but judging by the “coming soon” signs all around, it might have inspired its own better surroundings.
Cotton’s menu is self-described as “creative Southern cuisine,” and it nicely walks the line between modern seasonality and imagination and traditional Southern dishes. Appetizers like corn bread with sweet potato jam, pimento cheese beignets, buttermilk-fried Mississippi quail, and deviled farm eggs are familiar enough for any Southerner to order, but nothing like the church lunch favorites they resemble in text. The duck wraps are just like what you’d get at a deer camp anywhere in north Louisiana, but executed perfectly enough to fit any menu anywhere. This month’s entrees include pork belly & cheeks with pepper jelly and collard green marmalade, and shrimp & grits with Louisiana andouille sausage, Louisiana shrimp, and Alabama grits. Yes, please.
Cotton has three bars, three dining rooms, and a balcony over the Ouachita river. Each of the bars is well-stocked with usual and unusual whiskeys, and the house cocktails are creative and tasty. The Ole Smokey resembles a Sazerac, but it’s served under a glass globe full of cherry wood smoke. The Sharecropper is a refreshing drink of bourbon, ginger, lemon, and rhubarb syrup. Worth a try.
Service was great, bartenders were quick, precise, and pleasant, all food orders quick. Frankly, I have nothing bad to say at all. That’s why I’m writing about it! On exit, I shook Chef Bahr’s hand and wished him well. He’s making terrific food and revitalizing his hometown. God bless him.
If you find yourself driving I-20 in Louisiana during work hours, you should stop in at Duck Commander. If your visit keeps you in town through dinner, get a table at Cotton. You’ll enjoy yourself among some wonderful people and food. You might meet a reality TV star or two while you’re at it.