A mixture of flavorful spices and ingredients gives crawfish, po-boys, shrimp etouffee, red beans and rice and other Cajun dishes their own unique tastes. A festival in downtown Chandler brings different tastes and aromas of New Orleans to the desert.
The third annual Great Southwest Cajun Fest on Saturday, April 22, will highlight Cajun cuisine and culture with food offerings from more than 20 food vendors and trucks, live music from local bands, a parade and eating competitions.
Jen Pruett, public and media relations director for the HDE Agency, said the festival combines Cajun and Southwestern sights, sounds and smells.
“Originally, we wanted to have some authenticity to it, but we also wanted it to be very clearly the Arizona version of that, make it our own,” Pruett said.
Move to Chandler
The event, which began in downtown Phoenix and moved to Chandler last year, has grown in vendors and attendees. Pruett said the festival attracted about 10,000 people last year.
Throughout the park, different areas will have New-Orleans-inspired names such as Bourbon Street and the French Quarter.
Food vendors from around the Valley will offer unique dishes such as whisky bread pudding, crawfish fettuccini, fried alligator and Cajun burritos.
The Angry Crab Shack has participated each year, and 2017 brings crawfish rolls, not on its regular menu. It will also sell Cajun turkey legs, boiled crawfish and shrimp, gumbo and cornbread.
Justin Coupe, regional manager for the Angry Crab Shack, said that during the festival, his restaurant offers samples of the cuisine offered at its restaurants while also staying true to the event’s Cajun theme.
“We’d love to reach people who haven’t experienced Angry Crab and give them a little taste of what we offer and give them a reason to go visit one of our six locations,” Coupe said.
Southwest spin to popular Cajun dishes
Coupe said his restaurant brings its own spin by using a butter-based sauce with lemon pepper and garlic. Many of the dishes are made with fresh seafood, brought in from different parts of the country.
Pruett said many local restaurants at the festival bring a Southwest spin to popular Cajun dishes.
“We have Honey Bear’s BBQ, for example. … (The owner) has his own style of barbecue, but for this event, he’s going to have a few other things that are his version of Cajun food,” Pruett said. “A lot of the vendors are doing the same thing, where they will have certain things that are more Arizona vibe.”
Honey Bear’s BBQ, a local restaurant with locations on Van Buren Street and Central Avenue, will also return with options such as shrimp etouffee, Louisiana hot links, jambalaya, boudin, red beans and rice and fried chicken and catfish.
Mark Smith, chef and co-owner of Honey Bears BBQ, said last year, his restaurant was so busy at the festival that it went through 35 gallons of jambalaya and shrimp etouffee and 300 pounds of catfish.
To give his food its own distinctive flavor, Smith makes his own roux from scratch and adds grilled or smoked chicken and sausage to his dishes.
Smith’s recipes are inspired by his mother-in-law, a Creole woman from Louisiana. He also grew up in a family of cooks.
“To me, cooking is an art, and art comes from the heart,” Smith said. “You have to love what you do, and I love putting a smile on people’s faces.”
During the festival, attendees can purchase a variety of beer options from Abita Brewing Company, a brewery based out of Louisiana, and Deep Eddy Vodka mixed cocktails.
Blues, jazz, crawfish-eating competitions, puppy parade and more
The event will offer entertainment from local artists and bands, including reggae/garage band the Hourglass Cats, the Funkhaus Brass Band, roots blues/jazz/Americana artist Nina Curri and Chicago blues/boogie/Mississippi Hill Country swing band the Hoodoo Casters.
Headliner Zach Deputy, out of South Carolina, brings a feeling of Louisiana to Arizona with a unique blend of island-infused drum and bass, funk and soul sounds.
Throughout the day, attendees can get more involved in the festivities through watermelon, Cajun wing and crawfish-eating competitions.. The winners will receive $50 gift cards to Bashas’.
The day will start and end with processions, led by the mayor and city council members.
Pet owners are encouraged to bring out their dogs to the procession to take part in a puppy parade, and dress themselves and their dogs in colorful Mardi-Gras-themed attire.
The event will feature vendors selling New Orleans style merchandise, a photo booth with Mardi Gras props and a kids zone with inflatables and a bead-making activity.
This year, the festival has expanded with the addition of the Big Easy Lounge, where attendees receive four complimentary beers, beef jerky, shaded lounge seating, swag and private bathroom access.
VIP admission also comes with benefits, including six alcoholic beverages, exclusive beer tappings, complimentary soda and water, catered Cajun food, front of stage seating and private bathrooms.
Great Southwest Cajun Fest
When: Noon-9 p.m. Saturday, April 22.
Where: DJ A.J. Chandler Park, 178 E. Commonwealth Ave., Chandler.
Admission: $8 pre-sale admission, $10 day of event, 12 and under free, $125 pre-sale VIP admission, $45 pre-sale Big Easy Lounge tickets, $5 per ticket for alcoholic beverages, free parking.
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