4119 Cummings Highway
Chattanooga, TN 37415
11 a.m.-11 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Meo Mio’s Cajun and Seafood Restaurant recently opened in Lookout Valley in late 2011 and has created a lot of buzz around town with their New Orleans-inspired menu. I had my first sampling of some of Meo Mio’s food in my review of the Meo Mio’s Cajun Spirits stage at the Riverbend Festival, and I was impressed with the items I tried. However, that was food for a festival, and although far above the other items I sampled from festival vendors quality-wise, when I set out to review the actual restaurant last week, it was a whole different ballgame (and was hopefully better than the recent dirty ballgame of my beloved New Orleans Saints, who have been rather unsaintly to say the least . “Who Dat?!???“).
I kicked off this experience with the breaded crab-stuffed mushrooms appetizer. I am a mushroom fanatic (of the nontrippy, nonpoisonous variety, of course), and if someday I decide to become a vegetarian-yeah, when pigs fly (if they flew away somewhere where I couldn’t eat them anymore)-I could totally grill up some mushrooms as a meat alternative and be somewhat content.
As an appetizer served often in restaurants, crab-stuffed mushrooms are among my favorite choices if they are prepared well and actually contain real crabmeat. And these, my friends, were among some of the best I have tried in a long while. They weren’t the wimpy, wee caps you normally see with stuffed mushrooms. Though in varying sizes, they were huge, which meant more room for mixed-crab goodness to stuff inside. There were large chunks of crab in the cream cheese filling and an outside breading deep-fried to a luscious golden tone and covered with shredded Parmesan cheese. Ranch dressing was served to the side, which had a nice, tangy flavor and was obviously freshly mixed.
Me, oh my! Oh, that wasn’t actually how I kicked off things at Meo Mio’s (silly me)-getting ahead of myself here with my mushroom excitement. First, I actually arrived at the restaurant (named after “me-oh-my-oh” lyrics of Hank Williams Sr.’s hit “Jambalaya on the Bayou”) and looked around a bit. The main dining area is a wide-open space overlooked by a huge bust of Louis Armstrong coming out of the wall with his trumpet and also has a balcony overlooking the dining area and stage. There was a guy playing some songs on stage with a request list handed out to the diners, but it was way too loud-to the point my party and I had to yell to each other-and as for the musicianship . this is a restaurant review, not a music review, so I’ll leave it at that, but the dude knew a lot of songs.
My server was on her second night working at the restaurant and was extremely fun and attentive. Drinks were never emptied before they were refilled, and her whimsical demeanor really added to the experience. A manager even came over just to see how we were doing at one point, but our server had the service under control. Back to the food: In addition to the scrumptious mushroom appetizer, the breadsticks were OK, and I did sample a side salad with the same ranch dressing as before, but they were nothing to write home about, so I’ll stop writing about them and get on to the main course, which came out in a reasonable amount of time.
Let’s begin with the $13.99 sampler platter, which is a trio of traditional N’awlins dishes that you will find at any Cajun restaurant: gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice-many traditional Cajun/Creole dishes depend heavily on the “holy trinity” of onion, pepper and celery, and they were in most everything I tried, so I’m not going to list them over and over in these descriptions.
Gumbo is a stew made with a roux, which gives it its thick consistency and flavor base. Mastering a proper roux is viewed as an art form in Cajun cooking and is a very involved process that is easy to mess up. The batch of gumbo I tried at Meo Mio’s was good, and it was loaded with Andouille sausage, crawfish, shrimp and chicken and topped with green onion and an island of rice-this was a small mound of rice rather than a sprinkle, so the fact it didn’t sink at all showed the thickness of the gumbo. It was a little spicy but relatively mild and very satisfying.
The jambalaya was a concoction of sausage, chicken, pork and rice that was extremely flavorful and somewhat spicy. The sausage gave it a smoky flavor to complement the heat, with the flavors soaked into the rice kernels to give the dish a strong taste all around. The red beans and rice dish had sausage, red beans, rice (duh) and plenty of spices in both the bean mixture and the bed of rice. This was a very flavorful dish, which is often bland when served at many other restaurants around town.
I dove headfirst into the seafood with the “Market Street bucket,” which consisted of crab legs, Cajun catfish, boiled shrimp and an army of sides. At $21.99, there was a lot of food to be had. The crab legs’ case was not hard to crack-not requiring a gumbo-shoe detective, just a slight squeeze of the cracker and the problem was solved-to fish out the sweet meat, and the garlic butter dipping sauce was extremely flavorful to complement the succulent crab. The boiled jumbo shrimp (a quasi-oxymoron) were plump and tender and bursting with juices. The breaded Cajun catfish was way too salty, which overpowered all of the other Cajun spices in the breading rather than amplified them, but was well-cooked and had a pleasing texture.
The seafood bucket side items had a couple of sneaky surprises. Upon first glance of the corn on the cob, the griddle marks showed it had been grilled, and the glistening glow showed it had been buttered. Upon biting into it, through, an unexpected blast of heat popped my taste buds like a spicy sniper. After taking a quick drink, I inspected further to see tiny red cayenne pepper flakes blending into the yellow background ready to bust some capsaicin in some buds. The same went for the potatoes-the red skin provided an even better cayenne camouflage-and although both these sides were packing heat, it was a good heat quelled by the butter and soft potatoes and corn. The cabbage and carrot slaw was creamy, sweet and satisfying-also helping to cut down the heat-and I’ve already discussed the red beans and rice on the previous dish.
Although the dishes were enjoyable overall, I saved the best dish for last with the $16.99 “crawfish Julie over tilapia.” The thick, creamy Julie sauce was dreamy, with crawfish, peppers, onion, celery, herbs and spices smothering a moist, flaky tilapia filet on a king-sized bed of seasoned rice-keeping with the mountains-of-rice theme of this meal (but it was good rice). Tilapia is a light-tasting fish that doesn’t have a fishy flavor, and the extremely rich, heavy flavors of the crawfish Julie sauce really melded well with the tilapia’s delicate texture and taste while also heavily coating the rice kernels. Even someone who doesn’t care for fish would enjoy this dish. Though I want to go back to Meo Mio’s to sample other entrées, it’s going to be hard to keep from ordering it again-this jazzy dish might make some people do some “jazz hands,” but that’s so cheesy (and this dish was not).
For dessert, I wanted to go for the “bourbon balls” because they sounded interesting-and it is fun to say in an immature sort of way, though it’s a very “adult” dessert that only those 21 and up can order because of the bourbon-but they were out, so instead I opted for the “mini beignet.” They weren’t kidding about the “mini” part, either. This traditional New Orleans/French dessert wasn’t your traditional beignet but was pleasant all the same. These fried dough bites had a firm crispiness on the outside with a cotton-soft interior and were sprinkled with powdered sugar, chocolate chips and a hazelnut-chocolate sauce drizzle.
I am giving Meo Mio’s Cajun and Seafood Restaurant 3 stars for well-seasoned dishes with a N’awlins groove and friendly service. Though not entirely traditional when compared to my visits to New Orleans, the Cajun vibe is alive at Meo Mio’s. The food voodoo that they are doing is well worth a try, and the portions are huge, so you will not leave hungry-other than a “me-oh-my-oh” craving for the bayou.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.