Despite sharing the same latitude as parts of the Southeast, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho have not been particularly fertile ground for Southern or Cajun cuisine. Aside from a couple of chains, there aren’t many options in the area for people looking to get their fix of gumbo, étouffée or jambalaya.
K’Lynn’s Cajun & Southern Fusion is one notable exception. The restaurant has been serving Southern specialties at its location in Rio Rancho since late 2016.
The K’Lynn in the restaurant’s name is owner-chef Karen Johnson-Bey, who cut her teeth in the catering business before setting up shop in a small space in a shopping center. Set under a sign depicting a crawfish wearing a chef’s hat, K’Lynn’s is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday.
The menu offers Southern standards such as fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits with heat to rival even the spiciest New Mexican dishes. Despite its unpretentious veneer, K’Lynn’s is not inexpensive: Most of the items on the menu are more than $10.
If gumbo is a bellwether of a Southern-style restaurant’s quality, then K’Lynn’s is on solid footing. Johnson-Bey makes a chicken-and-sausage version of the stew ($5/$8), with okra and a flour-and-butter roux. There is the requisite trio of onions, celery and green bell peppers, along with succulent chicken and andouille sausage, which imparts a smoky flavor. The mound of rice in the middle helps turn down the heat from the cayenne pepper. It’s a great starter. I was hoping to try shrimp étouffée, another item from the soups and stews portion of the menu, but the server said it wasn’t ready yet.
Like most restaurants that serve Southern cooking, K’Lynn’s has a variety of fried seafood on the menu, including oysters, shrimp, crawfish, alligator and catfish. The restaurant’s skill with breading and frying is particularly evident in the fried oysters ($13.99), seven breaded in a cornmeal mix and accompanied by a fiery sriracha mayonnaise. The plump, briny oysters have just enough heft to balance the thick coating.
In contrast, small curls of crawfish tail meat fried and served in a basket with french fries ($13.50) got a little lost in the coating and barely registered, and the fries were dense and chewy.
K’Lynn’s menu provides a chance to revisit one of life’s enduring mysteries: How does alligator, a squat, scaly reptile that spends much of its time in water, taste so much like chicken? The gator meat at K’Lynn’s, shipped from Louisiana, is fried and presented either in a basket ($13.99) or in tacos ($9.75 for 2). I recommend the tacos, in which the alligator’s mild flavor gets a boost from the sriracha mayonnaise and its firmer texture stands up well to the accompanying coleslaw.
K’Lynn’s version of jerk chicken ($11.25) presents a chicken breast sliced over red beans and rice in a pool of crimson-colored sauce topped off with two thick slices of fried plantains. The initial, almost overwhelming sweetness of the sauce fades quickly until you’re left with a nice, slow burn. The chicken slices feel insubstantial, though; thighs and legs or a half-chicken would have worked better here.
Desserts include bread pudding and a rotating selection of cakes. A piece of vanilla cake ($4) layered with blueberry was moist almost to the point of soggy and needed some citrus to brighten it up.
K’Lynn’s two servers did a great job attending to the full house in the dining room and greeting the steady stream of customers who entered the place. Based on the brisk lunchtime business, locals are happy for the opportunity to indulge in the cuisine of our fellow Southerners: the ones on the other side of the Mississippi.