KENT — There’s a loud, electronic chime that sounds each time the door opens at Altha’s Louisiana Cajun Seasoning & Spices shop in Kent, but as laughter rolls out the mouths of three women who just walked in, you can hardly hear it.
“She just got off the plane from New Orleans, and this is the first place I brought her!” one exclaims, looking at Reginald Robinson, owner of Altha’s.
Robinson greets everyone who comes in the door, telling them it’s nice to see them; reminding them on their way out to have a blessed day.
It was that longing for home — just like the women were seeking when they walked through the door at Altha’s — that pushed Robinson to open his shop nearly three years ago.
Robinson grew up in New Orleans but has lived in Washington for 32 years. Last year, he retired after 30 years as a manager at a box factory in Kent. He still owns a janitorial service, cleaning commercial buildings and is at Altha’s every day. I ask him when he sleeps and he laughs.
He first opened Altha’s in September 2016 on 84th Street, a few blocks from where the store is now in a 250-square-foot space. He sold items directly sent from Louisiana; dried beans, spice mixes, frozen catfish, boudin, alligator, crawfish, coffee, condiments and more.
“That first Saturday when we opened up at 10 a.m. we sold out of maybe 80 percent of everything we had. We pretty much had to shut down,” he says with a laugh. “That’s when I knew we had something.”
In summer 2017, Robinson found a new, larger space on East Meeker Street, right next to a park where he hopes to one day have zydeco and jazz bands play while he serves food. In early April this year, he expanded again, adding a cafe and more freezer space to keep up with demand.
Now, each week, he gets two to three truckloads of goods coming in and sells 1,000 pounds of catfish.
“We’re the only shop on the whole entire West Coast from Texas on who has 100% Southern soul food,” Robinson says.
The day the cafe opened, Robinson says there were lines around the block and a Mardi Gras atmosphere, complete with a zydeco band and people dancing with umbrellas. Things haven’t slowed down since.
Robinson scrolls through the photos on his phone, showing me pictures of Kent’s police chief and mayor, Mariners player Austin Nola, Sir Mix-a-Lot and NBA player and former University of Washington basketball player Nate Robinson’s grandmother.
“We bring a lot of people in here. We’ve created something that everybody wants but nobody has,” he says.
The menu has staples; po’boys, fried shrimp, smoked sausages and catfish. There’s also breaded okra, gator nuggets, meat pies and boudin. Then, there are daily specials; jambalaya on Wednesday, crawfish étouffée on Thursday and Saturday, chicken and sausage gumbo on Friday. Each special comes with a choice of two sides; red beans and rice, fries, collard greens, hush puppies or breaded okra.
Robinson often stocks Big Shot soda in addition to Coke products and says he’ll never offer alcohol on account that neither he — nor any of his 13 brothers and sisters — has ever consumed alcohol.
“If you can’t come here and eat and have a decent meal without a drink, you got a serious problem,” he says.
Many of the menu items are from recipes directly from Robinson’s mother, Altha, the shop’s namesake. Others — such as the catfish and breaded okra — come seasoned already, just needing a quick bath in hot oil.
The jambalaya ($17.99) is that perfect casserole consistency; thick coins of sausage mixed with spicy rice and chicken. The red beans ($2.99/medium, $4.99/large) are creamy Camellia-brand red kidney beans, also studded with sausage and served separately from white rice, allowing you to mix as needed.
The collard greens ($2.99/medium, $4.99/large) have a heavy dose of pork mixed in. They could’ve used a dash of vinegar or hot sauce, which was easy to remedy considering the numerous varieties of Louisiana hot sauce available at the deli.
The catfish (four pieces for $9.99) is incredibly crispy and light — the breading a perfect thin veneer, well-spiced and keeping the fish beneath moist.
Granted, I’ve only been to New Orleans once, and don’t have a lot of experience with hush puppies, but if the ones at Altha’s are somehow wrong, I don’t want to know. They’re about the size of a Ping-Pong ball, crispy brown with a fluffy, not-too-sweet cornmeal interior. The order came with four, but I could’ve eaten a bathtub full. The dipping sauce is classic WoW Wee from — where else — Louisiana.
It’s comforting food, served in a space that feels more like someone’s home than a restaurant. The tables are of the folding variety; the food all comes in takeout boxes. A flat-screen is tuned to a blues music station. The vibe is friendly, and very no-frills. Robinson’s favorite dish?
“Every bit of it,” he says before adding that he loves the boudin sausage.
“It’s new to people up here but we’ve been eating it forever. When you taste it, oh my god it’s amazing.”
There are no muffalettas; Robinson says he’s got a friend who sells them just down the road and he doesn’t want to compete.
“We want the old country traditions. That’s what we go for, how we ate in the country,” he says.
The day I was there, gator was sold out; Robinson says it’s one of the things on the menu he has a hard time keeping in stock. Also on that list: Blue Plate and Duke’s mayonnaises, and catfish.
“We get people driving up from Portland, Oregon, Ocean Shores, Bellingham, Eastern Washington. I have one guy who comes from Idaho every three months; he brings his truck and his cooler and he’ll call me up about three weeks before and he’ll say, ‘I’m coming, here’s what I want,’ ” Robinson says.
That’s another thing; if you have a Louisiana favorite and he doesn’t stock it, just ask. If he can get it for you, he will.
His shelves are filled with roux, gumbo base, pickled pig’s lips, cans of boiled peanuts, Community Coffee (the brand Altha drank). The freezers are stocked with flash-frozen vegetables, crawfish tails, and chitterlings and rabbit — even though he doesn’t eat them.
“It’s not about me, it’s about what everybody else wants,” he says.
I just want more hush puppies, and to be closer to Kent to get in on crawfish étouffée and po’boys every day. Robinson’s sure he’s got something you want, too.
Altha’s Louisiana Cajun Seasoning & Spices, shop 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday; cafe 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday; 201 E. Meeker St., Kent; 253-719-2242, althascajunspices.com