A Bite of the Bayou – Ellijay’s Cajun Depot Grill Passes the Test with Authentic New Orleans-Style Fare

Written By: Michael Bradford

Louisiana folks have, understandably, a certain reticence about eating Cajun food away from home. The further they travel, the more likely they are to find weak imitators of their silky etouffees and spicy red beans. Sure, Mississippi and Alabama have their share of decent Cajun eateries, but outside of the deep South, it gets a lot harder to find the real thing.Imagine a Georgian ordering Brunswick stew in Minnesota. That’s what we’re talking about here.So, there must be a reason why many of the diners at the Cajun Depot Grill in Ellijay are Louisiana transplants. It tastes like home, and when enough of them gather for a meal in the homey dining room, it sounds that way, too, the Louisiana accent as unique as the rich flavor of seafood gumbo in the North Georgia mountains. The grill draws a fair share of visitors from the bayou state as well, those up from the muggy lowlands to cool off during a mountain summer or view the explosion of color that a leafy autumn in North Georgia brings. “It seems like everyone who stops in is from Louisiana,” says owner Heather Criswell. “Or they have a first-cousin living there.” 

Keeping the Cajun Kitchen Alive
Criswell has a history with the restaurant, hired as a server in 2001 when former owners Dennis and Sharon Haynes decided to open a Cajun grill in what had been a flea market. The Haynes’ gutted the space and “started from scratch,” she recalls.Around three years later, Criswell left to attend culinary school in Blairsville. After finishing, her education continued in the local restaurant business, where she “learned all the things not to do,” she says.The Haynes kept in touch, asking Criswell to help out when the Cajun Depot needed her during busy times such as holidays or the two weeks in October when Ellijay’s apple festival draws thousands of visitors to the town. But when the COVID-19 pandemic closed the grill’s doors, the restaurant was on the brink of shutting down for good. After a month of the lockdown, the owners decided enough was enough. “He said, ‘No, I’m not going back,’” Criswell says of her conversation with Dennis Haynes. “And that’s how my husband and I acquired the restaurant.”  

Gumbo, Etouffee & Crawfish, Oh My
The menu was nearly perfect, Criswell said, but she did add pastas and more sides. “Everyone in Ellijay loves alfredos, so we do a lot of blackened alfredos.” A meal at Cajun Depot starts with seafood gumbo served over rice (don’t fall for rice-less imitators elsewhere) or red beans and rice perfectly seasoned instead of bombarded with cayenne pepper at places that think Cajun simply means “hot.” Crawfish tails, fried and served with remoulade sauce, are among the appetizers, along with crab-stuffed mushrooms and skewers of blackened shrimp.Criswell describes the food as a sort of “Southern” Cajun, which means some adaptations have been made to cater to local tastes. There’s fried catfish on the bayou platter, with shrimp, oysters, a crab cake and crawfish tails crowding the plate, served with a side of gumbo. And muffuletta lovers will find the sandwich as delicious as those served in the French Quarter, but with a twist: they’re a “personal size,” says Criswell. “When you buy a muffuletta in New Orleans, it’s a sharing event.” Purists might prefer the shrimp or catfish etouffee in a rich gravy or the blackened shrimp rubbed with the grill’s special spices. Sharon’s Crab Cake Dinner is the restaurant’s signature dish of crab meat blended with herbs and spices, golden fried and topped with crawfish cream. There may be something of a subliminal pull that brings Louisianians to the Cajun Depot. Some of the food and ingredients are shipped in from New Orleans. “We get the muffuletta bread from Gambino’s Bakery,” Criswell says. Andouille sausage also comes from the Crescent City and the Crystal Hot Sauce, made there since 1923, is used to add a touch of heat to the traditional fare.After a trip to Café Du Monde in New Orleans, Criswell realized her menu was missing an important Louisiana staple. Once back home, beignets were added in portions of three or six. Served hot at the end of a meal with a snowcap of powdered sugar, they’re so perfect that you’ll never try making them at home again.  

Fat Tuesday
No Cajun restaurant worth its name—regardless of where it’s located—would ignore Louisiana’s annual pre-lenten Mardi Gras bash. The Cajun Depot serves up platters of Louisiana crawfish on Fat Tuesday on Feb. 13th with mounds of boiled mudbugs redder than Georgia clay, flanked by corn on the cob, sausage and red potatoes.“The restaurant actually first opened on Ash Wednesday, so every year we do a Fat Tuesday celebration,” says Criswell, to commemorate its opening and observe the traditional day of parades, parties and feasts celebrated in the Crescent City. “We have beads and the kids come for masks. We serve hurricanes, do picture booths, decorate and let everyone understand what Fat Tuesday is and what it means to everybody down in New Orleans.” Like a siren’s song, crawfish and Mardi Gras combine to attract a crowd of mountain diners to the Ellijay restaurant.“A lot of people from Louisiana show up on Fat Tuesday,” Criswell says. “They’re really excited; they don’t get crawfish too often.” 

Cajun Depot Grill
67 Depot St.Ellijay


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