Crazy for Crawfish

These crawfish are boiled in well-seasoned water.
Troy Fields

It's like clockwork: Every year when crawfish season comes around, Houston loses its damn mind.

We spring from our homes like crazed cuckoos in search of the best per-pound deals on mudbugs all around town. We text our friends or post Facebook updates when we find those increasingly elusive $5.99-a-pound crawfish at local bars or holes-in-the-wall. The red-and-white tails start to make cameo appearances in our other favorite foods: in enchiladas at Cyclone Anaya's, for example, or in pho at LA Crawfish.

We queue up and wait patiently for two hours at The Boiling Crab or Crawfish & Noodles, our characteristic impatience placated temporarily by the promise of crawfish to come. We sign up to attend charity events that we would otherwise ignore, solely because they're offering all-you-can-eat crawfish with the price of admission. We turn into sweat-and-cayenne-streaked cretins, our cuticles inflamed, our lips blistered and our shirts covered in crawfish shrapnel that we wear like war medals.

It's a glorious, messy madness that I wouldn't trade for all the clambakes or lobster rolls in the world. Because although crawfish are a decidedly Louisianan seafood, Houstonians have embraced the crustaceans as though they were our very own.

At The Seafood Shoppe one recent Saturday afternoon, Houstonians of every stripe were busy breaking off tails and sucking heads. Hispanic drag queens sat at one table, an older, patrician couple at another. Yuppies filled up a section of tables in what appeared to be a joint baby shower/crawfish-eating spree. Young black girls listened to their iPods with headphones while they ate. A couple of Vietnamese men drank beers at the bar while they waited for their bugs to boil.

And I was nearly face-down in a stainless-steel bowl that had — until very recently — held two pounds of The Seafood Shoppe's boiled crawfish. The crawfish were all gone, torn through in only 30 short minutes. But they were some of the best I'd had all season.

During crawfish season — which runs roughly from Mardi Gras until summer starts getting unbearable around mid-June — The Seafood Shoppe offers extended hours. It's a very smart move, and could be one of the reasons that the restaurant is rarely overcrowded.

"This is our secret spot," I overheard one of the yuppie baby shower attendees say to her friends about the restaurant, which resembles a hybrid Vietnamese-Texan sports bar, complete with large flat-screen TVs and Budweiser merchandise lining the walls. "It's a diamond in the rough!"

And a diamond it is: I've yet to have a bad batch of crawfish at The Seafood Shoppe, where all of the crawfish have been of a respectable size on the small end and the size of an adolescent lobster on the large end. They're boiled correctly here, too. That is to say, the crawfish are boiled in well-seasoned water — not boiled independently in a large pot of plain water with seasonings dumped on top before serving.

Sadly, you have to order the crawfish platter if you want corn and potatoes; order by the pound, and you won't get these traditional accoutrements. You can get deep-fried corn on the cob on the side, but I wouldn't. The breading ruins the corn. And they're $7.50 a pound right now — with a two-pound minimum order enforced — which is a bit on the expensive side for crawfish. But they're worth it because they're consistently large and well-seasoned.

That's the main complaint I've heard among my Cajun friends about the rise of the Vietnamese crawfish joints in Houston: improper seasoning methods. But The Seafood Shoppe — which is Vietnamese-owned and also serves distinctly Cajun food like jambalaya and gumbo — is doing it right, with a "dirty" boil of garlic, butter, lemon and heavy handfuls of cayenne pepper, which can be adjusted to suit your spice tolerance levels.

I'm a fan of the regular "spicy" level at The Seafood Shoppe, although I hear far more people ordering mild around me when I'm there. If you're a spicehound, though, rest assured that it can get hotter: just ask for "extra spicy," and for God's sake don't touch your eyes for a few hours after eating.

You'll be a disaster after eating, naturally, but at least your shirt can be salvaged (if you want it to be): The kind waitresses here will tie a plastic bib around your neck, moving your hair out of the way as if you were in a salon, whether you ask them to or not. Just let them.

Because if you're eating crawfish properly, there's really no way that at least a few drops of the boil won't be splattered on you from forehead to navel: Break the hard shell open, remove the carapace and get at that soft, orange, uni-like brain matter in the crawfish's tiny head. Suck it all up — every last jiggling, briny bite of it — and then move on to the tail. The meat there is juicy, sweet, plump and abundantly spicy.

I'm not sure if The Seafood Shoppe uses that same tail meat in its fried crawfish dishes, but they're simply not as good. In fact, I haven't been a huge fan of any of the fried seafood I've tried here: From crab claws to alligator, from calamari to shrimp, almost all of it is overcooked, and the alligator especially is quite tough.

The astutely named Rich Man's Platter comes with fried oysters, crawfish and alligator, but only the fried oysters on the overpriced plate are any good. Interestingly, the seafood and fish that The Seafood Shoppe sells at its adjoining market — a very tiny space that's open during the week — is of a higher quality.

The menu also encourages you to try its "crawfish sauce" with any entrée or appetizer; I will encourage you not to. The crawfish sauce appears to be the boil the crawfish were cooked in, with extra butter added. It's a salt bomb of the highest grade, a nuclear blast of saline that obliterates the taste of anything you put it on. Stick with the tartar sauce or the sweetly spicy cocktail sauce, and you'll be much happier.

The rest of the menu at The Seafood Shoppe, in fact, doesn't do much for me either. Jambalaya is woefully underseasoned (maybe a dash of that crawfish sauce while cooking would liven it up) despite the presence of some thick, peppery coins of andouille sausage. Shrimp étouffée is bland and oddly goopy, as if it had been thickened with cornstarch. The equally bland white rice underneath does nothing to jazz it up. French fries are mostly mushy, but at least The Seafood Shoppe livens them up with a sprinkle of Tony Chachere's while they're still hot.

But those crawfish...The crawfish alone are enough of a draw for The Seafood Shoppe to do a brisk business — even out of season — and one of the main reasons to go.

The other reason is simple: No lines; no two-hour waits. Just buckets of beer and bowls of crawfish and plenty of spots in which to enjoy them both. It's one of the best ways to spend a spring afternoon in Houston.

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