Cheap Eats: AJ's Famous Seafood and PoBoys
A taste of New Orleans in MariettaWednesday January 11, 2012 09:00 am EST
AJ's Famous Seafood and PoBoys is the kind of neighborhood joint that kinda makes you wish you lived nearby, or at least drove by every once in a while. Unfortunately, AJ's neighborhood is in that stretch of East Cobb between Marietta and Roswell that seems to be on the way to precisely nowhere. The food and beer and friendliness may make you feel like you're approaching Louisiana, but there's no denying that, for most, it's going to be a debate whether the rewards merit the trek to get there.
One lunch at AJ's is all it takes to see that happy regulars are greeted by name before the door has even shut behind them and have their beer of choice waiting on the counter by the time they sit down. And the beer is good, with several selections from Louisiana's Abita Brewing Company on tap. The surroundings are a slightly touristy take on Louisiana bayou country, but the sound of seafood frying up in bubbling oil and the smells of andouille sausage and fragrant gumbo reassure that this is no tourist trap.
The menu covers the basics of a trip to New Orleans – po'boys, muffulettas, jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice – with a few fusion-y side trips like a gator taco with cilantro and cabbage, and a Cajun eggroll with bits of shrimp, crawfish, and crab. The taco hits the spot with small bites of crunchy but tender fried alligator playing nicely with AJ's house riff on remoulade sauce in a soft tortilla shell (AJ's housemade sauces are a selling point, from the chipotle tartar to the extra hot cocktail sauce). But the Cajun eggroll only begs the question, "why?" Why bother with a dense fried eggroll shell and mushy interior when there are much simpler (and relatively healthier) pleasures to be had?
The po'boys, which have reached some level of fame among suburban foodies, are a solid take on the genre, rolled up tightly in paper, served dressed with lettuce, pickle, and mayo. The roast beef is appropriately juicy and tender. The fried shrimp or oysters are fresh and flavorful, nicely seasoned, though not quite hitting the level of crisp bite that would make this destination dining relative to other po'boys on offer in town. Likewise, the rolls themselves lack the thin shattering crunch of crust necessary to balance out their soft interior. Quibbles maybe, but the distinction between good and great po'boys is built on the perfection of the bread and the give and take between the seafood and its floured shell.
On the rice side, AJ's jambalaya delivers all you could ask for, with a nice level of Cajun spice that eliminates the need for added hot sauce, and just enough tomato. Two types of gumbo also please, though the seafood version trumps the chicken and sausage. In the seafood gumbo, the shrimp, crawfish, and crab are all perfectly tender, not succumbing to the overcooked rubberiness that so many gumbos seem to fall victim to. The gumbo is imbued with a welcome dark brown burn of flavor that hangs out with you for a while, calling out for an Abita Andygator to wash it down. The chicken and sausage version is definitely more earthbound than its seafaring counterpart, with some muddy flavors that seem off at first, but manage to get better and better with every bite. As for the staple side of red beans and rice, don't be fooled by their simple appearance. There is truth in such simple dishes done well, when the beans have just the right amount of give and the bits of sausage and spice strike just the right chord. I must admit, though, that AJ's red beans and rice don't always ring true – one visit turned up a bowl that probably peaked a few hours earlier, having turned from almost soup-y to thick and pasty.
There are other things to tempt – specials like gator chili, Cajun "pastrami," or Wednesday night shrimp boils – and I'm sure that the regulars at AJ's have sampled them all, settling into a routine of favorite dishes. But for folks outside the neighborhood, it's the temptation of an honest Louisiana seafood shack itself that may have you driving up into East Cobb, in search of a welcoming smile, a cold Abita Turbodog, and a fresh fried shrimp po'boy wrapped in paper. Hey, East Cobb is a whole lot closer than Louisiana.