Quite possibly one of the best Creole eateries west of Louisiana!
When you think of great Creole scratch cooking – homemade jambalaya, spicy-rich crayfish gumbo, or crisp-on-the-outside, melt-in-your-mouth hush puppies – where do you think of? I’m guessing that McMinnville, Oregon is probably quite a ways down on your list.
You’re gonna want to rewrite that list.
Mr. B and I took a little tour down memory lane a few evenings ago and found ourselves in McMinnville early in the evening, just about supper time. (No, we weren’t over by the courthouse, but good for you for catching that one!) A quick search pointed us directly to the historic district on Third Street – and the Gem Creole Saloon.
The Gem Creole Saloon offers a new century twist on Creole cooking in the historic space that first housed McMinnville’s original Gem Saloon back in the 1800’s. The ambiance is relaxed, prices are very reasonable, and the service was first-rate. The menu is not too long, but there is definitely something on it for everyone, and gluten-free and vegan choices are clearly marked. There is also a complete cocktail menu, an excellent bourbon and whisky selection, and an extensive wine menu.
You can start off with a selection from the full-on frites menu (French fries) – which includes Cajun French Fries, Voodoo Fries, Bayou Fries, Sweet Potato Fries, and even “Boo Fries” with honey butter! Or opt for one of many small plates, including fried pickles and okra, braised greens, mac & cheese, four kinds of biscuits, and jalapeno-cheddar hush puppies.
Oh. My. Goodness. Those hush puppies.
Served with a crisp, sweet fennel cole slaw and a lightly seasoned dipping sauce, the Gem’s hush puppies were the best Mr. B and I have ever tasted. (It took more than a little restraint on our part to not order a second plate.) Flawlessly executed, these fried corn dumplings had a lovely outside crunch that opened to a soft, smooth, almost cake-like inside. The corn flour mixture was seasoned perfectly, balanced with just the right amount of roasted jalapeno and grated cheddar. Each bite simply melted in a pillow of delicious, airy lightness.
Gem Creole Saloon offers a variety of true-to-its-roots entrees, including fresh local oysters, crawfish étouffée, Louisiana BBQ Shrimp, and ‘Madame La Roux’s Gumbo.’ Portions are very generous: one small plate and a main dish would have been plenty for us if we didn’t want leftovers. Which we did.
Mr. B chose the Catfish Two Ways, which turned out to be deliciously beautiful plate. The first fillet was fried traditionally in a buttermilk and cornmeal breading, and the second blackened and served with rémoulade and a rich, mildly spiced rum sauce.
I’ve never been a big fan of catfish: I usually find the gamey taste off-putting, and it is often served fried in a heavy corn-breading that only muddies the taste more. This catfish was none of those things. It was smooth, buttery, and delicious. The accompaniments highlighted the natural flavor of the fish without overpowering it, and the two preparation styles complemented one another very well.
As for me, I love jambalaya – I keep searching for the perfect jambalaya like Graham Chapman searching for the Holy Grail. (And let me just say, a decent jambalaya is not an easy find in the Pacific Northwest.) With the 45-minute cooking time noted on the Gem’s menu, I hesitated, but the place seemed to have more Creole-cred than most, plus our waiter Phil assured me that it was amazing, so I took a chance.
It was definitely worth the wait.
Made to order, the Gem’s traditional pan-style jambalaya – smoked ham, andouille sausage, and chicken cooked in a stew of rice, tomatoes, and spices, and topped with four lusciously tender shrimp – is infused with deep, rich flavors and just the right amount of kick. (You can also order it with crawfish.) Very generously portioned, one order is enough for two servings and then some.
One word of warning: Don’t even make the trip if you don’t have the time. Everything at Gem’s is cooked from scratch. The menu even notes that “to cook well requires a certain amount of time. If you must wait it is only to serve you better and please you more.” Our dinner took two hours, and it was lovely from start to finish.
Speaking of finishes… we didn’t intend to get dessert. We rarely do. And we were already full. So we passed on the pecan pie, and even the red velvet cake, but then… Bread Pudding. Caramel Bread Pudding, topped with whipped cream.
Once again – Oh. My.
Historic Downtown McMinnville
236 NE Third Street
Seven days a Week
Happy Hour 4 – 6 pm daily