Gator brings flavors of the bayou to Petaluma

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In his never ending effort to bring the North Bay the best the bayou has to offer, Chef Glenn “Gator” Thompson has not only updated his restaurant menu but has changed the name to better reflect what is being created in the kitchen of his latest restaurant.

Although he has dropped the word “burger” from the restaurant’s name, rebranding himself as “Chef Gator’s Bayou & His Creole Friends,” his excellent burgers are still available, alongside classics like his chicken and waffles, jambalaya, shrimp and grits and the best crawfish etouffee I have ever tasted.

However, Chef Gator has ramped things up by adding over half a dozen new menu items, including two new salads, a handful of excellent dinner menu items, and a couple of game-changing desserts.

I first met Chef Gator right after he joined the kitchen at Fenix in San Rafael. Like many in the restaurant industry, he talked a big game about his future plans, however, Gator actually had the restaurant pedigree to back up his gusto.

“Gator” is a name he picked up while in the Army after accepting a dare to wrestle an alligator. However, well before that, Gator spent his formative years in Bayou Pigeon, where he learned to cook alongside his mother, aunts, and grandmothers. “The first meal I ever cooked on my own was spaghetti and fried chicken,” Gator says with a chuckle.

Gator continued to follow his passion for food after leaving the Army. He started out with the Holiday Inn Corp, then the Beverly on Wilshire, before moving back to the Bay Area where he would train at Café la Salle in Sacramento and then under Chez Panisse’s former chef, Paul Bertolli, at Oliveto in Oakland.

Gator’s popularity grew and eventually he opened the highly acclaimed Alcatraces in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Serving California Cajun with Southern hospitality and a Mardi Gras atmosphere, the restaurant was well liked by food critics.

Gator went on to open several other restaurants, including Gator’s Neo Soul Café in San Mateo and Bayonne Southern Dining in San Jose. However, the crash of 2008 would see these restaurants close, but Gator remained in the restaurant industry working as a chef/consultant for restaurants like San Francisco’s Farmerbrown, before landing at Fenix in San Rafael.

He discovered Petaluma while looking for a place for his family to live while he worked at Fenix, and took to it immediately.

His first big plan to relaunch himself post-recession was to open a high-quality burger food truck, including a bun and burger recipe he had perfected over the prior decade. He accomplished this with ease in 2017, launching Gator’s Burgers with the award money he place first on two separate occasions while competing on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” hosted by local culinary legend Guy Fieri. He would go on place in the top four when invited back for a third go, on Guy’s Grocery Games Masters.

Gator parlayed the success of his burger truck into a brick-and-mortar location in 2018, where he is still cooking up Louisiana favorites today. Located at 5 Petaluma Blvd. South, Chef Gator pays special attention his new locale, which means Creole and Cajun flavors with a bit of California thrown in. In large part, this means he has smoothed out some of the heat that Southerners are more accustom to.

Although both the Creole and Cajun cultures descend from the French, they do it by different paths. Creole describes those born to settlers in the French colony of Louisiana, specifically New Orleans, and tended to be of higher social stature than their country bumpkin cousins, the Cajuns.

Cajuns originate from “les Acadians,” who were French colonist who lived in the Acadia region of Canada, known as present day Nova Scotia. During the French and Indian War of the mid-1700s, the British initiated a forced deportation of the Acadians, which became known as the Great Upheaval. Many of those deported would eventually help colonize Louisiana.

When it comes to cooking distinctions, Creole is “city cuisine” with refined flavors while Cajun relies more on seasoning than fancy ingredients and is more “country food.” Because the city slickers had access to more exotic ingredients, their cuisine had more of a European flair, while their country cousins the Cajuns had to be more resourceful, especially using all the part of their pray and putting more attention into enhancing their dishes’ flavors with spices and herbs. It is said that a Creole feeds one family with three chickens, while a Cajun feeds three families with one chicken.

There is some truth to the simplicity of saying that the difference between the two cuisines is that Creole uses tomatoes, while Cajun does not. The Creole had access to luxury items, such as tomatoes and dairy products, while the Cajun did not.

The base for their sauces, called a roux, is also distinct between the two for this same reason, with the Creole roux using butter and flour, and therefore being similar to the French version, while the Cajun roux uses lard or oil in place of butter.

Gumbo is a dish shared by both cultures, with the Creole version using tomatoes and being more of a soup, where the Cajun version is more of tomato-less stew. They also both share jambalaya, but the two cultures make slightly different version.

A common misconception, perpetuated in particular by California restaurants is that Cajun food is simply any menu item that has been spiced up to an unbearably hot level. Although Creole tends to be the more sophisticated and “French” version of the two cuisines, the spices in Cajun cooking are merely one component and not the primary one. As we have found every time we visit Gator’s, nothing is overly spiced even for the most sensitive in our group.

