There’s a magical way that plump shrimp and spicy slivers of andouille sausage meld together against a backdrop of intense gumbo and jambalaya seasonings that transcend all dishes. These flavors just work, even for the mostly Mexican-American residents of Montebello, many of whom hadn’t experienced the delightful iconic dishes of Creole cooking much in the recent past. Simply put: Heavy spice mixes, fresh ingredients, and long-simmering stews translate to delicious food every time.
Think of chile colorado, arroz con pollo, or tortas as dishes that might resemble the classics of New Orleans gumbo, jambalaya, or po’boys. This is what Keiven Cross hopes to show at his new food stand Nola Cajun and Creole at BLVD Market food hall in Montebello, which opened in August 2021.
Cross has over a decade of experience in institutional hospitality settings, first spending six years as the director of operations at LAX overseeing the likes of Campanile and Cole’s at Terminal 4, and most recently managing the very busy cafeteria at USC’s Keck Medical Center. But his real passion has been the deep aromas and satisfying plates of New Orleans, which he learned from working at his aunt’s regional restaurant in Hermosa Beach.
South Bay denizens might recall New Orleans Cajun and Creole Cuisine on Pier Avenue, where chef and founder Cassandra Epuna cooked some of LA’s most beloved Louisiana cuisine for nearly two decades. Though replaced by a guitar shop, the restaurant’s old clock still hovers over Pier Avenue as part of the corner store’s facade. Epuna’s nephew Cross began working at the restaurant after he graduated high school, starting as a busser and eventually becoming a do-it-all in the kitchen. Cross says he learned everything about Creole and Cajun cooking from her, recipe by recipe, though he has a lot of other family roots in New Orleans and Louisiana.
Cross fell in love with the hospitality industry while at New Orleans Cajun and Creole, eventually gaining a degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a master’s in management and leadership from Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School before going on to work at those large-scale institutions. Just as important, Cross received Epuna’s blessing to carry on her legacy after a lease dispute led to the Hermosa Beach restaurant’s closure in 2017. His experience is clear to BLVD Market’s operator Barney Santos, who said Cross’s business plan was the among best and most detailed he had ever seen.
Here at BLVD Market, alongside the Oaxacan-chocolate tinted coffee from Cafe Santo, the fresh ceviches from Pez Cantina, the griddled pupusas from Vchos, and creative tacos from Los Taquero Mucho, Cross serves a tight selection of po’boys and classic Creole dishes that have developed a solid following. He says the first few months were about education, about opening up these popular New Orleans dishes to the neighborhood; he got the opportunity at BLVD’s incubator space, which shares a kitchen with Los Taquero Mucho.
The proliferation of the food hall trend into more pockets of Los Angeles County has mostly been a good one, offering lesser-resourced and aspiring restaurateurs the chance to make their mark on the food scene. Consider everything from Blossom Market in San Gabriel to Steelcraft in Bellflower to Citizen Public Market in Culver City, all of which attempt to offer variety and local flavor to a single venue. Montebello’s BLVD Market has perfected its own simple version of the smaller food hall format, with a beautifully landscaped indoor-outdoor space anchored by white shipping container businesses and a cozy communal dining area.
Cross’s food clearly stands out from the mostly Latin American cuisines presented at BLVD, though a fried chicken place and wood-fired pizza restaurant are scheduled to open later this year. His most popular item is the shrimp po’boy, which comes generously portioned with 10 crispy fried shrimp sauced and layered above shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes. It’s easily one of the best in town, with the hefty French roll barely containing the cayenne-infused fillings.
A soulful gumbo shows Cross’s way with mature Creole flavorings, with the dark roux revealing well-developed seasonings. Cross sources his andouille sausage from Louisiana, slicing and then browning the meaty slivers before they go into the gumbo. Wisps of shredded chicken bring it all together, with a generous rice pat scooped into the bowl to soak up the stew. (It’s really one of the best new gumbos in LA.) The jambalaya is another highlight as Cross nails the dryness of the rice and develops the aromatic vegetables while being careful not to overcook the shrimp. On weekends, he serves chicken and waffles, as well as Cafe du Monde-style beignets, part of BLVD Market’s push to gain a loyal brunch following.
Cross is also proud of the catfish, which he says has been really good lately as sandwiches just begging for tangy hot sauce, and he rounds out the menu with favorites like collard greens, mac and cheese, and seasoned french fries. He hopes to swap out menu items like the current shrimp creole for crawfish étouffée, a difficult-to-find specialty here in Southern California. When crawfish season hits its peak, he’ll do crawfish boils too, something Angelenos are more familiar with considering the popularity of chains like Boiling Crab. Cross clearly knows how popular New Orleans food can be after seeing the longevity and success of his aunt’s restaurant as well as the appeal of these dishes even in mostly Latinx Montebello. And with other Black-owned Creole and Southern-influenced restaurants drawing attention in recent years, it’s clear Angelenos already appreciate the rich cooking of Louisiana.
Nola Cajun and Creole is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.