Leo’s Cajun Corner: We Don’t Cook Pretty, We Just Cook Good

{This article originally appeared in The Island Guide, published September 14, 2012}

Leo’s Cajun Corner

‘We Don’t Cook Pretty, We Just Cook Good’

By Kimber Fountain

The first word that comes to mind for Leo’s Cajun Corner is authentic, in every sense of the word. Cajun cuisine is often imitated, and many times dishes are deemed such because a chef merely threw a little extra spice on the plate. That is not at all the case with Leo’s simple yet savory menu: true ‘Looziana’ style and family tradition are cooked into every bite. From the gumbo to the jambalaya to the homemade sausage, the recipes and techniques used in their kitchen and on-site smokehouse originated over one hundred years ago in the deep woods of Louisiana. Their flavor has been passed down through five generations and traveled hundreds of miles to bring the best of Cajun cuisine to Galveston Island for more than twenty years.

Leo’s serves up breakfast starting at 7am, and their regular menu is a Cajun lover’s dream come true. Riblets that melt in your mouth and absolutely superb crawfish etouffee are rounded out with homemade banana pudding, bread pudding, and carrot cake. Pork, beef, and seafood are all offered on plates or in sandwiches with varying preparations, along with a wide variety of sides and fixings. The portions are generous but not nearly as large as the flavor. Many different types of sausage, boudin, and other meats are sold in bulk, as are crawfish tails and homemade jerky.

But even more appealing than the Zydeco zest in their food is the philosophy behind this bayou-bred business. It was built upon the notion that great food does not have to be expensive, and Leo’s is committed to providing only ingredients that are fresh and never frozen, which easily makes it one of the best values in town. A comfortable yet simple dining room and a friendly, down-to-earth staff perfectly complement the broad palate of tastes offered on their menu. Rest assured that the quality is not only high but consistent, and more often than not your plate will be prepared by one of the family.

That family is led by Leo and Susan Mercantel. Their son Jody proudly attests that Susan herself is responsible for close to eighty percent of the output of the kitchen. Jody, who marks the fifth generation, began learning the intricacies of the smokehouse when he was five years old. For all of them, their fondest childhood memories are of Sunday afternoons at their respective grandparents’ homes, where the smell of the Cajun cooking wafted all the way into the woods where they played. As with any true Louisiana native, the term ‘family’ also encompasses their closest friends and neighbors. Tales of their culinary origins include seasonal travel to others’ houses to help each prepare the meats of the animals bred and raised on their own land.

As an adult Leo Mercantel found work in Lafayette as a roofer, and he and Susan often came to Galveston to vacation with Jody and his three sisters. However his true calling began when he purchased a small grocery store in which he had worked as a teen. He added all of his homemade sausages and smokehouse products to the inventory of the store, and Leo fondly recounts how many Texas folk, including several from Galveston, would drive over and load up their station wagons full of his smoked meats, all the while remarking how they could not seem to find anything of such type or quality where they lived. That store was located on a main part of Highway 165, and when the Cachada Casino was built the state purchased their property in order to expand the highway into four lanes. In their neck of the woods, smokehouses and homemade sausage were like Starbucks in a big city, on every corner. So they decided to take their talents to Galveston. The Island was not only their favorite vacation destination, but it was also a place where their food and products would surely stand out.

That was more than two decades ago, in 1991. The family graciously acknowledges the Island community that has provided their unending support, and attributes to it their longevity and staying power. But Leo’s Cajun Corner has given as much as they have received. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, it was Leo’s that was actually the very first restaurant to reopen, several days before a well-known restaurant on the seawall that is usually accredited with that distinction. The demand for prepared food was high, and so the health department generously gave them permission to cook with propane burners until the gas lines were restored. In the week after the storm they served over three thousand patrons who would form a line from the front door that stretched clear across the parking lot. Even if a person could not pay for a meal, Leo’s still fed them.

That was back when their establishment was housed in a small, 24×24 wooden building that they rented from the nuns of the Ursuline Convent. After purchasing the land they built their current building which opened in January of 2009. Although this new structure, with its clean and spacious interior, is a representation of the steady growth Leo’s Cajun Corner has enjoyed over the years, the atmosphere, service, and flavor still distinctly embody their humble beginnings as a Louisiana family that doesn’t cook pretty, they just cook good.