How one Seattle chef is transitioning from his creole-inspired food truck to a permanent location
Story by Dikla Tuchman
Photograph by Cleary O’Farrell
It’s a cold, wet Monday afternoon and there’s already a line down the block at the food cart on First and Cedar in Belltown. The smell of frying beignets wafts toward the waterfront as I contemplate a mouthwatering muffuletta with a side of shrimp and grits or a po’ boy with a side of gumbo. I suddenly remember there’s no need to make the tough decision between option A or B for lunch, as I access Open Table and put my name in for a 7 p.m. reservation at Roux, the cart’s brick-and-mortar restaurant. I decide that a slice of sweet potato pie will be amazing with a pint of Abita Brewing Turbodog brown ale.
Matthew Lewis, the spicy chef behind Seattle’s ragin’ Cajun food truck, Where Ya At Matt, is no longer merely a six-locations-a-week street food anomaly. His new restaurant, Roux, located in the hip Fremont neighborhood, makes the short three-hour lunchtime window a thing of the past. Even with 85 seats, there’s no guarantee you won’t still have to wait for a table at Roux, but once seated you will enjoy a full Creole menu, can take your time ordering and eating, and, best of all, pair your meal with a classic Southern cocktail, glass of wine, or pint of beer.
Roux has been a work in progress since March 2012, when renovations began on the old Buckaroo Tavern space, located down the block from the ever-swamped sandwich joint, Paseo. In November 2011, Matt started conceptualizing Roux. “It’s something that you always have sort of in the back of your mind.” It was around that time that people began approaching Matt with space options for the restaurant. He looked at a lot of places before settling on the old Buckaroo space.
“When we came across the old Buckaroo space we thought, ‘Man, this place really has a soul to it.’ It feels like what I want my restaurant to be like. And when I travel to New Orleans, and some of the places that I like, if I showed you some pictures of places in the Garden District, off of Magazine Street, and compared it side by side to what our place looks like now—if it weren’t for the hill, ’cause there aren’t hills in New Orleans—you’d think, ‘Wow, that’s the same place!’”
After being in the food industry for years, Lewis decided to strike out on his own and three years ago opened his colossally successful food truck, Where Ya At Matt. “I was at a point where I was just tired of working for somebody else, and there were a lot of changes in my life outside of that,” says Lewis.
Lewis got in on the action early with the street food scene in Seattle. On the day he officially rolled out his truck on July 10, 2010, there were only about six other registered food trucks in the city, including successes like Skillet, which Lewis refers to as “the godfather of the Seattle area” when it comes to food trucks, Marination Mobile, and Maximus Minimus. Now there are more than 90 food trucks in Seattle. And while Lewis is happy to see the growth and excitement surrounding food-truck culture, he is also wary that running a truck is a lot more work than people might think. “It’s kind of flattering, I mean, we must make this look easy,” Lewis laughed.
After hearing how much work does go into running a food truck, it was no surprise to hear Lewis quickly follow up with, “To be honest with you, I’m looking forward to the restaurant to take a break.”
Many of the food trucks that have established fixed restaurant locations in Seattle have carried over not only the same brand and same cuisine but also the same name for their brick-and-mortar. Lewis explained that keeping the name for the restaurant the same as the truck didn’t make sense for him.
“My name for the truck turned into ‘Where Ya At Matt,’ and ‘where ya at’ in New Orleans means, ‘How ya doin’?’ Like saying, ‘What’s up?’ And when I was doing the truck, that was perfect because I wanted that Southern hospitality, but also literally, ‘where are you?’ worked because we move all the time. So, it just stuck. But for the restaurant, you can’t hang that and have the same meaning. It doesn’t have that same force behind it.”
But the brand is what Lewis is really focused on. Seattle-based culinary giants like Ethan Stowell and Tom Douglas don’t use the same names for each of their restaurants, “but when you visit one of their locations you know their brand right away. And that’s what we’re looking to do with [Roux],” says Lewis.
Lewis has brought on a number of well-known players for his all-star team at Roux, including cocktail guru, Ian Cargill. Cargill learned about Where Ya At Matt simply by the truck’s reputation. “I ate a lot of sandwiches,” laughed Cargill. “When I was working at Tavern Law, every Wednesday we’d have sandwiches and started rolling around to different food trucks and eventually I just kept coming back to Matt’s.”
