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Crawfish Tales

A woman I know claims to be a true expert in all that's proper and good with crawfish done right. And according to her, Itz All Good on Cullen Boulevard can give the best mudbug palaces in Houston a run for their money.

Having eaten there a few times myself now, I concur -- both in her self-anointed expertise and in her judgment of the sprightly little Creole joint. Take the issue of taste, for example. Everyone knows that without the right seasonings, a kettle of crawfish would just be a mess of boiled lobster-wannabes too small and labor-intensive to bother with. But jolt the cooking process with the proper blend of cayenne-based flavorings, throw in a basketful of new potatoes still in their jackets and corn still on its cob, and that same pile of boring crustaceans becomes a sumptuous, if messy, spread, suitable for a princess. What makes the seasonings used by Itz All Good so right on? First is the lip-searing heat factor, something as necessary to the crawfish experience as salsa is to a breakfast taco. But underlying the burn of the gritty, orange spices coating each red packet of meat is enchanting flavor, something salty but not too salty, the sort of flavor that helped formulate such cliches as "lip-smacking" and "finger-licking."

And then there's the surprise of an occasional wave of clovey undertone. I don't know if Itz All Good actually uses cloves in their seasoning, or if it's the result of some fortuitous chemistry between crawfish flesh, the right water temperature and some other spice, but it's there, and it's an agreeably intriguing discovery.

The only thing about the bugs at Itz All Good that didn't impress my crawfish expert was the fact that they weren't right-off-the-burner hot. We both decided, however, that we could live with that. This small restaurant-in-a-trailer simply isn't big enough to keep a number of pots of crawfish boiling continuously, and sometimes the efficiencies that come with largeness are worth trading for other inducements.

Extremely personalized service is one such inducement. There aren't many Cajun food shrines around in which you'll find the owner making several hurried trips out the kitchen door to your table -- a picnic table shielded from the elements only by a metal awning -- with the myriad components of your meal balanced on each hand or tucked precariously under her chin. A meal at Itz All Good becomes a multicourse repast not by any grand design or because of any pretensions to fanciness, but just because that's how the food happens to come off the stove.

Such hominess does mean that diners at times are required to show a little bit of patience. A roll of paper towels to wipe up with during our crawfish feast came as an afterthought one day, and on that same visit I never did get a fork. I had to eat my meal -- gumbo, ribs, dirty rice, baked beans and cake -- with a plastic spoon. Whenever, that is, my fingers weren't the best tools for the job. But this is a family kind of place, and at home, if it's not sitting on the table, you're expected to get up yourself and go get it, right? And where else would you have handed to you, not some finger bowl filled with scented water to clean your hands and chin of crawfish remains, but a wet kitchen towel -- still twisted from being wrung out -- for the table to share?

There is something rather familial in the ministrations dispensed by Barbara Jackson, co-owner of Itz All Good with her husband Chris, a reflection, perhaps, of the place's familial history. It was Barbara's cooking hobby that inspired her and her husband -- and both their sets of parents, who pitched in with the opening and still help out -- to start a restaurant after Chris had gotten laid off from the courier business one too many times. And certain products of that cooking hobby are what will persuade visitors to come back even when crawfish season is over.

The homemade boudin, for example. A thick, membraney tube that's an interesting shade of yellow-brown, it's densely packed with flecks of fresh, green seasonings, lots of rice and spicy meat. My only complaint? That there isn't something more substantial than flimsy plastic utensils to tackle this baby with.

As good as the conventional boudin is, an even better treat is the boudin balls: golf ball-sized rounds of the boudin stuffing sans tubing, coated in a seasoned flour, then deep-fried. They come out steaming hot and crumbly and manage not to be greasy. Another winner is the shrimp creole, with its zesty tomato base -- thick, but not goopy -- and still-crisp vegetables. It's generously filled with shrimp and homemade sausage balls.

Other dishes are good, too. A dessert that's not to be missed is the apple pie (if you're lucky enough to go when it's offered; the desserts vary every day). The filling, with its chubby fruit slices suspended in a sticky glaze, is yummy, but the real surprise is the crust: crumbly rather than flaky so that it has the consistency of shortbread. Too-mild crawfish etouffee may not have you clamoring for a return visit, but a shot of Tabasco helps, and it is hot and creamy with a mustard bite. Creole spare ribs are messily chewy with a tantalizing, lick-it-off-your-fingers sauce. The accompanying baked beans are nondescript, but the other side dish of dirty rice is richly grainy and gummy. The Creole fried chicken wings are coated in a marvelous spicy batter -- cayenne-based, of course -- and are meatier than expected.

There are a few disappointments. The red beans and sausage need more kick -- they were better the second time I sampled them -- and the "dirty water"-style gumbo is mostly chicken and sausage in a brown base and lack the raw edge that gumbo file provides. Bobbie's Goulash is a lot like the dirty water gumbo: a mess of bone-in chicken and spicy, grainy sausage balls with an occasional crawfish tail making itself apparent. Kind of boring. Kind of like a meatier, more soulful version of chicken soup. The corn bread muffins, so necessary for mopping up drips of gumbo or red beans and rice, are too dry. Then there is a peach cobbler, which has an alarming amount of butter floating across its top and which left a glaze of oil on my lips. It tastes okay in rather a self-indulgent way, but its crust misses the crispness that's so essential to offset the baser pleasure of bites of gooey filling.

Oh, well. The near-perfect boiled crawfish and the handful of other model dishes still qualify Itz All Good as a find. Incidentally, the crawfish are served on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only. On one of those days, you owe it to yourself to swing around the South Loop to Cullen, go north about six blocks and stop when you see a brightly decorated wooden fence flanking the north end of a parking lot that's shared with the Nation of Islam temple. But hurry. Crawfish season only lasts about six more weeks.

Itz All Good, 6728 Cullen Boulevard, 747-4663.

Itz All Good:
boiled crawfish, $3.99 per pound; crawfish etouffee, $3.99 (small), $5.99 (large); boudin balls, two for $1.


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