For a relatively small barroom, Chester's has a surprisingly large menu. It stretches from the Cajun and New Orleans dishes at its core to salads, wings, burgers ribs and steak.
The place seems designed to welcome a sports bar crowd, with Mardi Gras decorations on the walls in June, a Quick Draw screen and televisions in practically every corner of the space. We settled in a nearly empty place for a late afternoon lunch.
The first surprise at Chester's was the blackened shrimp. "Blackened" New Orleans style should mean a smoky kiss of butter and spice, usually accomplished by using a searingly hot cast-iron skillet or similar heavy metal. Virtually no Western New York restaurants whose "blackened" food I've tried have gotten it right, most just rolling the chicken or fish in a black-pepper-dominated spice mix and grilling.
At Chester's, the blackened shrimp appetizer ($7.99) turned out to be small but tasty shrimp, served over Cajun rice. They were smoky and piquant without being overcooked. "Wow," said Cat's daughter Anna. "For someone who hates shrimp, that's really good."
So maybe it's not a coincidence that Chester's blackened shrimp has won three Taste of Buffalo awards.
Another shrimp appetizer, Louisiana barbecue shrimp, was served in a tangy sauce of butter, garlic and spices, with bread on the side. It was dispatched, too, though I found the amount of dried rosemary overpowering.
My daughter Lydia is not afraid of spicy food, so she noted the menu's warning but still opted for the bowl of seafood jambalaya ($9.99), with crawfish, crab, andouille sausage and rice in a spicy tomato sauce. "It's so hot but so good," she said, reaching for another spoonful of the stewlike mixture. "I can't stop."
I thought there was plenty of sweet seafood amid the heat, and the rice was firm, not mushy. Chester's also offers chicken and andouille gumbo, and the New Orleans favorite red beans and rice, plus po' boys, the Cajun submarine, including a "debris" po' boy ($10.99) with chunks of pot roast and gravy.
The pitmaster po' boy ($12.49) includes chicken strips, barbecue sauce and salad on an 8-inch roll. It was average, borderline pricey even with a side of crispy onion straws, french fries or other sides. Perhaps a fried oyster ($12.99) or blackened catfish ($11.99) version would be a better choice here.
Cat asked for hushpuppies ($3.98) and the Nawlins chicken and rice ($11.99), while I opted for the crawfish etouffee ($16.99).
The hushpuppies were eight crispy golf-ball-sized spheres of cornmeal batter with onion and bell pepper, and we could have used more.
My etouffee was rich, dense and garlicky, with deep, hearty flavor from the traditional trinity of celery, onion and bell pepper. There were loads of crawfish tails, adding to the heft of the dish.
I did not stop eating it when I knew should have, which is a compliment (though it had to be followed up with antacids).
Cat's chicken and rice dish was also quite rich, a garlicky cream sauce smothering medallions of chicken breast with onions and mushrooms. The sauce had a toasted flavor I couldn't quite place -- perhaps from a vigorous flambeeing -- which added to our enjoyment of the dish. The menu warned it would be spicy, and it was -- but it was a rousing tickle of heat to our tastes, not a raging inferno.
Our server was attentive during our meal. We were one of three parties in the restaurant during our time there.
Overall the food was surprisingly spicy -- in a good way. When the menu said a dish was going to be fired up, it was. That's not always the case, sad to say.
Chester's Cajun Grill isn't trying to offer fine dining or a sophisticated setting. Instead, it succeeds at offering good food at a fair price, and doesn't skimp on the spice.
Chester's Cajun Grill
DESCRIPTION: In the wilds of East Amherst, Chester's turns out an array of spicy, solid Cajun cooking.
WHERE: 9416 Transit Road, 636-4554, chesterscajungrill.com
HOURS: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, sandwiches, $4.49-$12.99; entrees $7.99-$20.99.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes