Bud Jones Bayou is the kind of seafood joint that knows, deep down, one important truth: Lobsters are just crawfish that have grown too big for their ditches.
The kind of seafood served up at Bud Jones Bayou - an unassuming addition to the auto garage that has kept cars running in downtown Tyler for 70 years - is hearty, unpretentious and Cajun-inspired. Most regulars don’t bother with the menu, instead ordering their favorites (some even have dishes named for them).
“They just make it up as they go along, and we’ll cook it,” said restaurant manager Sarah Willis, who started selling crawfish and seafood from a food truck and moved into the vacant space next to the garage owned by her father, Charlie Martin Jr. “And lots of the regulars, they’ll sit at the counter just to watch us bantering in the kitchen. I think we’re the entertainment.”
But it’s really about the food, she added.
Ms. Willis - she’s Bud Jones’ great-granddaughter - recalled the first time she served crawfish in the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“We had just arrived with the first bag of crawfish, and I guess there must have been a rip in the bag,” she recounted. “Because when I turned around, I saw a bunch of crawfish running across the street. I don’t know where they thought they were going, but they took off.”
And the business has taken off in the four years it’s been open.
“My grandfather on my dad’s side was in the Navy, and he brought home lots of Cajun recipes from his time in Louisiana,” Ms. Willis explains. “I loved cooking those recipes. And at the time I started doing the food truck, no one else in Tyler was really doing Cajun or crawfish.”
After an article about the new eatery appeared in the Tyler Paper in September 2012, she was quickly overwhelmed with curious customers.
“We weren’t really ready for that, so I was calling my father in to help. I was calling friends in,” she said.
At the time, the restaurant had just a few tables and very limited counter space.
“But that’s the point,” Ms. Willis said. “This looks like a Louisiana crawfish place - it’s a hole-in-the-wall with just some tables and some chairs. The focus is on the food.”
Crawfish season for Bud Jones Bayou has just started - Ms. Willis took delivery of her first few bags of live crawfish on March 7.
“We’re always the last to start crawfish season, and the first to finish,” she explained. “That’s because I want them to be perfect. When the season starts, they’re too small to suit me. We like them to be bigger.”
The mild winter has also resulted in a fitful start to the season, but crawfish are enjoying the wet, cool start to spring.
Now at a healthy, consistent size, the crawfish are the restaurant’s hottest seller - for now.
“We mix up our own crawfish spices,” Ms. Willis said. “And we’ll give you more; it can be as spicy as you want.”
Crawfish are usually served with corn and potatoes, and with a couple of mushrooms added to the boil. The mushrooms soak up the spices in a way the other veggies don’t, so be warned.
But it’s not just crawfish. Bud Jones Bayou is also serving up shrimp and oyster dishes, catfish, hamburgers and even breakfast.
“And we do have some salads, including a blackened catfish salad that’s really popular,” Ms. Willis said.
The po’boys include shrimp, catfish, oyster and crawfish.
For now, Bud Jones Bayou is only open 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on most days. The exception is Friday, when it’s open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., or whenever the food runs out.
“We may grow someday,” Ms. Willis said. “We might add some space for more tables. But we’re not really interested in being big right now. For now, I just want to keep my doors open and my customers happy.”
IF YOU GO
What: Bud Jones Bayou
Where: 500 E. Erwin St. (next to Bud Jones Garage)
When: 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday
Pro tip: Try the Cajun bacon cheese fries. Because what part of that isn’t awesome?