Crawfish étouffée to andouille sausage jambalaya — Louisiana has some of the most distinct food in the country. Drive a few hours north to Arkansas or west to Texas and the spiced dishes of the Deep South will be replaced with fried pickles and brisket. Outside of the Pelican State, Cajun food (or at least good Cajun food) is nearly impossible to find.
Well, that is, unless you’re from St. Pete.
In that case, all it takes to snag a crispy oyster po’ boy is a quick trip to Pinellas Park’s beloved Cajun Cafe on the Bayou, where — in its 66th Street strip mall digs — authentic Louisiana eats are the name of the game.
St. Pete’s first Cajun restaurant
Cajun cuisine is a genre of food unique to Louisiana. In the 18th century, residents of Acadia, a colony of New France, were deported by the British. After hitting the high seas by boat, many of them ended up on the southern shores of the USA — primarily in the state aforementioned. They brought with them their French cooking techniques which, when blended with Louisiana’s produce and meat, resulted in the birth of the category.
Over the years, the cuisine remained at the top in the region but was not brought to St. Pete until the mid 1990s, when Cajun Cafe on the Bayou first opened its doors.
“My dad opened Cajun Cafe in 1996,” Rebecca Unwin, current co-owner of the restaurant, said. “And at the time, we were the only real Cajun spot in the area. Over the years we’ve seen more places open up, but — back then — it was just us.”
A Louisiana-inspired oasis in Pinellas County
In the early days of the cafe, the restaurant was situated along a local river. Food was served in large huts lined by wooden fences. Tables were both inside and out, and kids ran between them. The good times, so they say in the South, rolled.
“In the beginning,” Unwin said, “It really felt like Louisiana. When you sat alongside the river, it was like being on the Bayou. My dad did a great job with that.”
Unwin’s dad Joe Thibodaux, owner of the Cafe until 2003, was born and raised in Louisiana. His upbringing inspired his vision for the restaurant’s original location. In 2019, however — after more than 20 years on the banks — real estate complications prompted Unwin and her husband Paul (current co-owner) to move the business to its new 66th Street home.
Despite the switch in buildings, however, the new Cajun Cafe retains its southern charm. Louisiana license plates line the walls, and rustic wooden tables fill the space between them. To longtime regulars, the spot is still the best place to escape to New Orleans over dinner.
And to a first-time visitor? It reads like a love letter to the state in which it was conceptualized.
27 years of family traditions
“We’ve been running this place for over 20 years,” Unwin said, “And we’re still using most of my dad’s original recipes. Sure, now the location is different, but I’d say over 90% of the menu is the same. We’ve had the same chef, Genaro Munguia, since 2004, and many of our customers are the same, too.”
On that old-time menu are specialties from smoky Gumbo to indulgent Crawfish Étoufée. A hot and spicy Alligator Sauce Piquant is a Bay-area favorite (it even won a recent award), and Catfish T-Red, a sizable entrée of fried catfish filet smothered in sauce. Regardless of the dish, however, the traditional family-made fare — in addition to the Unwins’ excellent hospitality (though they’d humbly deny the latter) — is the reason customers have been coming back for so many years.
“People really do like our food,” Unwin said. “We overwhelmingly get told that our Crawfish Étoufée is the best they’ve ever had, or that our stuff is even better than they’ve had in Louisiana. That’s why we’ve lasted so long.”
That étoufée is just as good as Unwin describes. Creamier than the usual dark brown variety of the dish, and packed with a subtle, flavorful heat, the dinner is incredibly satisfying.
“When Rebecca’s dad created the étoufée for the original menu,” Paul Unwin said, “He knew brown wasn’t going to sell. So he thickened it up and made it orange, and now it’s definitely our best-selling dish. Sometimes we sell ten gallons of it in a week.”
In addition to the étoufée, other menu highlights include a delicious soft-shell crab dinner, shrimp in a kickin’ Creole sauce and the juiciest fried oysters you’ll find in the Bay. Order any of those options and you’re in for the real Cajun deal; just the way Joe Thibodaux imagined it.
Continuing the dream
“Our family, from my great grandfather to my great uncles, all owned restaurants,” Rebecca Unwin said. “So, it was always my dad’s dream to open one. And after he retired from the army when he was 57, he finally got to do that.”
Today, Joe Thibodaux has since passed away, but his dream lives on; fueled by his special, little restaurant and the Pinellas diners that adore it.
And — above all — through his daughter and her husband, who are making sure that the Cafe’s next 27 years will be just as authentically Louisiana as its first.
Cajun Cafe on the Bayou is located at 8260 66th Street North in Pinellas Park. To learn more about the restaurant, call (727) 546-6732, visit cafeonthebayou.com or follow the team on Facebook and Instagram.