Just west of Phoenix, at her food truck in Goodyear, Lyn Thomas demonstrated how to make the ultimate muffaletta. Lyn, who hails from southern Louisiana, explained her technique as she layered slices of deli meats and cheeses on a round of bread the size of a baseball mitt.
“It’s important to take care of the sides, so you don’t get a bite of just bread,” Lyn said. Once she’s done, she’ll wrap the sandwich and put it in the fridge with something heavy stacked on top — that helps her handmade olive relish seep into the loaf.
A fragrant pot of dirty rice simmered on the stove of Zydeco’s Louisiana Kitchen, while the swinging notes of soprano saxophone, performed by New Orleans jazz musician Sidney Bechet, dance out from a quiet speaker.
Lyn’s husband, Top Thomas, likes to play a Pandora radio mix of southern soul, 40s and 50s jazz, and of course, zydeco — an uptempo cross of blues, R&B and other genres with Louisiana Creole music.
Zydeco is more than music, it’s a lifestyle, Top said. That’s why they named their food truck after it, so anyone who moved here from Louisiana would know there’s food to match the name.
Different styles of Louisiana home cooking
Louisiana has regional styles of cooking. People can expect some variation in ingredients in the north, in towns like Shreveport and Monroe, where the climate and vegetation differs from the South.
Lyn grew up one of nine siblings in Hammond, a city in southern Louisiana, 45 miles east of Baton Rouge and 45 miles north of New Orleans. She learned to cook from her grandmother and mother, and there was usually “a little bit of this and that” going on in the kitchen—soul food, Creole, Cajun.
Lyn described Creole and Cajun cuisine as “sophistication versus land food.”
Creole food originated in New Orleans, a port city where people had access to a wide variety of ingredients including butter and tomatoes, blending European, African, Native American and Caribbean influences.
Cajun food originated in Louisiana’s southwest countryside, where the Acadians, settlers of French Canadian descent, lived off the land and tended to use fewer ingredients to feed many.
The dishes are similar, but a Creole person might decide to put tomatoes in gumbo and a Cajun person might make a brown roux base, Lyn explained.
Living in Hammond, Lyn learned to cook both styles.
Some of her family recipes date back to the 1800s, Lyn said. It’s unclear when exactly her family started writing them down, but the recipes have passed from generation to generation on the back of food-stained envelopes, postcards, calendars and bills. Today, her sisters have divvied them up and Lyn keeps hers protected in a binder.
The oldest recipe Lyn has incorporated at Zydeco’s Louisiana Kitchen is a chicken fricassee, a creamy French stew that has appeared as a special on the menu.
Lyn remembers hovering in the kitchen as a child, watching her grandmother and mother make roux, a sauce base of flour and fat that’s fundamental to so many Louisiana dishes, from jambalaya to catfish coubion to turtle stew.
She has memories of going to the strawberry festival Ponchatoula to pet alligators and playing in mud ditches with her twin brother, catching crawfish. Top affectionately calls her the alligator woman, a nod to her life around the swamps of Tangipahoa Parish.
“Louisiana is like its own world,” Lyn said. “I didn’t realize that until I moved here to Arizona. Our culture, our way of life, is so different from any other space.”
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After surviving Hurricane Katrina, the Thomas family moved west
Lyn had lived through hurricanes her entire life. So in August 2005 when they heard news of Hurricane Katrina’s approach, her family didn’t see a reason to leave.
“We always had hurricanes,” Lyn said. “That’s just a part of life. You duck and dive and life goes on. But the way the governor got on the news, saying to write your social security on your arm with permanent black marker, have a hammer to get out the window, the talk was more intense than what I experienced in the past.”
Top, who was truck driving on the West Coast, called her and told her to head for Georgia. But she couldn’t convince her parents to evacuate. Their deep ties to home coupled with a lifetime of boarding up windows and ducking hurricanes kept them rooted in Hammond.
Lyn decided to leave at the last minute with her three young daughters, in one of the hardest decisions of her life.
The highways were backed up and Lyn only made it as far as an emergency shelter in Mississippi. For two months she lived in a chaotic environment among other evacuees and tried to put on a brave face for her daughters.
