On a sunny September day in downtown Williams, Tricia and J.D. O’Reilly are wrapping up lunch service at their month-old restaurant, Bayou By You. Tourists peruse the menu posted out front while a passing couple calls out, “This place is awesome. The food is awesome.”
Located on historic Route 66 about 33 miles west of Flagstaff, Bayou By You is the brick-and-mortar evolution of the O’Reilly’s popular roving food trailer of the same name. Since launching their mobile operation in 2015 (and up until six weeks ago), the O’Reilly’s were content with serving up their Louisiana soul food from a parking lot on Flagstaff’s east side. They weren’t actively looking for a restaurant space. But thanks to the chance discovery of a Craigslist ad, they found one.
“When we walked in and saw the weathered wood, it reminded us of the bayou,” Tricia says. “And the counter! It was like, 'Oh, we could do this just like the food truck, but instead people can sit down if they want or they can take it.’ It was perfect.”
Suddenly, they had a new plan in motion.
“It was like a speeding train,” J.D. says. “We could either decide to jump on board or wave goodbye, and we jumped on board.”
Inside, the 33-seat restaurant is streamlined and straightforward. Festive, crawfish-shaped confetti dots the L-shaped counter. Banquettes covered in a glossy green gator print and mesh crawfish traps overhead give the place a Louisiana feel.
“We consider ourselves the ambassadors of taste,” J.D. says. “We know what New Orleans tastes like and want to share that.”
Before moving to Flagstaff, the couple landed in Prescott after Hurricane Katrina forced them from their hometown of 35 years. It was an intense time. Some families were separated, with husbands and wives finding work in different states. Others were completely torn apart by financial crises. The O’Reilly’s were determined not to let that happen to them.
“We immediately started looking for a job as a husband and wife,” J.D. says, “and it turns out that there are ranch jobs available for husbands and wives and there are ranches in Prescott, Arizona.”
While in Prescott, the O’Reilly’s helped found Cinco de Gumbo, a food and music event that raised money to send kids to YMCA camp. It was the first time they prepared their food on a large scale.
“I think that’s what kind of spurred us,” Tricia says. “It was really great to share those flavors, and a few years later, there we were with our trailer in Flagstaff.”
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Cajun and Creole cooking is far from uniform. Like Louisiana, a melting pot of cultures influences the food—French, Spanish, African and the Caribbean just to name a few. Recipes are largely regional, passed down from generation to generation, and made with whatever spices and ingredients the cook had on hand.
“You can't put this food in a box, put it on a shelf and call it gumbo,” J.D. says. “We don't have the only version of gumbo out there, we don't claim to. I’ve tasted hundreds of versions, and everybody puts their own thing into it. For example, where I come from, you got to have okra in your gumbo.”
Lifelong food-lovers, the O’Reilly’s have spent countless hours refining their recipes down to the half-teaspoon to ensure consistency. They are so determined to maintain authenticity, they insist on importing key ingredients from Louisiana and make everything they can from scratch.
“We pick our vegetables by hand, we chop them by hand. I source all my seafood and meats from Louisiana from multiple dealers, people I know,” J.D. says. “We're totally in control of a lot of things that keep the quality very high.”
The Appetizers section includes two types of savory, fritter-like “bites”: Bonfire (sausage and cheese) and Spicy Garden (spinach, artichoke and rice). Under Main Dishes, diners will find four staples: gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya and étouffée. Each one is available by the cup, bowl or quart and—thanks to early experiences cooking for friends with Celiac disease—everything is gluten-free.
Spice lovers will appreciate the gumbo’s throat-tingling heat. The hearty stew served over jasmine rice is packed with smoky Andouille sausage, chicken, tomatoes and, of course, okra. The flavor-packed chicken and sausage jambalaya is fluffy and delightful. For those in the mood for seafood, the silky dark, roux-based étouffée can be made with shrimp or crawfish. There’s also a vegan option that comes with tofu. The creamy red beans and rice comes in a traditional pork version or an equally delicious vegan variety.
If you’re on the fence, the O’Reilly’s are happy to let you try before you buy. Or go for one of the convenient combos. The Grand Bayou is a sampler of four cups plus two bites for $24. It’s perfect for two people who want to taste a little of everything.
In some ways, this food has been the O’Reilly’s antidote to homesickness.
“We grew up loving what we ate and cooking what we love, and we brought that with us,” Tricia says. “And thank goodness we had that capability because I think the food is probably what I would have missed the most about New Orleans. We were able to recreate the dishes that we grew up with and feed our souls with them and then our community.”
Bayou By You has found a new home, but the O’Reilly’s are hopeful that their fans will make the special trip to Williams and embrace the growth potential being in a restaurant provides.
“It's a really pleasant and beautiful drive through two forests, Kaibab and Coconino, with mountains,” J.D. says.
“And,” Tricia adds with a laugh, “parking here is free!”
Bayou By You, located at 125 W. Route 66 in Williams, is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday to Monday. Customers order and pay at the register, and their food is brought out when it’s ready. Visit www.bayoubyyou.com or find them on Facebook and Twitter @BayouByYou for more information.