Restaurant Review: Gumbo Ya Ya in Lexington, Kentucky

Have you heard of Gumbo Ya Ya in Lexington, Kentucky?   If you haven’t--and you love great Cajun food without a lot of fuss--you need to make a visit.  We recently spent a night in Lexington near the University of Kentucky campus for an event at the Lexington Convention Center and discovered (yet another) little strip mall restaurant favorite in Gumbo Ya Ya. 

Gumbo Ya Ya is tucked away in a little, University of Kentucky campus, strip mall.  While the semi-hidden location near the end of a campus strip mall may hide Gumbo Ya Ya from tourists--the locals know it’s there!  During our stay in Lexington, we heard about a first annual Crawfish festival at the Red Mile Racetrack.  We love Cajun food and thought it would be a fun family outing.  To our disappointment, there was one vendor attempting to cater the busy festival crowd and the line for the promised Cajun food was about two hours long at 6 p.m.! While many visitors camped out in the festival food line--we ventured a few blocks down the street to Gumbo Ya Ya instead.  As the dinner hour continued, the line at Gumbo Ya Ya wove out the door with in-the-know locals who opted to skip the festival food line for something more familiar--and, probably hard to beat!

There is little fuss at Gumbo Ya Ya--but lots of quality.  The Gumbo Ya Ya menu is essentially an above the counter chalkboard listing the meal options.  As a family, new to the restaurant, traveling with a picky eater, this could have been disastrous had the young man taking the order not been on top of his game.  He was ready to make recommendations--and quick to offer samples (and sour cream to cool things off should the girls find the fare too spicy).  Our food was served on disposable plates with disposable cutlery in deli style.  We placed our order with the one cashier, waited for it to “come up” from the slightly staffed kitchen and retrieved it from the counter ourselves. 

Okay--how was the food at Gumbo Ya Ya?  We opted to order four different small plates (meals are served in small plates or large plates) over rice.  The meals are also served over pasta.  We decided to share the plates and garlic bread “family style”.  What did we choose?

The White Chili

This was our “picky” daughter’s selection--it was less spicy than some of the other choices and the description appealed to her “specifications”.    It was served with tortilla chips and was actually a hit with all four of us.

The Red Beans and Smoked Sausage

Our youngest daughter loves sausage in any form--and adores Cajun food.  We ordered this dish primarily for her--but, I soon discovered that it was one of my favorites as well!  It was well spiced with chunky bits of tomato, celery, green peppers, onions and thin slices of tender smoked sausage. 


We had to try the Jambalaya--and it certainly put my meager recipe to shame.  We chose the “traditional” jambalaya with its mix of chicken, sausage, garlic and the “usual” celery, peppers, onions, and tomato in a flavorful sauce.  Oddly enough, the “picky” middle daughter adopted this as her favorite!

Surf and Turf

What is a Cajun meal without some crawfish?  We had crawfish, bacon, cabbage, red peppers, celery, onions, and tomato in a spicy, Cajun sauce.  This dish was a huge hit with all except the picky one (too “surfy” for her tastes).  It was also one of the most ordered dishes on the night we visited--as we “eavesdropped” near the counter!

The desserts are provided by a local bakery and may change slightly.  The youngest opted for a praline.  She was assured by the young man manning the busy order counter that she’d like it.  (She must have because it disappeared in minutes!)

 My “picky” one chose a double chocolate pie.  I can only describe this as almost a chocolate brownie batter in a buttery pie crust.  It was so yummy that even my “crust avoiding” children ate the pie crust!

Would I recommend Gumbo Ya Ya?  If you are looking for fine Cajun dining with at your table service and a quiet atmosphere--no.  If you are looking for awesome Cajun food in a relaxed, fun atmosphere--that’s really pretty cheap for the quality and quantity--this is your place in Lexington, Kentucky!  We couldn’t finish four small plates of food (after a day of strenuous activity and hours since lunch).  Our total bill was less than $35 with dessert for the four of us.  Granted, we drank water and soda rather than alcohol for this outing--but, the price for the quantity and flavor of this food was amazing.  This may be the advantage of dinner in a college town restaurant--they understand tight budgets and that works for family travel!  I would certainly return to Gumbo Ya Ya--probably will next year when we return to the area--it’s really that good. 

It’s Cajun.  The dishes are spicy--but, they were quick to offer sour cream and samples (which I think is wonderful--especially for those of us traveling with more sensitive diners!)  If it isn't spicy enough--add some of the homemade Gumbo Ya Ya hot sauce.  I don’t think our visit would have been as relaxed and “successful” without such a patient guy behind the counter! Even when the line was winding around outside, he kept the quality of service the same and kept making recommendations, offering samples and interacting with each diner individually.  If you are in the neighborhood and in the mood for Cajun--stop in.  I don’t think you can go wrong.

If you visit Gumbo Ya Ya:

GPS it--and keep your eyes open.   It’s a strip mall restaurant without a large “anchor” in the strip.  When we visited, there was a BW3’s near it and limited parking.  You need to keep an eye out for it or you will miss it!

Don’t be afraid to ask for samples.  Every dish at Gumbo Ya Ya was a little different--and often a little surprising.  Try it before you buy it--especially if you are only there for a quick visit or are traveling with diners who tend to be a little selective.

It’s family friendly.  Sure, Gumbo Ya Ya is surrounded by UK student housing--but, it’s also surrounded by Lexington, Kentucky, the convention center and residential neighborhoods.  There were lots of families dining at Gumbo Ya Ya during our visit--and the staff was extremely family friendly (and patient).  The atmosphere doesn't add a lot to the experience--it's a little small and there aren't a lot of tables--so grabbing takeout Gumbo Ya Ya may work just as well for some families.

Check out the menu online.  I am a fan of pre-planning when I travel with the girls.  If a sauce has alligator in it--I want to know that ahead of time. J Check out the Gumbo Ya Ya menu online--get a “game plan” in mind--and be prepared to relax and improvise (they did run out of a couple of dishes during our visit).

Gumbo Ya Ya on Urbanspoon

Disclosure:  We were not compensated for this review.  We found a restaurant that we like and wanted to share!  Enjoy!  

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