The hefty, hot Dungeness crab arrived bathed in the orange-red “Sweetwater Sauce,” a mixture of melted butter, Cajun seasoning mix, orange juice and lemon juice. The presentation was utilitarian, not fancy — crabs and sauce nestled in a clear plastic bag lining a steel bowl. Crab crackers sat alongside, ready to lend assistance to the imminent visceral feast. The big crustacean had simply been cut into quarters. No frills given; none needed. After the contents of the bag were emptied onto individual plates, the air filled with the scent of cayenne and the sound of crab shell being broken and tossed into the metal bowl. Hands became red with sauce. Tender, pinkish-white meat was carefully extracted from every joint and the bowl filled higher with discarded shell.
For many Houstonians, this is not an unusual kind of meal. It is part of the culture — the joie de vivre of living in one of the world’s most diverse cities. What is unusual, though, is that this experience is found in Sugar Land, just behind First Colony Mall. No trek to one of the many fine Viet-Cajun establishments on Bellaire or Beechnut is needed.
That Dungeness crab was on special for $24.99 — a sweet deal considering it’s normally $35.99. It was also a much better choice than the heads-on shrimp ($12.99) in the same sauce, tried on a subsequent visit. They were big and fresh, but the sand veins had not been purged or extracted, leaving diners to discover and remove the sticky black strings at the table — an unappetizing task. Other boiled seafood offerings include blue crab, snow crab, lobster and, of course, crawfish.
The Sweetwater Sauce is quite good, but beware — it comes in mild, medium, hot and extra hot, and they’re not kidding around with those heat levels. “Hot” will indeed send all but the most steel-tongued into a sweat. For those not looking for that kind of adventure, “Medium” allows the orange and lemon to shine through, and is quite pleasant.
Another one of the messy pleasures here is the bowlful of green-onion-studded stock that holds two big, stewed turkey necks. Throw caution to the wind, since any initial attempt to eat neatly is futile. No matter. Once the first dark strip of meat is consumed, surrender comes quickly. Forks and hands alike will need to be employed to pull off the tender goodness, and it is well worth the effort. Don’t ignore the hearty broth. Its coppery, saline richness should be spooned up, too.
Obviously, this is not a dressy place. Wear no valuable clothing. T-shirts and jeans are just fine. Otherwise, plastic bibs are available upon request. In fact, pretty much everything at Sweetwater Seafood has to be requested at the counter or is self-service, including napkins, silverware, sodas and tea.
The place looks rather like a sports bar from the outside, especially at night when the television behind the counter lights up the front with whatever game happens to be playing. Order at the counter and food will be brought to the table. Plates and to-go containers can be requested. Despite all that, the servers and counter staff are personable, helpful, quick to fulfill requests and might even pack up the leftovers for you.
Unlike at a sports bar, there’s no beer because Sweetwater hasn’t yet obtained a liquor license. Right now it’s BYOB, and yes, a beer on the lighter side, like a lager or a hefeweizen, would work perfectly with the food.
Not in the mood to get messy? No problem. With the exception of tough shrimp that hung out too long in the fryer, there are really great fried seafood options. The St. Charles Oysters are quite worthy appetizers — fried oysters served on half-shells with gleaming white interiors. Atop is a smattering of garlic, parsley and grated Parmesan. A bit of melted butter is drizzled over the top and creates a tiny pool in the bottom of the shell. The Parmesan looks like the powdered stuff from the green can, but that’s forgivable. The oysters are so soft, clean and pleasing on the inside and crunchy on the outside that the quality of the cheese garnish can be overlooked.
The fried seafood platter is quite fine, too (except for the aforementioned shrimp). Choose from oysters (unless you’ve indulged in the St. Charles Oysters), catfish fillets or crawfish tails. Skip the tartar sauce. It’s too sweet and tastes as if it came out of a squeeze bottle. The horseradish-spiked tomato-based cocktail sauce is the better option.
The catfish fillets are light and fresh in a crispy, seasoned batter with just the right touch of salt. There’s not a whit of that muddy gaminess that makes people avoid catfish. They’re just about inhalable. Equally great are the battered crawfish tails and the bed of wispy onion strings in the bottom of the basket. There’s also a pile of Cajun-seasoned fries that have a bit of heat but need more salt to bring them to life.
There are a few other items to avoid here. The gumbo is more of a dark, greenish-brown okra stew. It doesn’t look unappealing, but the flavor is very flat. There’s no heat, no pop of seasoning and no other real substance. According to the menu, it contains “shrimp, chicken, sausage and rice.” In a cupful, only two of those items were present: a pair of thin, paltry slices of andouille and a spoonful of white rice. After we asked about the shrimp, one of the servers said Sweetwater doesn’t use seafood in its gumbo. So why is shrimp listed on the menu as an ingredient? As far as the chicken goes — well, maybe the restaurant is counting the chicken stock. Save the gumbo hankerings for elsewhere.
Ditto for the promising-sounding boudin eggrolls, made with garden-variety wrappers of the kind found in any grocery-store freezer and scant amounts of boudin that had an oddly sweet flavor.
Regardless of the few disappointments here, the tab will make anyone come out feeling like a winner. Indulgences like Dungeness crab aside, prices are modest, and quite the feast can be had for less than $30 for two people. The trio seafood platter is only $14.99, and there’s a wealth of food in the basket it comes in — three catfish filets, a handful of crawfish tails, a pile of onion strings, Cajun fries and another small handful of fried shrimp.
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By the way, it didn’t even occur to us that Sweetwater would be closed on a Tuesday, so the first trip was met with disappointment. It also closes fairly early — at 9 p.m. — most days of the week.
Sweetwater Seafood is not for those fancy celebration dinners. It’s for fun people who are ready to let their hair down, get messy and eat good, unpretentious seafood. A white tablecloth and an assigned server just aren’t needed. Until the restaurant gets its liquor license, though, don’t forget to bring the beer.
16525 Lexington, Suite 160, Sugar Land, 832?999?4339. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Cajun fries $3.99
Boudin eggrolls $4.99
Cajun turkey necks $6.99
St. Charles Oysters $9.99
Heads-on boiled shrimp $12.99
Trio fried seafood platter $14.99
Dungeness crab $24.99 (regularly $35.99)