Right now, Southern cooking is hot, hot, hot. Many of the country's most innovative chefs and cookbook authors are emerging from that tradition and reinventing it, bringing it to the 21st century. Yet simultaneously, food's many superpowers include the ability to transcend time and place, and evoke memories. This juxtaposition—the past vs. the present, authenticity vs. innovation—is all over the menu at the Bayou in Bethlehem. Of course, the irony here is that I type this post while the wind is whipping, dropping the temperature even lower than its 20 degrees. I'm trying to recall warmer weather, and imagine that I am sipping a Sazerac on a porch swing, with the breeze gently ruffling my hair... But I digress. Time travel isn't possible here, so instead, the Bayou, which opened for business on Monday, March 10 after a soft opening late last week, offers the chance to recall your childhood, your travels, your grandma's cooking. Or none of the above. More likely, it will create brand new associations with the South, filtered through a couple of industry vets who are northerners, one white, one African-American (Does it matter? This is another question entirely), and a motley kitchen crew headed by 27-year-old executive chef Tyler Baxter, who is young enough to take on such an enterprise with ambition and creativity (and who has spent time in Nola cooking in Emeril's restaurants). The question of authenticity is guaranteed to come up, but this is entirely subjective and not really my point here. All I can tell you is that I enjoyed what I ate, and I quizzed everyone I encountered on a lazy Wednesday afternoon about what they ate, including two guys who likely work with their hands (navy blue Carhartt was involved) at the bar who ordered the gumbo of the day and the buttermilk fried chicken. They dishes evoked high praise and memories of childhood.
The Bayou is blessed with good bones: high ceilings and exposed brick lend a rustic, industrial-chic vibe. Warm-toned walls grace the small space, which seats about 40-50 including the bar. This intimacy suits the food well; it facilitates easy, affable conversation with those around you, the owners, or whoever passes you by. Co-owners Cristian Duarte and Mo Taylor, a couple of friends who've clocked many nights behind the bar with the former Starters Sports Bar group, knew they wanted their own spot and talked about it for years. Independently of each other, they had investigated the property, which had previously operated as the Hawthorn House until it closed in 2009 after a fire. Their admitted greenness at ownership, however, is kind of sweet to see—they are eager to please, eager to engage, and eager to learn. Duarte says, "I have a lot to learn about food. Tyler is opening my eyes and teaching me every day," and even acknowledges the chef has gotten him to eat vegetables. (But when you're talking about pickled veggies and collards cooked with bacon, how can you go wrong?). Taylor, on the other hand, seems more familiar with the food itself. The Jersey native says, "This is the food I grew up eating." Geography be damned.
It wasn't always a Southern affair, though. Taylor and Duarte were friends with Baxter, who had logged time as co-exec chef at Cosmopolitan in Allentown. They enlisted him early in conversations and asked for menu drafts. The two noticed a thread of Southern staples coming through, and the concept organically emerged. The menu is designed with plenty of variety both in scope and size: snacks, small plates, soups and salads, sandwiches (many an iteration of a po boy) and large plates. They want you to share, graze, hang out, and listen to some live jazz and blues. The 24 craft beers, most of them American, regional and/or indigenous to the cuisine (you'll find a couple of Abitas, including its grapefruit IPA), should help. And maybe, too, one of the expected players on the cocktail lists will do: the Hurricane, the Sazerac, and a jalapeno margarita for the adventurous, among many other creative iterations (Cucumber Fizz, Maple Peach Sour). When the weather finally breaks, anticipate jockeying for position on the adjacent covered patio.
Back to the food. Baxter, a Coopersburg native, hits just about all of the required notes. You will find grits, catfish, po 'boys, cornbread (with spicy tomato butter), pickled veggies galore, pork, pork, and more pork (pulled, smoked, ribs, belly, and bacon, which they make in-house for the mac & cheese), fried chicken, gumbo (rotating), black-eyed peas (flash fried and tossed with lemon, cayenne and fines herbs), brisket, oxtails with fried green tomatoes, andouille shrimp, hush puppies, and more. Its homage to its roots is honest, but it's definitely filtered through a modern lens (the house bbq sauce is made with root beer), one with a training in the classics and a degree from Northampton Community College's culinary program. The dessert menu balances old and new, too, with a traditional take on Chess Pie (rendered in squares like a bar and served with tart, creamy housemade lemon ice cream), a peanut butter mousse that Duarte says "stops people in their tracks, that's how good it is," a Guinness chocolate cake (St. Patty's is coming), and brown sugar beignets with maple creme anglaise. (Unfortunately, I was so taken with the chess pie I forgot to take a photograph of it. Trust me, it was lovely.)
We all bring our own experiences, expectations, and sense memory to everything we eat, no matter whether it's a snack on the run or a fancy-pants meal. But here's a place I can imagine that will bring a lot of different people to it—first dates, groups, barflies, parents with kids (lots of small plates=no need for kid's menu, although that's still being debated in-house). Even a vegetarian could find something here if you're willing to stay on the small plates, starters, soups and salads side of the menu. Nevertheless, in the hour or so that I was there, eating various samples of the menu and listening to New Orleans jazz (think Preservation Hall), I witnessed a wide swath of customers. The clientele ran the gamut from middle-aged ladies out for lunch to women out with their young children to working-class men sitting at the bar, on their lunch hour, or after their shift. The full menu is right on their website, for perusing. I'd get there early for dinner; it's a snug little spot and they only accept reservations for parties of 8 or more.
The Bayou Southern Kitchen and Bar, 702 Hawthorn Rd., Bethlehem; 610-419-6669; Hours: Sun-Thurs, 11am-11pm; Sat-Sun, 11am-2am.