Most 59 year old men are starting to plan for their later years in life, for the time when they slow down, take on fewer responsibilities, and simplify. Mel Melton is no such man. Melton, chef and co-owner of Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse in Durham, is looking to go faster. To do more. To live life to its fullest. See, Melton is not just a chef, he’s also a musician and a farmer. His band, Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos, recently opened for BB King in Durham. Melton has played with the likes of Sonny Landreth, CJ Chenier, and Buckwheat Zydeco. He partied with Janis Joplin in 1968 after she played a gig at Duke. He’s learned to cook from Paul Prudhomme. And less than a year ago, he and his business partner Antonio Almaleh, decided to open a cajun/creole restaurant in the Triangle.
I have to say that from the outside, there was little about Papa Mojo’s that I liked. It is tucked away in the corner of a dreary strip mall near RTP. When you land at their website, you’re greeted with a loud voice, singing, “Papa Mojo!!!!!”, which scared the crap out of me. The restaurant is, quite frankly, a cliche of dozens of New Orleans-style joints you find all across the country. Melton’s publicist has sent me releases, frequently referring to him as a “celebrity chef.” Quite honestly, when I headed over to Durham last Thursday, I had no desire to meet Mr. Roy “Mel” Melton.
I’m glad I made the trip.
Melton is one of those people who has that gift of story telling. He’s met a lot of famous people, and he’s not afraid to drop a name or two. He’s lived in Louisiana, Texas, Chicago and has run into enough bad spots along the way that he has earned the right to sing the blues. I spent 90 minutes talking to the man and it felt like 10. I now know why people come out to see this man sing and play the harmonica or frottoir (the washboard used in zydeco music). Melton likes to be on stage, and he recognizes that being a chef and a musician are not all that different. In fact, he said, “Music and cooking are parallel forms of expression.” He loves the immediate feedback of both, whether it’s the movement of the crowd during a zydeco song, or the smiles on their faces after tasting the food. He’s incredibly engaging, and after one meeting, I feel as if he’s an old friend.
But what about the food? It is a comprehensive rendition of cajun and creole favorites, which is difficult to pull off. But based on what I tasted, which was all provided to me complements of Melton, I’m pleased to state that Papa Mojo’s does a pretty damn good job, and in a couple of instances, a kick-ass job.
The catfish was better than anything I’ve had around here, including my own. Melton’s rendition is very clean, without any of the muddy, somewhat metallic taste that you often get with catfish. The barbecued shrimp and andouille were tasty, although the barbecue sauce was a bit too sweet for my taste. I’d be happy to have the maque choux as a side dish any day.
But the star of the show for me was the cochon de lait po’ boy, which is undoubtedly one of the best sandwiches in the Triangle. A couple of cutlets of smoked pork, dressed with some lettuce, pickles and Melton’s signature sauce, all on a nice, slightly crunchy but light baguette. I’ll eat at Papa Mojo’s once a week for this sandwich.
The restaurant is doing quite well, surprisingly well. But Melton’s no dummy, as he makes most of his profits from the bar beginning at 9:30 on Friday and Saturday nights when he turns the place into a true roadhouse, with live music. So I just might have to stop waiting for my ya ya, grab Mrs. Varmint and head over to Mel’s one Saturday night for a little zydeco boogaloo! Because I know Melton won’t be sitting around, wondering what to do next.