Waking up to the aroma of frying beignets at his grandmother’s house in Louisiana is one of Chef Bradley Wildridge’s earliest memories. Cajun through and through, he has jambalaya in his blood and roux in his soul.
“Yoo-hoo!” was his grandma’s call for him to get out of bed and make a beeline for the kitchen, where the warm, yeasty puffs waited.
Now Wildridge and his wife Mandy make the same beignets each Sunday at the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market under a small tent emblazoned with the name of his fledgling food business, Bayou on the Bay. Other dishes include curry jambalaya, crawfish meat pies and Muffuletta sandwiches, plus other rotating menu items listed on their chalkboards.
It’s been less than a year since Wildridge got serious about his dream of French-Cajun fusion and offered his first pop-up menu at Shady Oak Barrel House in Santa Rosa in late November.
“I just asked some friends one night after beers,” Wildridge said of how his plans to start Bayou on the Bay came to be.
A former cook at Dry Creek Kitchen and vegan catering chef, he gained traction with his idea after posting a GoFundMe page to test the waters. He soon found an investor and kitchen space at Old Possum Brewing Co., which has been fostering another pop-up, Austin’s Southern Smoke BBQ (at Old Possum on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays).
Now Wildridge’s venture is one of the many emerging pandemic food pop-ups fueled by invitations to serve food at breweries like Old Possum Brewing, Old Caz, Henhouse and Parliament. It’s a win-win as young, food-savvy beer drinkers come both for the brews and for the rotating food trucks and tents — from sushi and Asian cheesesteaks to samosas, gumbo and barbecue — ushering in a new food culture in Sonoma County.
Without onerous rents, expensive equipment and heart-stopping start-up costs, passion projects that once seemed impossible have become reachable for chefs and bakers. Call it the silver lining to being out of work for a traditional restaurant or catering job after years of pandemic closures and uncertainty.
On an early Saturday afternoon at The Barlow’s Seismic Brewing, Mandy Wildridge whisked a coconut and pecan caramel sauce for their Cajun Cake. The moist, dark crumbs studded with pineapple took me back to childhood granny cakes made with brown sugar, pecans and pineapple. So. Freaking. Good.
With a small fryer, chafing dishes and portable cooktops, the couple danced around their 10-by-10-foot space, turning out orders efficiently and smiling at curious passersby. Most people ended up stopping, having seen the Wildridges at other breweries. As they whipped up my order, Bradley encouraged a trip into Seismic for a beer. A new sushi rice lager (brewed with sushi rice in the grist) was a perfect pairing for the bright, bold, spicy, utterly fusion flavors of Bayou on the Bay. Ca c’est bon, y’all.
Wildridge is an experienced vegan chef and creates vegan and vegetarian riffs on many dishes. The menu frequently changes, with additions and subtractions. Beignets are served only on Sundays.
Smoked BBQ Mac and Cheese, $15: Smoky Joe Matos cheese is the base for creamy macaroni topped with barbecue mushrooms (possibly my new favorite food), crispy onions and jalapeños and barbecue sauce. You can add andouille sausage, chicken or bacon, but it’s pretty perfect on its own. The generous portion is enough for three people or one spectacularly hungry person.
Crawfish Deviled Egg, $7: Crawfish, if you’re not familiar, are the lobster of the Bayou and have a similar sweet and briny meat, just in an abbreviated package. At Bayou on the Bay, their little tails are sauteed in truffle butter and set atop a spicy deviled egg. Add hot sauce, green onions and sprouts (to cool it off). Cajun food isn’t three-alarm hot (at least not here), but it does have a kick that’ll make your eyes water.
Curry Jambalaya, $15: Here’s where the fusion surfaces in Wildridge’s cooking. Curry and coconut milk are added to traditional jambalaya spices (usually a mix of onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, basil, thyme, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika and salt) and a Cajun “holy trinity” of onions, bell peppers and celery. Chicken and sausage stud the rich, aromatic stew, a delicious mash-up that somehow makes a ton of sense.
Gumbo Ramen, $15: Things get a little crazy with this dish. Wildridge starts with a gumbo base of roux, adds vegetables and thins the broth with veggie stock (the broth is vegan). Ramen noodles, sliced andouille sausage and chicken are added, a la carte, along with a smoked six-minute egg. The rich, dark broth is bursting with flavor in a not-quite-ramen, not-quite-gumbo way that worked so well with the light nuttiness of my sushi rice beer. Score!
Natchitoches Crawfish Meat Pies, $7: Call ’em Louisiana empanadas or just plain delicious. Sweet crawfish, veggies and jambalaya rice are stuffed into a dough pocket and fried until crispy and hot. Because we’re dippers, the “Secret Bayou Sauce,” a spicy-creamy dip that adds a proper heat, makes these hand pies doubly delicious.
Bayou on the Bay is at Old Possum Brewing Co. (357 Sutton Place, Santa Rosa, oldpossumbrewing.com) 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and the Sebastopol Farmer’s Market on Sundays. For other times and locations, visit their Instagram @bayou.onthebay.