Louisianans argue about crawfish the way Texans argue about barbecue—passionately. They squabble over whether crawfish from the Atchafalaya Basin east of Lafayette are better than those raised in ponds all over the region. They quarrel about how to peel the critters, which look like mini-lobsters but taste more like shrimp. They bicker over what seasonings, beyond ungodly amounts of salt and cayenne pepper, should be applied. They fight about when crawfish season begins and ends. They feud about whether the mudbugs should be boiled or steamed. Most of all, Louisianans argue about where to eat crawfish.
For the past ten years, I have been engaged in serious research. Regular eating excursions to Acadiana—as the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana is known, in honor of the area of Canada from which the original Cajuns were deported in the eighteenth century—have led me to compile a short list of seven notable outlets. But before you head east, there are several crawfish facts that will help you get the most out of the experience.
The first thing you need to know is that crawfish season is in full swing at present and will last through June, with the height coming right around Lent (which ends in mid-April this year). The best time to go is now; on the other hand, if you can’t make it, you won’t have to wait too long for the season to roll around again. The rise of the pond industry—which now accounts for about 60 percent of all crawfish consumed—has extended the season in the past twenty years from as few as four months to as many as eight, under optimum conditions. Crawfish farmers can flood their rice fields in October to raise crawfish, and their season runs from before Thanksgiving to as late as August. Fishermen working the Atchafalaya Basin start pulling up their traps around mid- to late December, after the first snows have melted up north and flowed down to Louisiana, raising the water level enough to get flat-bottomed boats into the basin. The season only lasts until the water warms up; after that, crawfish shells get hard and the meat becomes tough.
Specialty crawfish restaurants (“boiling points,” as they’re sometimes called) open up in late January or early February and close down around mid-June; more-diversified seafood houses will have enough peeled and frozen tails on hand to make crawfish-based dishes (such as the popular étouffée, smothered crawfish served over white rice) for the rest of the year. Though one of the biggest debates in Cajun country is over the merits of basin versus pond crawfish—some argue that basin crawfish are a little saltier and pond crawfish a little fattier—I’ve never been able to tell any difference, except that basin crawfish are a prettier, deeper red because their shells are buffed by the sand in the swamp.
If you’ve never eaten a crawfish before, you ought to know the fundamentals of getting at the tail meat (the only part that is consumed; the rest is thrown away). The traditional technique is to grip the crawfish’s head (this means the head and the body, in Cajun parlance) firmly in the left hand, its tail firmly in the right, and twist; when the tail comes off, you peel away the shell and pull out the meat with your teeth. Real Cajuns suck the tasty juices out of the head part too. About three years ago in Henderson—a town in the heart of the basin industry, on the western levee of the Atchafalaya—a Laotian working in one of the processing plants devised a better way. Using the same grip, he simply shoved the tail into the head and pulled it back out with a twist to the right. This caused the first two segments of the tail shell to remain attached to the head, giving the inventor and his fellow workers so much more exposed meat to grip that they could usually pull it free and avoid peeling off the shell. The process was much faster (an advantage to peelers because they get paid by the pound), and soon everybody around Henderson adopted the so-called Laotian method. “A Cajun would never have thought of this,” jokes me friend and crawfish expert Greg Guirard. Yet despite the Laotian method’s obvious advantages, nobody I spoke to outside of Henderson had even heard of it.
After you’ve been to Cajun country, you’ll have you own list of favorite restaurants, but my vote for Best Crawfish in Louisiana goes to Hawk’s Seafood (964 Hawk’s Road, Rayne, 318-788-3266). One of those boiling points that close early in June, Hawk’s is seven miles outside Rayne, and the adventure of getting there just adds to the mystique. Take the Rayne exit off Interstate 10 and go north about one-tenth of a mile to State Highway 98. Make a left and follow 98 for eight miles, twisting through rice and crawfish farmland until you see a hand-painted sign that says “Hawk’s Seafood,” with an arrow pointing toward gravel-topped Parish Road 2-7. Follow this deeply shaded road, which is dark in the daytime and pitch-black at night, for eight-tenths of a mile. There, on your left, is a tin-roofed cinder-block building with the word “Hawk’s” crudely painted in big white letters, outlined in red, on the side.
The trip is worth the effort. Luther “Hawk” Arceneaux buys the biggest pond crawfish in the area and then purges them for 24 hours in aerated, freshwater holding tanks; most places purge no more than 5 hours, if at all. The result is a mudbug with all the grit removed from the vein, and, I contend, a sweeter taste. Hawk boils his crawfish, a method that allows more precise control than does steaming, he claims. He puts only red pepper in the water—he says salt turns them tough—and then seasons them further after they’re cooked. His crawfish are as tender as they come and are offered three ways: mild (no seasoning), hot (cayenne-based seasoning), and extra hot (pickled jalapeños and juice added). For my taste, the hots are seasoned just right. All the versions are served, as at most places, in trays of three and a half pounds, which yields about half a pound of meat. Their price is $9.45, just under the going price of $9.95 a tray, served on tables covered with newspaper that you throw your shells on. Boiled corn and potatoes come alongside. Open Wednesday through Sunday 5-10 (like most boiling points, Hawk’s does not serve lunch).
