This is the time of year when most Market merchants catch their breath after the busy holiday season.
But for Bill Beck of Beck’s Cajun Cafe, Christmas and New Year’s are just the ramp-up to the equally busy Mardi Gras time.
Between the retail business at Beck’s stands at Reading Terminal and 30th Street Station and catering Mardi Gras parties, February 2016 was “totally crazy,” Beck recalls.
The week preceding this February 28 promises to be equally crazy, if not crazier, due to several Fat Tuesday promotions.
First are his King Cakes, a Mardi Gras specialty yeast bread tradition at Beck’s and elsewhere that are flavored with cinnamon and decorated with colorful icing named for the kings who delivered gifts to the baby Jesus. The sheet-size version of this cake must be ordered ahead and contains a hidden plastic baby Jesus. (New Orleans tradition dictates that the baby finder is king and must host next year’s Mardi Gras party.)
This year Beck’s stand is also offering Mardi Gras party bags by pre-order featuring a mini king cake, a wedge of muffaletta and New Orleans brands of potato chips and root beer for $10.95.
Beck will also be helping Mardi Gras party do-it-yourselfers with a free demonstration on how to make gumbo (and the roux at its base) in City Kitchen on Saturday, February 11, at 11:30 a.m.
The Market’s expert on New Orleans’ cuisine is actually a Long Island, N.Y., native who traces his love of Cajun and Creole cooking to road trips to the South he took with his grandparents as a kid. Beck also notes how New Orleans cuisine is a mix of French, Spanish and Italian, “or pretty much all the important cooking traditions” he’s used in his long career as a chef.
That career includes stints at Steve Poses’ Frog Commissary as well as his own Pompano Grille on Fifth and Bainbridge, a 1990s-era Cuban restaurant which earned Beck several Best of Philly awards from Philadelphia Magazine and two invitations to cook at New York’s prestigious James Beard House.
Is it any wonder, then, why Market management was receptive to his 2009 pitch for a New Orleans-themed stand?
Within three years, Beck’s Cajun Cafe had won a Best of Philly magazine award for Sandwiches in Reading Terminal Market -- impressive considering all the wonderful sandwich competition in the Market.
The award specifically referenced Beck’s po boys, muffaletta (like an Italian hoagie but with a spicy olive topping) and signature Train Wreck, featuring andouille sausage, salami, Creole mayo and Cajun spices in addition to the traditional cheesesteak’s bread, meat and cheese, and which Beck boastfully describes as “what a cheesesteak wants to be when it grows up.”
Other stand best-sellers include giant fried balls filled with mac and cheese, the jambalaya and perhaps surprisingly, alligator gumbo (whether as a dare-me food or because people like the slightly sweet, slightly gamey taste of its alligator sausage, Beck isn’t sure). And he says nobody doesn’t like his bread pudding. Or, he clarifies, “Even people who don’t like bread pudding love [its] vanilla whiskey sauce.”
The all-star menu is the result of trial and error. Boudin (rice and pork) sausage, barbecue shrimp and whole crawfish boil are some past stand flops: the shrimp because the traditional New Orleans barbecue shrimp recipe he made had white sauce when Philadelphians were expecting something closer to what's used at The Rib Stand; the crawfish, he thinks, because of its “mud bug” rap (all he knows is that he was laboriously picking the meat from those critters and serving it in pasta salad, etouffee and po boys for days).
Not that Beck is through experimenting. After Mardi Gras, the cafe will undergo both a decor and menu “freshening”: Food additions will include a short rib po boy which Beck describes as an “upscale take on New Orleans’ famous debris” or beef roast ends, sandwich. New for breakfast are omelets (with or without gumbo topping) and brioche French toast topped with a praline sauce.
As for what he will be doing on Mardi Gras: If he’s as busy this year as last, “Probably nothing. Definitely not partying,” he says.
Carolyn Wyman is the Market's news correspondent and operator of the Reading Terminal's bi-weekly Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour (www.tasteofphillyfoodtour.com).