Cafe Zydeco: A Little South In Your Mouth
by Angie Ripple
Over 1,800 miles from Bozeman, Gumbo is cooking on many stove tops in the heart of Cajun Country, spices over shrimp, chicken, sausage and vegetables steaming in the sticky summer heat of Louisiana. Kevin Carloss brought with him his love for childhood meals with his huge family when he moved to Montana over thirty years ago. In 1999, he opened Cafe Zydeco in a tiny kitchen in Four Corners.
Today, Cafe Zydeco lives in Bozeman’s Old Fish Hatchery building at 2711 West College Street, which the Carloss’s recently purchased and have been making improvements to all summer. There is a pot of Gumbo cooking at Cafe Zydeco as you read; by the end, you’re taste buds will be bringing you to try it for yourself.
Angie Ripple: How was Cafe Zydeco conceptualized?
Kevin Carloss: I’m from Abbeville, Louisiana; it’s Southwest Louisiana pretty close to the coast, part of Cajun country. I grew up in a family of 17 kids, so my mother cooked every day. She was Cajun, and that’s pretty much where I learned a lot. So, in 1988 I moved to Bozeman, I got a job in the park, then moved to Jackson and worked for Simms and Croakies, and in ‘88 I moved to Bozeman with the company to start production here; I was with them for thirteen years.
Through that whole time, I started cooking for Christmas parties and pig roasts, a couple events a year, and word got out with other companies, so I started doing Christmas parties for other companies. After a little while, I thought I might be able make a little money doing this, so I quit my job, the hardest thing I ever did, and I opened up in the gas station in Four Corners because there was a space available.
I didn’t know what I was doing, you know? I knew how to cook gumbo and etouffee and jambalaya and all that stuff, we grew up with it, and my brother had a restaurant in Whitefish; he has three now, so I got a lot of help from him. The first thing I asked him was, “Should I do this?” He said “NO!” It was like, “Well, I’m doin’ it.” So, I just started out, didn’t start out huge because we were in a tiny little place, with a tiny little kitchen, but it worked out. The first five years were the worst of my life. I think my wife wanted to kill me because I left my job, so we went through some hard times, food costs were too much and it took me a while to figure it all out. And, Zydeco is music. I’ve always been a big fan, we used to go to all the halls and stuff, we’d do that every weekend, I just loved it. And we liked the name so, Cafe Zydeco.
AR: What makes Cafe Zydeco unique in the Bozeman Food Scene? What do you do that other places don’t?
KC: Authentic Cajun food. We get a lot of people that come in from Louisiana and a lot of them love it, and they’re like, “This is better than home,” and some people are like, “That’s not how my mom made it.” The thing that a lot of people don’t understand, maybe chefs or cooks do, but everybody has their own way of cooking. I was just fishing in the Northwest Territories at Scott Lake Lodge. A buddy of mine invited me up there, and we went up there for a week and fished. You get dinner every night, and one night it was jambalaya and it was the best jambalaya I have ever eaten, the best, you know besides mine, but it was REALLY good. I even went back there and told the guy that it was the best jambalaya, and it was. I’ve never eaten jambalaya that was that good anywhere. And the thing is, it’s different from mine, but so what? I’ve eaten gumbo that was different from mine and it was great, so it’s just different. Another thing is I think our prices are good. I know our food costs are higher than anyone else’s. I hate to change prices but sometimes you just have to because supplier prices are going up and seafood prices are ridiculous.
AR: What do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?
KC: I want them to feel like they are down South, like they are somewhere different. I love this old building; that’s why I wanted to keep it. We play Zydeco music; it’s not something you hear every day, it’s different.
AR: What do you enjoy most about being part of the Bozeman community?
KC: That I’ve been here so long and watched it grow. When I first moved here, it was a two-lane road to Four Corners, and there was one little gas station, one little wooden gas station, and it’s just changed so much. The positive side of the changes is that it has been great for business.
I’m a big fisherman and I know a lot of people that fish and that’s why I wanted to stay. I came on a one-way ticket and never looked back. I know a lot of people, I’ve been here forever. I see people come in that I haven’t seen in twenty years, and it’s like, “WOW!” I try to make a point of going out [front of house] more than I used to, to say hi to people.
AR: What is your most popular dish, or what do your regulars keep coming back for?
KC: We go through forty quarts of gumbo every day. When it gets colder, it’s closer to sixty quarts; that’s a lot of gumbo. So, I would say it’s gumbo. It’s my favorite; I eat it every morning, not kidding. And, our sandwiches are all pretty popular; the Philly is a big one, and it’s not even Cajun, but its a big one and it’s spiced pretty good. Jambalaya is also huge. I would say in the last year, I’ve been cooking more hot stuff than ever, even on hot days like today people are getting hot food. Every one has their thing they come back for, and I wish they would change.
AR: I can relate to that. I ordered the All That Jazz a lot until I started changing it up. I like all the catfish options, the chipotle pork is awesome, and the shrimp and grits. I learned long ago that you can order any sandwich over rice and I always do that now, I love your rice.
KC: All That Jazz is really popular. We started doing fish and fries and that’s super popular. We get a lot of compliments on that. We also have gluten free bread for our sandwiches, but the rice is better. [smile]
I think every thing we serve is really good. I don’t serve anything that doesn’t taste good. And don’t be afraid to try something; we are certainly not against giving people a sample, so they can try it first. I don’t think our food is hot. I think people hear Cajun and they think their mouth will be on fire, but don’t be afraid to try it, it’s not that hot!
AR: Do you have anything coming up that you want the readers to know about?
KC: We will be at the Moonlight Festival in Big Sky August 17. They have Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers playing. We’ll be doing gumbo and the first 300 will be free small bowls.
We are also currently looking for more fryers, and are considering doing Beignets every day! I’d love reader feedback on that idea.
I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Louisiana (bucket list), but I’ve been putting Cafe Zydeco’s flavors of the South in my mouth for the past twelve years+ and I can tell you it’s amazing. If your kids are averse to flavor, like a couple of mine are, order them the ham & cheese sandwich and they won’t complain a bit. You can also visit Cafe Zydeco in Billings and Helena, but the original is my favorite.