Southern-fried flavor

A Taste of Laguna

9080 Laguna
Elk Grove, CA 95758

The closest I’ve come to spending serious time in the South was my college years in Washington, D.C., which John F. Kennedy once called a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. It’s also a city where people say “y’all” and the food has a Southern influence but, still, it’s not exactly low-country cooking. Nevertheless, I’m pretty happy to seek out any cuisine where more than half the entree choices are fried in this or smothered in that, so when I heard about A Taste of Laguna in Elk Grove, I headed on over to sample things.

The space wasn’t exactly new to me. A year or so ago I reviewed A Taste of Laguna’s predecessor, Ella’s Southern Catfish, which also featured Southern food. This restaurant looks similar to Ella’s—the interior has not changed too much, though I noticed a few more homey touches in some cute knickknacks—but the ownership and the menu both have changed.

A friend and I headed down Interstate 5 for lunch, lured by the promise of sweet-potato pie. A Taste of Laguna is in the far northwest corner of Elk Grove, surrounded more by business parks than by housing developments. It was pretty empty when we arrived, but those business-park people ought to discover it and go for lunch. A quick perusal of the lunch menu revealed po’ boys (catfish and oyster), smothered pork chops, battered shrimp, crab cakes and more. A takeout menu I took home with me also promised, for dinner, gumbo and a few intriguing specials, like a stew of okra, tomato, corn and smoked sausage. Beverages largely are limited to fountain drinks and a short beer list on the wall.

We started out with the generous appetizer order of fried okra. Service, one might say, had a Southern efficiency—it was at least 15 minutes after we ordered that the okra made its appearance—but that was forgiven when we heard the still-sizzling whispers of the piping-hot pieces of okra, which clearly just had emerged from the fryer. Their thin, crackly corn-meal breading was obviously house-made and freshly applied, and the little chunks of okra were cooked just right.

Those who fear okra’s goop factor might be glad to know that these largely lacked that mucilaginous quality that has created so many okra-phobes. Instead, their tender interior was nicely complemented by the salty spiced coating. I liked them with the Crystal hot sauce on the table; they also came with a rather forgettable ranch dipping sauce.

I ordered the catfish po’ boy, which came with fries or potato salad; I also ordered a side of red beans and rice. Due to some kitchen confusion, I got both fries and potato salad, plus the beans and rice. The latter were on the bland side, but perked up with the application of hot sauce and salt. The stubby rice grains, however, had the telltale consistency of precooked rice.

The fried catfish pieces in the po’ boy were nowhere near as fresh and hot as the okra, but I liked the crunchy corn-meal breading on them, too. Unfortunately, they were encased in a pale, slightly stale roll, smothered in more mayonnaise than I can handle, and topped with wan tomatoes as well as lettuce and onions. I’d have been better off getting the catfish plate.

Or, I could have gotten the smothered pork chops, as my friend did. I spent much of the lunch coveting them, and I did get a few porky, chewy bites passed my way. They were fried in a halo of puffy batter, then topped with a salty and unidentifiably savory golden gravy. The whole thing would have reminded me of my mom’s pork chops with cream of mushroom soup (in a good way), but the gravy was more clear, without the milky solidity of condensed soup. They sat atop more of that stubby rice, and came with a choice of sides. The greens were long-cooked, with an eye-watering spicy and tangy kick, but we both agreed they could have used a little more smoky meat flavor for balance. The corn bread underwent much parsing, and we finally agreed it must be homemade (or else from a very good mix): It was very sweet, but it had a pleasant grittiness rather than being softly fluffy, and it lacked the chemical aftertaste you find in a lot of boxed mixes. “The corn bread gets big props,” said my friend.

I couldn’t give the same to the crust of the sweet-potato pie, which was both a little soggy and also clearly was purchased, but I would have happily eaten the filling all day. Dense, spicy with cloves, and not too sweet, it was just what sweet-potato pie should be. In fact, I wish I had the recipe for my Thanksgiving dinner. I’ll have to make do with pumpkin, but I’d head back to Taste of Laguna just for a taste of that pie filling.