Beignet, Done That 

The famous French Market Doughnut finds a following in the West.

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Got a quarter of a million dollars lying around? Then maybe you should consider getting into the beignet biz. That’s about what it takes to open a Crescent City Beignets franchise. Actually, it’s a bit pricier than that. After an initial $25,000 franchise fee, development cost estimates for a Crescent City Beignets store run from $298,000 to $355,000. At 95 cents per beignet, that’s a lot of beignets to move.

Headquartered in Houston, there are 14 Crescent City Beignets locations in America with 93 more “scheduled to open.” One of the most recently opened is located out in a strip mall on South Highland Drive. Described by their logo as “A New Orleans Café,” Crescent City Beignets brings a bit of the Crescent City to Utah. Sort of.

First things first: As you might have surmised, Crescent City Beignets specializes in beignets. And that’s something they do quite well. A beignet (pronounced “ben-yay”) is as simple a foodstuff as it is delicious. Also known as a French Market Doughnut, a beignet is pastry dough (white flour, eggs, milk, shortening, and leavening) rolled out and cut into 4-inch thin squares, then deep-fried in boiling oil and served piping hot, topped traditionally with powdered sugar. Supposedly, beignets in America date back to the end of the Civil War, when a coffee house in New Orleans’ French Market (Café du Monde, perhaps?) began serving them with strong café au lait. Beignets were brought to Louisiana initially by the Arcadian French who settled there. Essentially a square hole-less doughnut, it’s considered bad form to call a beignet a doughnut. Many beignet makers, including Crescent City Beignets, also sell beignet strips—finger-sized beignet pieces perfect for dunking into café au lait.

I’ve had beignets at the famed Café du Monde in New Orleans and elsewhere and, to be honest, the ones at Crescent City Beignets taste just as good. Remember, we’re not talking about lobster thermidor here, just fried dough. And beignets are relatively cheap. Crescent City Beignets sells them for 95 cents each, three for $2.55 or $8.55 for a dozen. For 95 cents you can also get four beignet strips. Primarily a breakfast item, I can’t help but order a quartet of beignet strips for dessert at lunch or dinner. And while sugar is the traditional beignet topping, I’m especially partial to having my Crescent City Beignets topped with cinnamon and sugar. Straying even further off the path of tradition, you can also have your beignets at Crescent City with chocolate and vanilla icing.

But as good as they are, man can not live on beignets alone. So at Crescent City Beignets you can also get hot grilled sandwiches, cold deli sandwiches, salads, and a handful of Creole specialty dishes like shrimp Creole, gumbo and etouffee.

Anyone who’s ever had an authentic muffuletta sandwich at New Orleans’ Central Grocery will want to take a pass on Crescent City Beignet’s version. It just ain’t the real deal and the bread is especially disappointing. On the other hand, the grilled “Royal Street” sandwich is mighty tasty with honey ham, Swiss cheese, tomato slices and Creole honey mustard ($5.75) served with homemade coleslaw and potato chips. Of the cold sandwiches at Crescent City Beignets, I like the Creole pecan chicken salad sandwich the best ($5.45), served on white or wheat bread or a croissant. For the kids, there’s even peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese sandwiches ($2.95).

Crescent City Beignets is a fast-food service restaurant where you place an order at the counter and pick up your meal when your name is called. For the most part, it’s an arrangement that works just fine. However, Crescent City Beignets is an extremely popular hangout for high school kids at lunchtime. The place gets crowded and service tends to deteriorate rapidly. For example, I had to wait my turn for nearly 15 minutes to get a bowl of gumbo while a single employee in the small kitchen (there was another making beignets) constructed sandwiches. What was so maddening was that my gumbo was sitting, already cooked and steaming away right in front of me in a warmer next to the cashier. It seemed insane to me that he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) simply reach over and ladle some gumbo into a bowl and send me on my way. Nope. I had to wait until the sandwich guy finally got to my order slip in the rotation, whereupon he emerged from the kitchen to spoon out a cup of gumbo. Ridiculous.

But I must say that the chicken and sausage gumbo ($4.95 per bowl) I had wasn’t bad, though not worth a 15-minute wait. I also liked the jambalaya at Crescent City Beignets (also $4.95 per bowl), made with chicken and Andouille sausage. It was, however, a bit on the bland side—a predicament easily remedied with a spritzing of Louisiana Hot Sauce. But my favorite dish (after the beignets) is Crescent City Beignets crawfish etouffee ($6.45). It was a pretty legitimate-tasting creamy and buttery etouffee, with a few small crawfish tails served over a mound of white rice. In general, though, I felt that all of the Creole dishes were overpriced by a buck or two given the smallish portions. At a restaurant like Mother’s in New Orleans, you’d get enough jambalaya for $6.50 to feed the family. And I much prefer the etouffee and gumbo at The Bayou on State Street to this. But maybe with a quarter-million dollar-plus investment, you have to price-gouge a bit.

And in a town so bereft of Cajun-Creole cooking as ours, Crescent City Beignets does a decent job of delivering some basic Big Easy flavors to palates jonesing for gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya and, especially, beignets.

CRESCENT CITY BEIGNETS, 7835 S. Highland Drive, 942-5525, Breakfast, lunch & dinner, Mondays-Saturdays, Breakfast & lunch on Sundays

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More by Ted Scheffler

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