“I cook for my guest’s taste, not my own,” says Chef Gator. “I season things properly so that you don’t have to add salt, and blend Cajun and Creole flavors to make something that everyone can enjoy.”

Chef Gator’s 30 years of Italian cooking certainly helps with this. One example of Gator’s attention to flavor detail is that he does not use cayenne peppers, which is the norm in a lot of Southern cooking. However, it takes special attention to keep cayenne peppers from overpowering a dish with heat, thus losing the intricate flavor profiles of all the other ingredients.

Gator uses chipotle instead, which is the dried version of jalapeño, allowing him to better fine-tune his spicy flavors. Another special touch is that he treats his salts differently, depending on the dish. For his dry rubs and flours, he actually pulverizes his salt with a mortar and pestle.

“Salt is usually one of the larger and heavier ingredients,” Gator tells me. “It will often fall to the bottom, leaving dishes inconsistently seasoned. By making it fine, it stays better suspended in the mix and keeps the proper proportions.”

From Big Mama’s Garden

Along with the standard mini baby greens salad, Gator has added a southern baby green bean and pickled red onion salad tossed in a zesty tomato vinaigrette and garnished with toy box tomatoes and blackened chipotle shrimp and a Baton Rouge roasted butternut squash and pecan salad, topped with vanilla bean aioli and tossed in a spiced vinaigrette. More than your normal “green salad” these are two very creative takes on dressing up veggie plates. Surprisingly, I even found the butternut squash to my liking because it was not overcooked, leaving it firm and flavorful.

Gator’s Bites

On his “Gator’s Bites” appetizer menu, Gator has added several new items, including street corn and buffalo style fried alligator to an already great list of menu items, such as Papa’s Sam fried oysters, Big Mama’s black-eyed pea poppers, sticky fingers baby back ribs and Cajun wildflower honey and jalapeno wings.

The New Orleans style street corn on the cob is an incredible take on street corn, which seems to be popping up on everyone’s menu these days. But as always, Gator puts his own Southern twist on this, rolling his sweet yellow corn in buttery chipotle parmesan cheese and then drizzling it in “Slap Yo Mama Lube,” which may not sound appetizing, but turns this into a “must order” dish.

Alligator can often be dry and tough, but Gator has spent years perfecting his preparation of his namesake. His Buffalo style fried alligator starts with “tender alligator tail fried and tossed in zesty buffalo sauce” and then served on a bed of garlic baby greens. Something I usually avoid because I do not particularly enjoy the tongue sizzling heat of most buffalo sauces, “zesty” is the perfect descriptor for Gator’s version. Even as we filled up on all the other great dishes, the buffalo fried gator was the first empty plate on our table as we each kept returning to enjoy the flavors of this dish until it was gone.

Supper Table

Moving into the “Supper Table” portion of the menu, we still found old favorites like Southern Style chicken and waffles, but also a whole slew of new favorites, from sweet potato catfish to slow braised ox tail stew to Big Mama’s vegetarian feast.

We started with the Buttermilk oven-fried chicken breast, which the menu aptly describes as being the best of both worlds. Because frying chicken breasts can often leave them dry, these are dusted with a special chicken flour and then baked in the oven to perfection and then paired with tomato bacon gravy, garlic smashed red potatoes, and baby green beans.

Personally, I am partial to dark meat so it was not until several people around our table spoke up that I realized there is a large contingent who avoids fried chicken specifically because it is usually dark meat pieces. And the reason I avoid white meat is because it is often tough and dry but Gator’s is tender and juicy and was a huge hit around our table.

I always order any dish with crawfish so the blackened rib-eye steak with crawfish garlic butter was a must. Just as described, it was “seared to perfection” and served with garlic spinach and crispy onion straws but that crawfish garlic butter was the real kicker. I would love to try that on some other dishes because it is delightful.

Although the roasted pork loin itself was excellent, it was the sweet potato gnocchi side that we had been hearing about and it definitely met and exceeded our expectations. Served with warm cabbage slaw and apple pecan relish, the pork itself is topped with Applejack brandy gravy.

The sweet potato catfish with hotlink gravy was not nearly as photogenic as the rest of the dishes but topped the list for flavor and is a dish that we have returned for repeated times since. The Mississippi catfish fillet is wrapped in a sweet potato puree before being bake and is then laid atop a bed of garlic spinach and surrounded by hot link gravy. But unlike a chunky style, the sausage links are pureed prior to being added to this gravy, giving it a smooth and creamy texture and an excellently sweet flavor.

