The three contestants in the weekly crawfish eating contest at Mardi Gras Grill on Durham sat side by side on a picnic table bench. On the left was Robert Barnett, a lanky kid wearing a canvas-colored Astros cap. On the other end of the bench was Richard McGregor, an athletic-looking lad from Glasgow, Scotland. My money was on the slightly balding and bespeckled man in the middle, Mike Moore, who prepared for the contest by rolling up the sleeves of his starched blue shirt. The waitress tied lobster bibs around their necks and set out ice water and plastic buckets for shells. Each man got a tray containing three pounds of crawfish hot out of the boiler. Then somebody hollered, "One, two, three, go!" And they ate mudbugs so fast their hands were just a blur.
Nobody clocked them, but Mike Moore and Robert Barnett both finished their trays in a couple of minutes and raised their hands in unison. After the waitress inspected their discarded shells looking for any unfinished tails, the contest was declared a tie. Both men got the first prize of a $25 gift certificate.
On my first visit to Mardi Gras, last weekend, I ate four pounds of crawfish --but not fast enough to win any prizes. They were the first crawfish I've had this year and they tasted wonderful. They weren't caked with mud, but they didn't smell like chlorine from overzealous purging, either.
I burned my fingers on the first few. They were cooked in a spicy boil and then dusted with peppery Cajun spice mix before they were served piping hot in the ceremonial beer trays. The pile of crawfish came with several boiled potatoes and chunks of corn on the cob which were lightly tossed in butter.
When I came back to watch the crawfish eating contest on Tuesday night, I admired the techniques of the participants. The crawfish are especially hard to eat right now because they are so damn small. Of course, complaining about the size of the crawfish is an annual spring ritual in Houston.
Ten years ago, we got a lot of big ones. But then the crawfish farmers discovered the foreign market. European buyers pay lobster prices for the largest crawfish, and so now the harvest is cherry-picked and the big ones are sent off to la-di-da restaurants in Europe. We eat what's left -- and we complain about it a lot. Of course, the crawfish are extra small in the early spring. We hope they will get larger as we get further into the season.
Like some kind of mudbug homing pigeon, I find my way back to this ramshackle building on Durham Drive by the railroad tracks every year around this time. When I first came here for crawfish, the restaurant was called Floyd's Cajun Shack. It was founded by Floyd Landry, the man who made Cajun food famous in Houston and then sold his name to Tilman Fertitta.
Floyd moved on and opened a restaurant in a boat-shaped building on I-45. ("Cajun Cocktail Queens," April 20, 2006.) He sold his interest in the Durham restaurant to his partners, who also own Big Woodrow's, and they changed the name to Mardi Gras Grill. But that's about the only thing that's different. The menu, the mudbugs, the picnic tables, the stout cocktails and the sure hand at the fry-o-lator are all exactly the same. Which is to say that regardless of the name change, this is still one fine Cajun shack.
On my second visit, I sat outside on the patio with four companions. We polished off a couple of pounds of crawfish while we figured out what to order. I asked for a half-and-half platter of fried shrimp and softshell crab with french fries and onion rings. The waiter brought me fried shrimp and fried stuffed shrimp instead. When I pointed out the error, he graciously told me to go ahead and eat the stuffed shrimp while he put in the order for the softshell crab.
A softshell is a crab that has molted its shell. It is cleaned in the kitchen so you can eat the whole thing. When mine came out, I passed it around the table and everybody ate a little piece of it. We were all blown away. The crab was extremely juicy and covered with a thick crust of spicy bread crumbs. It was so hot, you could barely pick it up, but so good you couldn't stop eating it.
One of my companions ordered the seafood gumbo, which was made with a nutty brown roux and lots of shrimp. It was a little bland when it arrived, but there is no shortage of hot sauces at Mardi Gras, so we doctored it up to our tastes.
I tried the restaurant's signature crab bisque on my first visit, and I was glad I ordered a cup rather than a bowl. It was terrific stuff, but it was so rich with crabmeat, butter and cream, I couldn't have eaten a whole bowl.
Another of my dinner companions, my brother Dave, got a stunning half-and-half poor boy with fried oysters and crawfish. The sandwich was huge, filled to overflowing with seafood and generously dressed with lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing. He added a healthy dose of Louisiana hot sauce. Dave is a big eater, and he couldn't finish it.
The bite of his sandwich that I sampled contained both crunchy fried crawfish and gooey oysters. The fried stuff was hot, the dressing was cold, the roll was crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and the whole thing mixed up perfectly in my mouth with every bite. It was one of the best poor boys I have eaten on this side of the Sabine.
I was a little disappointed with the shrimp. The crab-stuffed shrimp we sampled were bland. The stuffing inside tasted like a lot of bread and not much crab. The fried shrimp were butterflied (cut in half lengthwise) and then dipped in spices. The shrimp taste spicier this way, since there is more meat exposed to the spicy dip. But either they were fried a little too long, or they were a little too small, or both because they came out dry and overdone.
After watching the crawfish eating contest, I ordered a softshell crab poor boy at the bar. There wasn't a softshell poor boy on the menu, but the bartender took my order without blinking and charged me $10.95.
Since the poor boy and the softshell crab were the two best things I'd eaten at Mardi Gras Grill, I figured it was a stroke of genius to put them together. The sandwich was cut in half and in the middle it tasted awesome. But as you ate your way toward the ends, there were just the skinny legs and then the crab ran out before the bread did. So it wasn't such a great idea after all. I guess you could solve the problem by putting two crabs on the sandwich, but then you'd have a $22 poor boy.
While I was eating my sandwich, I noticed Mike Moore, one of the winners of the crawfish eating contest, sitting at a table nearby soaking his fingers in ice water. I walked over and asked him what happened. The crawfish for the contest were so hot that he had developed huge blisters on his right thumb and left forefinger from handling them.
When I suggested that this was a terrible mistake on the part of the restaurant, he disagreed. Crawfish slip out of their shells easier when they are hot, he explained. He could have dumped his ice water on them if he'd wanted to cool them off, but then they would have tightened up and he wouldn't have won the contest.
A $25 gift certificate seemed like paltry compensation for severely blistered fingers. But when I asked Mike Moore if he would do it again, he said he would be back next Tuesday. And he challenged me to join him.
I love the mudbugs, but I am not in Mike Moore's league.
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