With a glimmer of nostalgia, Cargill fondly remembers inventing something he and Lewis call “The Beignet Lean,” a crafted technique of eating the highly addictive New Orleans sweet treat that has certainly become one of many Where Ya At Matt signatures. “I’ve killed a lot of beignets in my time,” says Cargill.
After working in 26 different bars and restaurants, Cargill has an eye for what works and what doesn’t. “I really like bars that match the restaurant, and I don’t see that happening enough. Either the bar’s an afterthought or a waiting area for the restaurant. But, you’ve already got the real estate, you might as well make it the best you can to match the restaurant concept.”
Part of matching the bar to the restaurant is focusing on beer. Cargill is putting emphasis on his tap list and considering microbrews that will pair with the menu at Roux. “It’s beer and cheese, not wine and cheese,” says Cargill. Beyond beer, his focus is on producing a well-rounded bar that caters to every type of patron. “I want good stuff on the back bar, I want good stuff in the kegs. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be well crafted,” says Cargill.
Cargill manages a varied tap menu, with rotators and also some signature beers, including as many Abita Brewing Company (a classic Louisiana brewery) taps as possible. Last summer, Lewis visited Abita and spoke with them about his restaurant concept and they worked out a deal which gives Cargill access to Abita’s full lineup of beers, including seasonals. The pairing possibilities are endless. Cargill also offers easy-drinking beers—especially lagers—that pair particularly well with Cajun spices.
Lewis and Cargill certainly agree that their biggest priority for making Roux a success is soul. Putting their souls into the food, drink, and personal attention given to every person who walks in the door is paramount. “To me, as good as our food is, I want our hospitality to be even better. I want to be able to take care of people. When you come to Roux, you’re coming to our house; you’re coming to eat with us,” says Lewis. Lewis looks forward to being able to have a dialogue with his customers in a way that he hasn’t been able to with the food truck.
The guys also feel it’s essential to tap into the demographics of the neighborhood. “Fremont is a catch-all. It’s called the ‘warm fuzzy center of the universe,’” says Lewis. Fremont is full of people who are really excited for new places, but of course, there are always a handful of people who don’t embrace change. “I’m sure there will always be people who walk in and say, “‘This isn’t the Buckaroo!’” laughs Cargill. But the number of people who have been excited over the past year as Roux ramped up to its opening in March far overshadows any negativity that either Lewis or Cargill have experienced.
You’ll still be able to find Where Ya At Matt around Seattle Monday through Saturday, but you can now visit Roux at 4201 North Fremont Avenue, Seattle.
New Orleans-Style BBQ Shrimp with Grits & Braised Greens / Serves 4
2 Tbsp. butter, divided
12 fresh shrimp, deveined, with or without heads
1 Tbsp. shallot, minced
2 tsp. garlic, minced
1 Tbsp Creole seasoning
1/2 cup beer, pilsner style
1 tsp. fresh parsley, medium chop
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. hot sauce
1 tsp. lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a hot sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon butter until foaming. Add shrimp and begin to sauté on one side. Add shallot and garlic and sauté until aromatic. Add Creole seasoning, stirring to incorporate. Deglaze pan with beer and reduce liquid by half. Add remaining tablespoon of butter to pan and reduce until liquid thickens and begins to coat the shrimp. Add Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and lemon juice to taste. Add salt, pepper, and more Creole seasoning to taste. Serve over grits or with bread for sopping.
1/2 cup butter
1 yellow onion, small dice
1 cup grits
3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. hot sauce
Salt, to taste
In a heavy stock pot, melt butter and onion. Sauté for approximately 3 minutes. Add grits and stir, toasting slightly. Add stock and bring to a boil, making sure to stir often to prevent grits from sticking. Simmer for approximately 30 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and hot sauce. Adjust seasoning and salt to taste.
2 Tbsp. canola oil
2 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow onion, medium dice
2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 bunches collard greens,
stemmed and rough chopped
2 bunches mustard greens,
stemmed and rough chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1 Tbsp. hot sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a heavy stock pot over medium-high heat, heat oil. Add bacon and cook until fat renders. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and cook until aromatic. Add collard and mustard greens and stock to the pot, stir and cover. Steam until wilted. Adjust temperature to simmer, and braise for approximately 45 minutes, or until greens are soft. Add vinegar, honey, and hot sauce, cooking another 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, and hot sauce.