by Casey Rives, Contributing Writer
The blue, yellow and green striped awning over the bright purple door may seem out of place among the brick buildings on Center Street in Old Town Manassas, but enter and you’ll ﬁnd out the reason for the colorful exterior. Okra’s Cajun Creole Restaurant is one of few New Orleans- themed restaurants in the area, and their friendly staﬀ, ﬂavorful entrees and fun atmosphere keep customers coming back for more.
“We started oﬀ with a goal to be just a mom and pop place with four or ﬁve of us working,” said Okra’s owner Charles Gilliam. “We now have about 25 workers and it’s gone far beyond anywhere we thought it would go. We’ve added on next door and we have patio seating for the summer time. We’re three times bigger than we ever imagined we would be.”
Okra’s opened the ﬁrst Saturday of October in 1998. Since then, it has continued to be a favorite among Prince William County residents. And while its size may have changed, the atmosphere has not. Locals ﬂock to the not-so ordinary restaurant for an escape from everyday life.
“It’s the whole atmosphere and culture of New Orleans,” said Gilliam. “I dare anybody to try to at least keep from tapping their foot when they’re listening to New Orleans’ zydeco music—it’s impossible.”
Customers experience the feel of Louisiana as soon as they enter the New Orleans style restaurant. Zydeco and Jazz music can be heard throughout the restaurant while alligators, Mardi Gras masks and pictures of musicians decorate the brick walls.
“I want every customer leaving with a smile,” said Gilliam. “Okra’s is a comfortable atmosphere; we want people to escape from the city life and get a sense of authentic generosity.”
Gilliam didn’t grow up in Louisiana, but over the years he has become a frequent visitor of New Orleans, even spending time helping with relief eﬀorts after Hurricane Katrina.
“I wanted to do Louisiana style food because it’s the best food in the world,” explained Gilliam. “It’s not just the food, but the culture of Louisiana is amazing. The people are genuine and they have some kind of music inside of them that’s always bursting to come out—you can sense the excitement that the people of Louisiana have.”
So far, Gilliam has received no complaints from customers on his restaurant’s Cajun style food.
“You know, I have people who come in here from New Orleans for the ﬁrst time and they’re just looking to ﬁnd something wrong,” said Gilliam. “They want to see if they can ﬁnd something not cooked right or something that’s not really New Orleans style—but I’ll tell you what, they always leave with a smile and always return with three or four friends.”
What to Order
Those searching for true New Orleans ﬂavor will enjoy Okra’s jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp creole or red beans, but it’s the dirty rice that sets this Cajun restaurant apart from others.
“Dirty rice—if you see it, you know it’s authentic. The other favorites like jambalaya and gumbo, somebody can try to make a version of it,” said Gilliam. “Dirty rice is something you can’t make unless you know how to make it.”
More than half of Okra’s clients are regulars. Once you visit the ﬁrst time, you can’t help but come back, says Mattie Micale of Manassas Park—a frequent visitor.
“The food is great; I could eat the alligator bites for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Micale said. “The staﬀ is friendly and the atmosphere is fun. They always have great live music—real music.”
Micale isn’t the only customer who ranks Okra’s as their favorite restaurant in the Manassas area. e New Orleans eatery was also visited by First Lady Michelle Obama in August 2010. Mrs. Obama was said to have tried some of the famous fried okra— the food which inspired the name of the Louisiana-style bistro.
The golden, crispy, fried vegetable is served with Okra’s own Dixie sauce—a sauce Micale describes as “amazing” and “like liquid gold.”
Alongside the traditional “N’awlins” fare, Okra’s oﬀers
Pasta Diablo—a dish of angel hair pasta tossed in spicy cream sauce with andouille sausage.
Of course, Lousiana is known for divine crawﬁsh cuisine. But what makes a great crawﬁsh? While seasonings are key to tasty crawﬁsh, Gilliam admits it is the actual crawﬁsh that creates the great taste.
“It has to be a healthy crawﬁsh. Before you even cook it, that crawﬁsh has to be alive, kicking and strong,” said Gilliam. “It also has to listen to a little zydeco music while it’s going into the water,” he said with a grin.
To add to the cultural aspect of Okra’s, Gilliam has incorporated a “Looziana Terms” section on the back of the restaurant’s menu.
“Coming here is like a cultural lesson,” said Gilliam. “I think over the past few years we have educated people a little about what New Orleans is and how it feels to be a part of that culture.”
If patrons have a question regarding a term on the menu—a quick ﬂip to the back will allow New Orleans’ terms to be deﬁned.
Okra’s famous gumbo is said to include chicken, andouille sausage and tasso. What exactly is tasso?
According to Okra’s “Looziana Terms,” tasso (pronounced “toss-o”) is dried and cured pork shoulder commonly used as a seasoning meat.
Okra’s oﬀers live music every Friday and Saturday night during the cold months and outside on the streets in the warmer months, creating a Mardi Gras atmosphere throughout the year. Gilliam, knows that the real Mardi Gras events are something customers frequently ask about.
“One of the things about Mardi Gras people always ask us is ‘are you having Mardi Gras this year?’” said Gilliam. “The thing is, we can’t stop Mardi Gras—the only thing we can do is make sure we are prepared when it comes.”
Live Cajun music is a must and costumes are a norm for Okra’s celebration of Fat Tuesday.
“At least half the people attending our Mardi Gras events will be dressed up in some sort of costume—it’s like a Halloween for adults,” said Gilliam. “You never know from one year to the next what’s going to happen.”
A special Mardi Gras menu is served on the older side of the restaurant, while the newer side provides an area for dancing and music.
Gilliam has plans to open three more Okra’s Cajun Creole Restaurants, so that people throughout the county can enjoy Okra’s Cajun cuisine.
“I’d like to open one in the Gainesville or Haymarket area and one around Occoquan or Montclair,” said Gilliam. “My goal is to push the edges of the county, where people in neighboring counties can also ﬁgure out who we are and understand us.”
The goal in creating additional restaurants is to never lose the one-of-a-kind atmosphere that Okra’s holds.
I don’t know how something like this happens, but it’s truly amazing,” said Gilliam. “I can actually say that I’m excited to wake up every morning and come to work—I love what I do. I love putting a smile on everyone’s face.”
While reservations are not accepted at Okra’s, customers can reach the restaurant at (703) 330-2729 to ask about cuisine or events.
“My theory is, if we aren’t spending so much time answering phones or making reservations, we can spend more time taking care of you while you’re here,” said Gilliam.
Okra’s is a place to escape from the day-to-day grind in Northern Virginia. Southern hospitality and comfort come complimentary with any dish on the menu.
Writer Casey Rives, who resides in Haymarket, Va., is acommunications major at George Mason University. Her expected graduation date is December 2011.