This was before social media was widespread, and Top couldn’t find her because Lyn didn’t know she needed to mark her location with the Red Cross. Top said he didn’t know if his wife was dead or alive.
Cell service was spotty at best and didn’t function most of the time. Her bank cards didn’t work. With phone lines down, she also couldn’t check on her parents until two to three weeks later, when an AT&T service worker confirmed that the Army Reserve had found them alive. Lyn felt like she didn’t exist.
“I think about it all the time,” Lyn said. “It’s a part of me. I can never forget about it. It was like I was living in a nightmare and I couldn’t wake up from it. I still have nightmares about Hurricane Katrina to this day.”
Top was finally able to locate Lyn two months after she evacuated, when his first text message to her went through. Texting was still relatively new to them and the unfamiliar flash of a text notification felt like a godsend to Lyn.
Her husband immediately left to pick the family up. Reunited, he asked Lyn how she felt about living in Arizona. He had driven through the state and felt it could be a good place to give his family a fresh start.
Her parents and siblings all survived Hurricane Katrina and Lyn remains the only one in her family who left Louisiana. After relocating to the West Valley, she traveled back and forth to take help care of her mother before permanently putting down roots in Arizona.
After her mother died in 2007, cooking their family recipes felt like getting a hug from her, Lyn said.
“Cooking alone makes me feel good,” she said. “It’s like I have a blank canvas and I’m painting it and making a beautiful picture… I can escape to being home, being in the kitchen with my mom, with my sisters.”
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What’s on the menu at Zydeco’s Louisiana Kitchen?
Arielle Thomas, Lyn’s oldest daughter who works alongside her parents, said her mother taught her the importance of cooking in layers, like an artist would with a painting. You can’t throw all the seasoning and ingredients in the pot at the same time, Arielle said.
The holy trinity of onions, bell peppers and celery features prominently in their dishes. While salt is available for guests, Lyn eschews it in her own cooking, preferring other spices.
After years of cooking for Super Bowl parties and bringing gumbo to her hairdresser, Top suggested they start a food business. Lyn waited until her daughters were older before taking the leap.
“It’s not that I wanted to do this my whole life, opening a restaurant,” Lyn said. “But moving here after Katrina, we felt it was necessary.”
In September 2020, they opened Zydeco’s Louisiana Kitchen in Surprise, a suburb northwest of Phoenix.
“I’ve been to a lot of so-called Louisiana places and I don’t understand their food,” Top said. “I don’t grasp it. … If any of these places would go to Louisiana, they would not survive.”
They’ve since moved their primary location to Goodyear, where their food truck can be found parked near a Golden Corral buffet Tuesday through Saturday.
When service begins at 11:30 a.m., longtime customers and newcomers start lining up for generous portions of catfish, shrimp po’boys and seafood gumbo with crab claws and Andouille sausage.
Fried frog legs are on the regular menu, a light white meat with a texture similar to chicken. Customers can add sides such as Cajun-spiced fries, a thick slice of honey-buttered cornbread and crab and cheddar hushpuppies.
Lyn also serves rotating specials, such as peach cobbler and a sloppy boudreux po’boy, a Louisiana version of a sloppy joe featuring seasoned ground beef cooked in a tomato-based sauce and served on Orleans-style French bread smothered in remoulade.
Other specials have included creamy white beans and rice with smoked sausage, as well as catfish atchafalaya, a dish of fried catfish smothered in etouffee, a shellfish stew.
For the food truck’s biggest week, Mardi Gras, Lyn adds muffalettas, beignets, praline candies and colorful king cakes. The king cakes sold out in less than 24 hours before Fat Tuesday.
“This is as real as it gets,” Arielle said. “We do the same food as at home.”
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Zydeco’s Louisiana Kitchen
Where: Typically parked 430 N. Dysart Road, Goodyear. The truck also pops up in Surprise, Laveen and events around the Valley. Follow the truck’s Facebook for current location.
When: In Goodyear, Tuesday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. or until food is sold out.
Details: To confirm hours and location, check facebook.com/zydecoslakitchen.
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