Coria "CC" Griggs cannot explain the pull she's long felt toward Haiti. It's a feeling she had throughout her upbringing in Louisiana, and it's what inspired her to finally hop on a plane to the island nation a few years ago. As she tells it, there is some sort of connection between her own Creole roots and Haitian culture — perhaps something generational that courses through her DNA. That's the only way she can wrap her head around the overwhelming feeling of coming home that came over her when she touched down in Port-au-Prince on her first trip to the country several years ago.
When you taste Griggs' Ayiti bowl, you too will get this sense. The dish, named after the Haitian Creole word for Haiti, tastes less like something you'd get from a takeout spot in the middle of old-school St. Charles than a slow-cooked meal spread before you in Grandma's western Hispaniola kitchen. Tender rice that tastes as if it has been steeped in coconut is topped with succulent pulled chicken that's spiced enough to make your mouth tingle but not so hot as to burn. Griggs places a plantain chip and pickled vegetables atop for garnish; this seems like enough of a flourish until you pour the accompanying sauce, pois, over the top. The deeply earthy Haitian red-bean paste wraps the Caribbean-inflected flavors with a richness so comforting that, like Griggs, you feel it in your soul.
Many years ago, the thought of being the conduit for such culinary greatness would have been comical to Griggs. A native of Monroe, Louisiana, she describes being dragged, kicking and screaming, into her family's kitchen when her father insisted she learn how to cook. He said she'd need cooking skills if she ever got married. She pushed back, saying that she was going to marry rich.
Griggs laughs that she married broke, but her relationship had nothing to do with her burgeoning love for cooking. Instead, as she became more and more comfortable in the kitchen, she realized she had a passion for cooking and began to see food as a way to decompress from her corporate job with Express Scripts. Always on the hunt for cuisine that would remind her of her Louisiana upbringing, Griggs was continually disappointed and leaned on her own skills as a way to recreate those dishes in her spare time. Her coworkers benefited, and she began to develop a reputation as the office's resident cook. Over time, workplace potlucks evolved into requests for Griggs to cater special events and holiday parties, prompting her to leave behind her full-time gig to devote herself to her side hustle.
Griggs attended culinary school and worked as a private chef and in kitchens around town, always with the goal of owning a place. During that time, she also became obsessed with food-truck culture, and ultimately bought a truck of her own after working for others for a year. It took six months to get up the nerve to do something with it, but she finally took the leap with the help of a friend from New Orleans, opening the Crooked Boot food truck in 2016.
A mostly Creole concept with a little bit of Haitian food sprinkled in, the Crooked Boot developed a loyal following in the city's food-truck circuit. Though she had a small space in O'Fallon that served as a home base for the truck and regular crawfish boils, she wished for a place that could serve as both a permanent storefront and commissary kitchen. This February, she found it on the northeast side of St. Charles in the former home of Tango Argentina. With its sprawling kitchen, takeout counter and a handful of window seats, it became home base for the Crooked Boot's operations.
The storefront is tiny and off the beaten path; the spot, located in an unassuming strip mall in the older part of St. Charles proper, has a large kitchen, though its dining room consists of just three red stools at a window counter. Graffiti art, done by Griggs' friend, is emblazoned across the restaurant's black wall to match the truck's aesthetic.
The open kitchen allows you to see Griggs in action, though the magic that comes from her hands is something you experience only through taste. Like the Ayiti bowl, her dishes are infused with the sort of flavor that lights up every surface of the mouth. Her Yah Mon sandwich, for instance, features the sort of jerk-seasoned chicken that puts generic bastardizations of the form to shame. Here, the poultry's succulent seasoning is indeed hot, but it is so multidimensional that your palate experiences more firework than flame. The meat, tucked into a toasted pretzel bun, is paired with crispy coleslaw and pickled red onions for a cooling effect, but drizzled with a spicy remoulade Voodoo Sauce that makes sure you still feel a punch.
Griggs' Voodoo Fries are another study in complex heat. Here, medium-cut French fries are smothered in jerk chicken, molten cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce, sour cream and Voodoo Sauce, then topped with crispy, cornmeal-dusted fried shrimp. It's the loaded fries that you conjure when you drift off dreaming of the form.
In keeping with its Louisiana spirit, the Crooked Boot offers a variety of po'boy sandwiches, including the Country Girl, which pairs a monstrous portion of delicate, cornmeal-crusted catfish with tomatoes and cabbage slaw, as well as the Monroe Clucker, featuring a mound of flawlessly seasoned hand-breaded chicken tenders accented with Voodoo Sauce. The Lafayette Po'Boy is a personal favorite thanks to the plump, blackened shrimp. Tucked into a pillow-soft hoagie roll and drizzled with the same zesty Voodoo Sauce, the shellfish have such a wonderful, snappy texture you want to pop them in your mouth like candy.
The Crooked Boot's Nawlins Babyee platter features a fried version of these lovely shrimp alongside a generous portion of catfish. Both are coated in a cornmeal breading that's seasoned enough to make your lips tingle and paired with savory hush puppies that have a slight peppery taste, as if they have been flecked with jalapeños. Between this platter, Griggs' glorious version of red beans and rice, and life-changing banana-pudding-filled beignets, you understand the beauty of Louisiana cuisine.
But then you taste Griggs' Haitian akra, and you get why she feels equally pulled to the Caribbean nation's food. The fried fritters, made from the starchy root vegetable malanga, are Griggs' go-to Haitian bar food; one taste of these salty, savory fritters, and you understand why. The tuber, mashed to the texture of fluffy whipped potatoes, is coated in Griggs' special seasoning blend — a dry blend of salt, tang and a tiny note of sweet that is so addictive you want to sprinkle it on everything you can find. It's no wonder this is the first dish she seeks out the moment she steps off the plane in Haiti.
That we are privy to such a journey is nothing short of a privilege.