The final two plates from the supper selection are related in an interesting and innovative way. These are Big Mama’s vegetarian feast and the slow braised oxtail stew. Big Mama’s is plate full of butternut squash, Roma tomatoes, mushrooms, fennel, garlic spinach and Cajun rice.

I actually could not find anything keeping this dish from being vegan, but you would have to inquire to make sure. More and more restaurants are cooking some of their ingredients separately, but Gator has known this trick forever. He cooks Big Mama’s veggies on their own so they each retain their own individual flavors and the result is a platter of veggies that even this carnivore was willing to try.

The braised oxtail is glazed with Grade A maple and is served over these same veggies, making these two dishes enticing for both meat and veggie diners as well as keeping things efficient in Gator’s kitchen.

Other vegetarian options include the Bayou Meatless burger and the veggie jambalaya, although if requested, the Chef can turn other dishes vegetarian for you. The burger would be vegan except for the egg which is required to bind the patty’s ingredients together.

The patty is made with black eyed peas, flax and pumpkin seeds and celery and fried in rice oil, which is one of the more expensive oils but is also supposed to have some added health benefits that other oils do not. Chef Gator swears by it, having seen his own cholesterol drop significantly after he started using it. Chef Gator is a big guy, for sure, but in the time his restaurant has been open, he has noticeably dropped weight, in large part because he has taken an interest in making sure he is using healthy ingredients.

It should be noted that other than Sunday, when the full menu is available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (special brunch menu from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), the dinner menu is only available from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The rest of Gator’s hours are Monday - 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday – “gone fishing,” Thursday through Saturday - 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and then back open from 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner.

Sweets

The dessert menu is always something special at a Southern bistro and Gator’s is no exception. Ever changing, during our visit we were able to try both the Mississippi mud pie and a lemon meringue bread pudding. The mud pie is made of milk chocolate and salted caramel, is moist but not too rich and is gluten-free. The bread pudding was yet another example of Chef Gator’s passion for creating new, interesting and delicious dishes. His goal was to make a bread pudding that tastes exactly like lemon meringue pie and he achieved just that and in heavenly fashion.

Chef Gator is also working on some additional dishes for the fall, like black eyed peas and mustard gravy on a bed of red rice and some specialty items, depending on ingredient availability, such as puppy drum, which is a type of Gulf Coast game fish, turtle soup and frog. He is also working on introducing his special rattlesnake chili, which features a type of heirloom pole bean called rattlesnake beans along with actual rattlesnake as the protein.

Although not on the printed menu, the chalkboard next to the counter list classic menu items that are always available, such as red beans and rice with or without hotlinks, fried chicken or catfish, sides of collard greens, Grandma’s “mac & cheesy” and Big Mama’s cornbread, and of course, fried catfish (one or two pieces) and fried chicken (one, two or four pieces.)

In regards to the dreaded counter service, Chef Gator fully intended to offer table service when he introduced his expanded supper menu a couple of months back. But as all local restaurant owners have found, staffing is a major issue in our area with a real shortage of qualified staff, both in the front and back of house.

Luckily, Chef Gator nabbed the chef from the recently closed Sauced restaurant, where he was being underutilized. Chef Gator gives his new head chef a lot of credit for being able to basically do the work of two people while keeping the quality up to Chef Gator’s high standard.

“It’s a challenge in this environment to find table servers,” Gator tells me via text when I inquired of his plans. “My main goal is to the give the community good quality food that’s reasonably priced and great tasting. Table service will simply have to wait until we can make sure it can be dialed in to match the quality of food.”

That being said, we were thoroughly impressed with every single dish we tried at Gator’s. Any one of the dinner entrées could easily be served at the best white-table clothed restaurant. So do not let the jovial and colorful ambiance of Gator’s fool you. His dishes are first rate all around.

And speaking of fancy restaurants, Gator always has his eyes on the prize and is currently working on opening the preeminent Southern restaurant in Los Angeles. Due to his big personality and great food, the food networks are clamoring for more Chef Gator, so it came as no surprise that he recently shot a TV show in his Petaluma restaurant but I have been sworn to secrecy concerning the big star involved.

Chef Gator is also currently working on his first cookbook and has already started rolling out his food brand, which is called Southern Essence. While his team lines up distribution through major stores and works on launching his website, Gator hopes to have the product line for sale in his restaurant in time for Christmas.

Chef Gator is the real deal and his cooking is not just for show. It stands on its own and is as big and bold as the man himself. Big and bold, yet never overpowering, always delightful to devour, by the fork or simply in conversation, Chef Gator’s food and fellowship always leaves you wanting more and has added a vital link between Petaluma and Louisiana, both through great food and sweet Southern hospitality.

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