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Gator’s new joint brings Creole flavors to Petaluma

After last year’s launch of his highly successful Gator’s Rustic Burgers food truck, Glen “Gator” Thompson has started the New Year by opening his first Creole and Cajun restaurant in the North Bay, Chef Gator’s Rustic Burger and his Creole Friends.

Thompson spent his formative years in Bayou Pigeon, Louisiana. Dubbed “The end of the world,” Bayou Pigeon is about as bayou as a place can be and certainly explains Chef Gator’s penchant for Cajun flavors.

“My mother was always cooking,” Thompson said. “She was a dietitian and ran her own catering company, so I learned a lot from her.”

It was later while in the Army, after wrestling an alligator, that Gator received his nickname.

Although both Creole and Cajun cultures and cuisine descend from the French, they did it by different paths. When it comes to distinctions in cuisine, it is said that Creole is a more refined “city cuisine,” while Cajun is “country food,” relying on more seasoning than fancy ingredients.

Because the city slickers had access to markets, with more ingredients, their cuisine was similar to that of Europe, where the country Cajuns were more in tune with living off the land, using all the parts of the animal, and relying on herbs and spices to enhance their flavors. Louisianans joke that a Creole feeds one family with three chickens, while a Cajun feeds three families with one chicken.

A common misconception is that Cajun food is simply spicy hot food. Many restaurants have done this cuisine a disservice by taking any one of their common menu items, over spicing it, and calling it “Cajun.” Spices are merely one component of Cajun cuisine, and are not meant to burn. Nothing we had at Gator’s was too spicy, even for our faint of heart.

After years as a professional chef, Gator wanted to start a burger food truck and he did just that. A couple of successful, and lucrative appearance on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” hosted by local food legend Guy Fieri, certainly helped him with this endeavor. At that time, his next goal was to open a brick and mortar restaurant, which he has done in short order.

When not helping his staff in the kitchen, you will find Gator checking in with his guests. In fact, it was difficult to keep him focused during an interview, because rightly so, he was constantly turning to greet incoming guests, check on diners, and sharing mardi gras beads to thank his newfound friends as they finished up and left. Gator truly loves to serve.

Gator is a consummate professional, which helps explain why during our recent visit, he closed the kitchen to new orders for a short time. Although always looking to the future, wanting to introduce as many people as possible to his food, Gator also pays special attention to make sure he is not overextending himself or his staff, which could compromise the quality of his food.

Other than the chicken and waffles, which are excellent, the entire Creole menu is available in half-orders, which is a nice touch because it gives cautious diners a chance to ease their way into menu items they may have never heard of or tasted before. This made it easy during our three visits to sample a large portion of the menu without breaking the bank.

From smoked chicken and Cajun sausage jambalaya to shrimp and grits to crawfish étouffée, it was as if we were back in Louisiana, eating our way across the state. Gator gets his grits specially ground by world-famous Anson Mills, makers of “handmade milled goods from organic heirloom grains,” and it certainly makes a difference in many of his dishes.

French for “choked,” étouffée is more loosely translated as a “smothered dish cooked in a closed pot” but to me simply means “delicious.” Not as common on Southern menus as shrimp étouffée, I never pass on the opportunity to order crawfish étouffée, and Gator’s is one of the best I have had.

A Gator original, his Madagascar vanilla bean grist and roasted butternut squash, topped with pecans and shaved parmesan made for an interesting and delicious combo, almost suitable for dessert.

Southerners know dessert, and Gator is no exception. We tried the peanut butter pie, which was incredible, and the warm chocolate bread pudding turtle, which is not available for to-go orders, because Gator needs to make sure it is heated to perfection, or else the flavors and textures will not be right.

Gator offers a great small bites menu too, with sticky fingers baby back ribs available in both ¼ and ½ racks, Cajun wildflower honey and jalapeno wings, grandma’s mac and cheesy, big mama’s cornbread with chipotle honey butter, and of course, black eyed pea poppers and Southern style collard greens.

We have had Gator’s burgers before, so we concentrated this time on his Southern dishes, but had to try his latest burger, made from alligator, as well as the catfish rich boy and the oyster rich boy. Gator only orders farm-raised gators, because wild ones can sometimes have a questionable diet.

“It can be a bit stringy,” he said, “so we prepare ours like veal, with a day’s worth of prep time, to make it tender and flavorful.”

A bit like chicken, it has an even lighter flavor and texture. The catfish in the rich boy was fresh and flakey, and the oyster rich boy was perfectly cooked, so as not to be chewy or gamey.

It is said that the only place to try authentic Creole and Cajun cooking is in Louisiana, or at least in a Louisianan’s kitchen. The most talented chefs in Louisiana cut their teeth not at fancy cooking schools, but under the tutelage of their parents and grandparents in their home kitchens across the state.

At Gator’s, you are in a Louisianan’s kitchen, and will not only experience that region’s unique and innovative cuisine but also the hospitality one expects when visiting the Big Easy.