It's uncommon for a shelter for the poor and homeless to be one of the most popular restaurants in a city. However, in Austin, the Nubian Queen of Cajun over on Rosewood Avenue manages the unimaginable. "I feel like if all of us worked together with the homeless people - that's what I've been howling for years and years - instead of bumping up against them," preaches Lola Stephens-Bell who is better known to the locals as Queen Lola.
Queen of the Roost
For 13 years, this brightly painted eatery has flung back its doors and opened to the public, the vast majority of whom enjoy Lola's cooking free of charge.
With only one "loyal volunteer" named Ellie, Lola managed to build this East Austin monument to generosity and Cajun cooking with her own two weathered hands. "I'm the cook the cook, the dishwasher, the waitress. I'm the whole subloo. I run everything in my restaurant."
In fact, one would even suggest she was the interior designer. The walls of this Creole soul food restaurant are emblazoned with snippets of scripture, and where there is not writing, the colors of Mardi Gras melt down the walls like warm butter.
Open door at both ends of the space both invite people off the street with tendrils of spice licking the tips of their noses and keep the place cool for patrons. If you aren't cool enough, just ask for a glass of Cajun tea.
Don't Order from the Menu
Although she has a menu, it's best to let Lola order for you after you wedge yourself into one of the three available tables. Each day, she'll whip up a batch of whatever she herself is craving. Her fried shrimp - often a soggy mess of heavy breading with hidden seafood - is delicately adorned with a coating perfectly mimicking its tight, crisp natural shell.
The rice and beans are a spoonful of tough love with its spicy nature combatting its comforting intentions. Her gumbo is a legend. The ballet of spice and roux is performed in front of you as the liquid swirls around sausage that pirouettes in time with your stirring spoon.
Despite this, the Queen of Cajun claims, "I'm just a cook." Lola's love of cooking has fueled her with the determination to keep Nubian Queen alive in spite of her not infrequent tardiness with rent and her stint as a resident on the streets of Austin.
However, until recently, it was never a serious problem. "Last year," Lola laments, "they called the police," and "locked up my church in the backyard." Both these setbacks have left Lola struggling to continue her mission in the Austin community after 13 years.
Moving Onward and Upward
So, come this summer, Lola hopes to open her own restaurant in Taylor, Texas. "I hope to be opened, God's will, no later than June."
If you're in the Taylor area, make sure to try Lola's cooking. Ask around, you're sure to find her if with no other indication than the scents of spicy Cajun cooking. Out there, however, she intends to use her given name, Lozina.