The Most Intriguingly Seasoned Crawfish can be found at D.I.’s Cajun Restaurant (6533 State Highway 97, Basile, 432-5141), a place that, like Hawk’s, is situated on the Cajun plains north of I-10 and west of the Atchafalaya. Again, like Hawk’s, D.I.’s is found more easily by its sign than by its address. To get there, take exit 65 from I-10 and go north toward Basile on State Highway 97 for twelve miles. D.I.’s is a classic boiling point, with a linoleum floor, crawfish posters on the walls, and baskets of crackers and butter on the tables (these accompaniments help quench the fire of the abundant cayenne pepper). Owner Daniel Fruge’s crawfish come either medium or hot, but his seasoning is what makes his crawfish special. In addition to salt and pepper, the blend contains some aromatic and flavorful combinations of anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and either allspice or cloves, maybe both. After several visits I still can’t identify the mix, and Daniel ain’t telling. Even his wife, Sherry, doesn’t know. As she says, laughing, “If he passes away, I’m in trouble.” Open Tuesday through Saturday 5-11.
D.I.’s crawfish can be plenty hot, but the Most Satisfying Burn can be had at the Guiding Star Restaurant (4404 U.S. 90 West, New Iberia, 365-9113), a no-frills cinder-block place with sinks in the dining area to wash your hands. Let me say that I am a heat freak. I appreciate complex seasoning as much as the next man, but only if it includes plenty of fire. The water in which Guiding Star boils its crawfish contains mainly the pulp of peppers that have been ground up to make Tabasco sauce by the McIlhenny Company a few miles down the road. That is hot, but it’s also rich. My only caveat about Guiding Star is that it can be inconsistent. On two of the three visits, I have gotten meat that was tough and that stuck to the shell, a sure sign of overcooking. This made the critters so difficult to peel that many went cold before I got to them. But for that burn, I’d forgive almost anything. Open daily 3-10.
The Guiding Star’s seasoning many be hot, but the Fieriest Crawfish can be found at the Jungle Dinner Club (W. Main, Ville Platte, 363-9103), which is where I met my Waterloo. A onetime nightclub converted to a full-menu restaurant, the Jungle Clubs offers mild, hot, and super hot. Smugly, I ordered the latter, despite an amused smirk from the waitress. Maybe a dozen crawfish into the tray, my eyes started watering, my nose began to run, and my tongue and lips burned and burned and burned. I gave up and placed a rush order for ice cream, all the while gazing longingly at the blackboard listing crawfish bread (homemade bread stuffed with étouffée and cheese). Aside from red pepper, the dominant flavor in the Jungle Club’s super-hot seasoning is vinegar, and way too much of it. Later, co-owner Wendell Manuel told me that if I had consumed a full tray of extra super hot, which you order off-menu, I would have earned an honorary Registered Cajun certificate. (Who would have mopped me off the floor and taken me back to my motel, he didn’t explain.) Open daily 5:30-11.
For the less adventurous, two more establishments, both of which use basin crawfish as much as possible, merit commendation. Crawfish Town U.S.A. (2815 Grandpoint Highway, Breaux Bridge, 667-6148) is the Best Tourist Restaurant. I was ready to dislike this place, a huge barn filled with bare tables just off I-10 at exit 115, because billboards along the interstate had been advertising “the biggest crawfish in the world” for miles, and I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding any place that promises the world’s biggest anything. But Crawfish Town makes good on its claim, boils ’em tender to boot, and even the “x-hot” is manageable for most taste buds. Open Tuesday through Thursday 11-9, Friday and Saturday 11-10.
Gator Cove (2601 Southeast Evangeline Thruway, Lafayette, 264-1263) is the Best Family Crawfish Restaurant. According to manager Zee Azizi, it’s the only restaurant in Lafayette proper set up specifically for crawfish, with a cooking room and equipment separate from the rest of the kitchen. The cooks also use the increasingly popular method of first steaming the crawfish briefly, using just a little water, and then draining and putting them in an airtight hopper, where they are seasoned to order and allowed to finish steaming in their own moisture. (Advocates claim, wouldn’t you know, that this allows closer control over the cooking process.) Gator Cove, which is a couple of large rooms with red-and-white-checked tablecloths, a lunchtime barbecue joint up front, and an alligator farm out back, does indeed turn out large, perfectly cooked crawfish and serves them a pleasant medium-hot unless otherwise requested. Open Sunday through Thursday 4-10, Friday and Saturday 4-10:30.
Finally, Robin’s Restaurant (1409 Henderson Highway, Henderson, 228-7594) is the Best Restaurant When You’re Tired of Boiled Crawfish. Like many full-menu eateries in the area, Robin’s, which has carpeting and actual tablecloths, prepares crawfish in many ways, including a platter containing a little of everything. Lionel Robin’s Crawfish Dinner comes with a garden salad, followed by a bisque (a thick soup adorned with a crawfish head stuffed with ground crawfish), crawfish cocktail, fried crawfish, crawfish-stuffed bell pepper, boulette (ground crawfish rolled in a ball and fried), étouffée (with more crawfish than any other restaurant in Acadiana), and crawfish pie (like a little pastry pirogue). For $13.95, that’s a deal. Open daily 9-10.