Monday, October 14, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 32

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Papa Jay's Southern Quezine is well worth the trip to Guadalupe


I knew it would be good the moment I heard about it. My wife and I ran into her co-worker at Home Depot in Lompoc, and this good ol’ boy from Louisiana couldn’t stop himself from singing the praises of his new favorite restaurant. All we had said was, “Hello, how’re you doing?”

I’m a pretty decent cook, but the simple yet sensational Southern staple of red beans and rice has always eluded me. I can never get it quite like those I first came across in Tennessee, but Papa Jay’s can. Their sausage is spicy, the beans are rich, and the rice is just right.

I’m paraphrasing, but his response was basically: “Yeah, I’m fine. Y’all need to eat at Papa Jay’s in Guadalupe as soon as you possibly can.” 

Southern comfort
If you’re looking for good, stick-to-your-ribs victuals with a spicy kick, make the trek to Papa Jay’s Southern Quezine, located at 4721 W. Main St. in Guadalupe. They’re open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and are available for catering as well. Just call (805) 219-0660.

But we were busy, so it took an entire agonizing week before we had the opportunity to drive to this tiny, isolated farming town that had never seemed a likely candidate for Cuisine Capital of Northern Santa Barbara County. I’ll be damned if this place wasn’t exactly what I’ve been missing without even knowing it.

It’s insane that there are so few traditional Southern restaurants around here. The world’s largest ocean separates California from Asia, but we’ve got a (very welcome and appreciated) plethora of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai places in Santa Maria and Lompoc, with some Korean and Vietnamese thrown in the mix for variety. 

(It means “delicious crawfish stew, my friend” in Cajun) Crawfish are fun to catch, a real pain in the ass to clean, a fantastic forageable food to eat, and they go great with collard greens and cornbread. Now that I’m typing about it, I really just want to eat this meal all over again. Ça c’est bon!

But according to some very casual Googling, there is only one authentic restaurant serving Dixie dishes between the hub cities of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. We’ve got plenty of barbecue, but hardly any gumbo, grits, or collard greens, and it’s a dreadful shame. That’s a lot of good eatin’ gone un-ate, but a couple of Louisiana transplants operating in Guadalupe are filling that void with gusto. 

Jerome and Merril Stevens grew up as childhood neighbors in Louisiana, but when he was 8 years old, Jerome’s parents separated. Jerome moved to the Central Coast with his father, an Air Force man at Vandenberg. As he left, the young boy told Merril that someday he’d come back to Louisiana and marry her. Sure enough, the two reunited when he was back visiting family as an adult, and he made good on his promise.

They worked in the music industry for several years, promoting concerts and artists, and the influence shows on their restaurant’s decor. At some point, the couple transitioned from organizing concerts to serving food on the festival circuit. Then they ran a food cart in Orcutt for a few years before opening their brick-and-mortar location in Guadalupe. 

I didn’t get to meet Papa Jay, the restaurant’s namesake, but his wife, Merril Stevens (or Auntie Mae), does most of the joint’s cooking, and she’s a delight. I sincerely wish them both all the happiness in the world. The stories she told my family about hers really made it sound like they’re the sweetest couple around. Plus, they cook like the dickens.

Merril said she was hesitant at first because their then potential space was so run down and dirty, but for three months Jerome told her he was working late at his day job while he secretly cleaned and modernized the kitchen in their eventual headquarters. The surprise won Merril over and they opened shop about four years ago.

The food my family got was utterly delicious. Everything had a little spice to it, but nothing was overwhelming. I ordered the crawfish etouffee, which was creamy, hot, and satisfying with sides of spiced collard greens and fresh cornbread. My wife got the fried catfish nuggets, which were great with a splash of hot sauce and Merril’s signature mustard tartar sauce. Our daughter, technically a Southern native though she was raised on the coast, got red beans and rice with spicy sausage.

It’s no good to get “catfished” on the internet, but I don’t know how that crispy, flaky goodness got such a bad rap. It can be rubbery and weird in the hands of amateurs, but the pros at Papa Jay’s make tender nuggets of moist and flavorful catfish served with their own signature tartar sauce alongside the traditional version.

“I don’t have any recipes,” Merril said. “I just work off of taste the way my momma taught me.” 

It’s only been a few days, and I already want to go back. I can’t stop thinking about the things we didn’t sample. Merril was sold out of ribs and pie by the time we stopped in, so those options went right out the window, leaving only lingering regret in their wake. I asked if there was anything in particular we didn’t try that qualifies as a specialty.

“I’m real proud of my gumbo. Everybody really seems to like that,” Merril said, “And my fried chicken is to die for.” 

Contributing writer Nick Powell has a fried drumstick shaped hole in his heart, but I bet if you sent directions to a bar with really novel cocktails to, he could soothe his sorrows the old-fashioned way… with old fashioneds. 

Powell’s Picks

First and Oak

• Usually, when I’m driving through for fast food, I’m not there for salad. These folks can barely cobble together some greasy meat and cheese, so I’m not expecting their berry-and-feta game to be on point. But, the Berry Burst Chicken Salad at Wendy’s somehow had seemingly fresh greens, good berries, herb roasted chicken, and a delicate raspberry vinaigrette. I can hardly tell a dog from a weird wolf, but that was a pretty good salad.

• Michelin doesn’t just hand out stars like Halloween candy. They’re a big freakin’ deal, OK? So don’t be too disappointed to learn that no restaurant in Santa Barbara County has a Michelin star. Instead, be super jazzed that, First and Oak of Solvang earned a “Michelin plate,” which is still a high honor. I haven’t been there yet, but holy crap, does it look good (pictured below)! A five course meal costs $85 a plate, but Michelin says it’s worth it. See for yourself at 409 First St. in Solvang, inside the Mirabelle Inn.

• Enjoy dinner, drinks, and a show at PCPA: Summerfest 2019. The Pacific Conservatory Theatre is throwing its summer party and scholarship fundraiser at the Solvang Festival Theater on June 15 at 6 p.m. Tickets are a steep $85 generally and $75 for students, but they include wine and food tasting from several local purveyors, a live auction, and the opening night of their play, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Visit for tickets and more information. 

Contributing writer Nick Powell is a gentleman. Send love (but not murder) to

Weekly Poll
Should Santa Maria implement rent control for residents living in mobile home parks?

Yes. Residents in mobile home parks need some sort of protection.
No. The city shouldn't interfere with lease negotiations.
All housing within the city should under rent control.
Rent control hasn't worked in other cities.

| Poll Results