Copeland's of New Orleans (Minneapolis, MN)

The Nankin Chinese restaurant was a downtown Minneapolis landmark. The food wasn’t any good. Think boring American Chinese-like food: chow mein, fried rice, lo mein, egg foo yong…that sort of thing. Even the entrées pandered: sweet and sour chicken, beef with broccoli, BBQ duck, and that old vegetarian stand-by, Buddha’s Delight. It’s the sort of place where you got what we call “celery mush chow mein.”

A couple of years ago, the Nankin closed. According to Nankin’s attorney, the final slide was “the PR nightmare that ensued from a police raid.” It was a drug bust, and 19 people were arrested. The attorney hastened to point out that none of those 19 were Nankin employees or customers, which leaves us to wonder exactly what was going on there. Then they filed for bankruptcy, thereby avoiding a pending eviction notice, and that was that.

This June, Copeland’s of New Orleans opened in the same location. This is a restaurant of a different color. Nankin was a single restaurant. Copeland’s is a national chain. Nankin served dishes tested by time; Copeland’s serves dishes tested by focus groups. Chinese restaurants are a dime a dozen these days, and we all know how the food is supposed to taste. The Twin Cities doesn’t have Cajun restaurants, so most of us aren’t familiar with authentic Cajun tastes.

Where the food is concerned, maybe the two restaurants have too much in common. Copeland’s serves the celery mush equivalent of Louisiana cooking.

Take the crawfish étouffée. It had all the right ingredients, but was bland and flavorless. Even vast quantities of hot sauce couldn’t save it. The crab cakes didn’t have enough crab in them. The blackened redfish should have been heavily spiced, but was even blander. And the mashed potatoes that came with it were too heavily buttered.

The seafood platter was huge, although on closer inspection most of the bulk came from the bread and French fries. But if you like a pile of food—deep-fried oysters, shrimp, crawfish tails, crab cakes, catfish, onion rings, and corn fritters—this is for you.

Their shrimp and tasso macque choux was the weirdest dish we had. It’s a plate of cheese ravioli in cream sauce, with shrimp and spiced pork sausage and corn. It was a complete mess of flavors. The sausage overpowered everything, and the corn cream sauce masked the rest of the dish. What was the point of the ravioli? Or the shrimp? And why so much cream sauce?

Copeland’s shrimp and redfish Creole was better. Sure, it wasn’t as complexly flavored as it should be, but it was still tasty. The andouille sausage, red beans, and rice was a winner. And the jambalaya pasta, while thematically confused, was actually good. Here the spiced sausage worked, and the tomato sauce held up to the flavor. Even the shrimp added to this dish.

Desserts were similarly mixed. They’re all huge, so think about sharing. Safe is a dish of ice cream. Stay away from the bananas Foster. This is so good when done correctly, but the one we were served was too sweet and not flavorful enough.

Service can be spotty. On one visit, 1) the kitchen ran out of the ingredients of one of the dishes, 2) the server forgot to bring a soup, blamed it on the kitchen for being out of yet another ingredient, and finally brought it after the rest of the meal, and 3) forgot a cup of tea completely. The worst of all of this is that the server seemed to give up on our table after that. At a corporate restaurant like this, management should have given us a discount coupon or comped our dessert, just to have us go away happy. We expect better training for the staff.

But Copeland’s isn’t about the food or the service; it’s about a manufactured Louisiana experience. And this experience, while inauthentic, is all about ambience. It starts on the outside, with the restaurant’s pink walls, and music piped onto the street. It continues inside, where everything looks upscale. The ceilings are cavernous, but hot pink mood lighting and dark woods mute the effect. There are fresh linens on all the tables, and everything looks pristine. As you’re being walked through the crowded restaurant—it’s always crowded—to your table, you pass people drinking enormous drinks and eating large plates of food. Zydeco music plays from somewhere overhead, and you think: “fun fun fun.”

And Copeland’s is fun. Ordering a 60-oz. drink and sharing it with three of your friends is neat and, at $12, probably the drink deal of downtown. The appetizers are better than you’d expect at your average bar. Sure, it’s a formulaic, lowest-common-denominator corporate version of Louisiana cuisine, but it’s better corporate food than average and dinner will cost under $30. If you go into this restaurant with a group to have fun, you will.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.