Steve Leininger and Chris Mullins operate LA 1 Cajun and Creole, a food trailer in East Austin named for the highway that winds diagonally across much of Louisiana’s culinary-gold country, from the Gulf of Mexico to Shreveport. Located next to St. Roch’s Bar (which they also own), the trailer is a modest two-man operation that focuses on many of the Cajun and Creole dishes of New Orleans. The duo personally cooks every order of crawfish-stuffed beignets, jambalaya, étoufée and poutine, as well as makes every po’boy. “Even the roux for gumbo,” Leininger says, “which I whisk on the stovetop for forty-five full minutes. Even in the summer. In a metal box with no AC. It’s brutal. Maybe we should think about hiring someone?” he says, looking over at Mullins.
Mullins grew up in North Carolina, where he lived until 1990, and then decided to run away and…join the circus. No really, he joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (though, is it really running away if you’re 21?). He traversed the country working concessions with the circus for five years, eventually settling down in Seattle. There, he continued to work for both Ringling Bros. and Disney on Ice. The Internet was starting to take off in the mid-’90s, however, and startups were blasting off all over the West Coast. Mullins wasn’t one to sit on the sidelines, so he moved to San Diego and started an online skateboard company. The company did well, but eventually the work grew routine, so he sold the business and moved to Austin, on the lookout for new adventure.
Leininger was born in New Orleans, and he grew up immersed in that city’s rich local bounty and deep culinary traditions. “The first thing I learned to cook was crawfish,” he says. “My daddy taught me. Now that I think about it, he probably taught me because he got tired of doing it himself!” He went off to college at SMU, then worked in Denver, then back to New Orleans doing web design. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, he was among the many New Orleans refugees who came to Austin and stayed. “Though I had a career in design, I knew my strongest talents were in the kitchen,” he says. Abruptly changing course, Leininger attended Le Cordon Bleu—graduating in 2008. “I’m glad I went,” he says with a laugh. “But everything we make in this trailer, I learned how to cook before I left Louisiana.”
“We met, naturally, at a dive bar on Airport Boulevard,” Mullins says with a laugh. “I think it was Barfly’s? Neither of us wanted to set foot in a cube farm again, so we decided to open a bar together. “And here it sits,” he says, gesturing to the modest stucco building next to the trailer. “Like an island at the end of East Sixth.”
“We didn’t intend to open a dive bar,” Mullins adds with exaggeration while knitting his brow. “We just wanted to open the kind of bar we like to go to…one with decent prices, where it’s quiet enough to have a conversation.” Bars where adults can have a conversation are rare enough in Austin, and St. Roch’s attracts a loyal clientele. “We didn’t intend to have a restaurant, either,” he continues. “The building has no kitchen. But we started making jambalaya and étoufée for [New Orleans] Saints games using crockpots, and making po’boys behind the bar, and it just grew from there. Until we opened the trailer, we just gave it all away for free.”
“Plus, we didn’t think anyone in Austin was making po’boys right,” Leininger adds. “It’s the bread,” he says, leaning in close. “To make po’boys right, you have to use Leidenheimer bread. And your seafood’s got to be straight from the Gulf.”
LA 1 ships in the iconic Leidenheimer bread from New Orleans twice a week. “Po’boy bread can’t be chewy like a baguette,” Mullins says, “It’s got to be squishy enough to bite through; the bread should squish, not the filling. You don’t want your fried oysters shooting out of your sandwich onto the plate, and you’re left with a mouthful of bread.” Mullins and Leininger hope to make LA 1 a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the next year or two. If the lines in front of their trailer are any indication, the place will be packed from the minute they turn on the sign.
By Kathleen Thornberry • Photography by Dustin Meyer
LA 1 Cajun and Creole is located at 515 Pedernales St. For more information, visit la1cajun.com or call 512-788-5380.