by Barbara Smith
You don’t have to be from the South to appreciate the fine food offerings at Smitty’s Taste of the Bayou in Chula Vista. Take me, for instance. I’m from Brooklyn where palate pleasers might be a Nathan’s hot dog or a bagel smeared heavily with cream cheese. But after one taste of this down home master chef’s perfectly spiced crawfish etouffee with generous sides of mac and cheese and collard greens, I’m finding my southern roots.
Open just 6 months, Smitty’s Taste of the Bayou serves up tasty morsels, and Smitty has proven himself to be a man for all seasons—well, seasonings, to be more precise. Whether you have a hankering for ribs, chicken, jambalaya, gumbalaya (his original happy combination of gumbo and jambalaya), catfish, a Louisiana Dog or of course, my personal favorite, crawfish etouffee, Smitty aims to please—and he does, sometimes even customizing a meal for a regular customer.
Smitty’s Taste of the Bayou, located at 901 Lane Ave. in Chula Vista, is not your traditional restaurant with four walls, but rather a pop-up kitchen, complete with a smoking hot grill and all the culinary necessities to fix all manner of barbeque and side dishes. His Cajun and Creole menu varies from day to day, with plates ranging in price from $10 – $16. On a recent Friday, menu items included a Rib Plate, Chicken Plate, Combo Plate (ribs and chicken), Jambalaya, Gumbalaya, and Louisiana Dog, with sides of greens, red beans and rice and cole slaw. A large percentage of his customers are takeout, but many choose to stay and enjoy the food while it’s hot, taking a seat in the outdoor patio area or grabbing a cold one inside the Novo Brazil Brewery, which is the adjacent venue.
And who is this Smitty, whose enthusiastic followers have been growing since he opened? GuJuan Smith, better known as Smitty, hails from Rayville, Louisiana, a small town 23 miles east of Monroe. Imbued with southern culture, Smitty is friendly, funny, and always ready with a joke or a story. His early training as a cook was simply watching his mother and the women in his family and community fixing southern style dishes—collard greens, cabbage, roast beef, fried chicken and the like. Food figures high in southern culture and his homey venue in Chula Vista is inviting and like taking a step into Bayou Country. Recalling his southern roots, Smitty smiles, “Wherever there’s food, there will be a nice gathering. That’s how we socialize—through food.” The 45-year-old describes his training modestly—“I learned a lot from watching TV”—but that was just the beginning. He left home at age 17 to join the Navy, where he served for 10 years, and, with the encouragement of a counselor, which included financial provisions, received a culinary arts education. Once out of the Navy, his career path included a three year stint as a correctional officer and ten years working in a casino as a dealer and black jack supervisor. But cooking remained the constant in his life, as did his desire to start his own business and be his own boss. Smitty’s Taste of the Bayou first opened in 2013 in North Park when a friend of his girlfriend, who owned a restaurant, let him cook there on the day that his restaurant was closed. Smitty’s offerings became so popular that the owner, somewhat miffed, suggested he either buy him out or leave. Armed with the knowledge that he still had a lot to learn on the business end, Smitty left and enrolled in the San Diego Culinary Institute, where he fine-tuned his cooking skills and learned the ins and outs of running a successful business. Conscious of capital outlay, he keeps advertising at a minimum. His marketing strategy, he says, is “pure word of mouth and pure luck.” Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Yelp, and Groupon have brought people to his kitchen, as well as news stories on NBC-TV and preparing Lunch for Contest Winners with Xavier the X-Man at Magic 92.5 radio. Now, with his pop-up kitchen profitable, he has a loyal following of customers with new ones coming each day and the means to grow. At some point, very soon, he hopes to have his own brick and mortar space.
With fine dining falling in popularity and fusion the new wave, Smitty has created a niche market that combines the savory, smoky barbeque that is his hallmark served along with flavorful authentic Louisiana Bayou cuisine, a rarity in San Diego and environs.
For now, Smitty’s Taste of the Bayou is open Friday through Monday and the menu varies each day. “Before I go to bed, I decide what I feel like cooking,” he says. Intuition guides his choices as well as preferences of particular customers. “If it’s Sunday, our people like to have some collard greens after church, so I include that on the menu.” Customer service ranks high at Smitty’s, so if the dish you are hoping for is not on the menu for that day, he’ll give you a day when it will be. He suggests calling ahead to find out what’s cooking for a particular day or checking his Facebook page for special events that might be taking place. On a recent Saturday, Smitty flew in 200 pounds of live crawfish from Louisiana for a Crawfish Boil that brought in over happy 100 customers.
Hector Sierra is one of Smitty’s regulars who confesses he comes to the establishment multiple times a week. “Ribs, gumbalaya, and beans are some of my favorites,” he said on a recent Friday as he was snagging some takeout. “The quality of the food is amazing and the staff treats you like family. Nothing like this anywhere even comes close to this quality.”
Smitty’s Taste of the Bayou has a second location in Solana Beach, which is open on Tuesdays. Visit www.smittystasteofthebayou.com or call 619-831-2318.