Living Ind

It's the Crawfish, Stupid

by Mary Tutwiler

Crawfishermen predict a short season this year, so get ‘em while they’re hot.

Photo by Robin May

While Easter is revered as the most holy week in the Catholic calendar all over the world, here in Cajun country it has a dual significance. Easter signals rebirth, the return of warmth and sunshine. What that means is temperatures rise in ponds in the countryside and itty bitty mudbugs rapidly grow into big fat crawfish. Reason to rejoice!

According to pond fishermen, cold conditions this spring led to a slow start to crawfish season, and they are predicting that by May, it might be hard to find good quality crawfish for the traditional Memorial Day crawfish boil. Even if that forecast is hard to swallow, the planets have aligned to put peak crawfish on tables right now.

Here at the Ind, we’ve been doing an unscientific survey of crawfish restaurants in the area, and like most conversations that center on food, it’s rare that everybody agrees on where to get the best of anything, be it boudin, gumbo or boiled crawfish. Me, I’ve lived in New Iberia for years, and I can’t even decide among the handful of boiling places there. But for the most part, eating boiled crawfish seems to involve a road trip, a hungry excuse to get out into the beautiful bright green countryside while our too-brief spring is upon us.

As spoiled as I am to great crawfish everywhere, (I had some killer mudbugs that I picked up from a gas station), my latest jaunt to a boiling joint I’ve heard about for years lived up to the tails. Eating buddies kept telling me about this great little place in Abbeville. The restaurant was so small that the owners accommodated the overflow crowd by setting up some stumps for impromptu outdoor seating; bootleg beer was de regieur, and so was the two-hour wait.

You’ve probably identified the place yourself by now, it’s Cajun Claws on Charity Street. The stump/bar is history. Owners Jodi and Donni Choate added on a small bar, and you can order the regular zodiac of fried seafood to munch on while you wait, if you can get a table (I think there are two).

Another one of my foodie friends offered this strategy about handling the wait: Go to Cajun Claws, put your name and cell phone on the list. Ask that the hostess call you when you are next to be seated. Meanwhile, head over to the bar at Black’s, order a dozen oysters on the half shell and an Abita on draft, and keep your ear cocked for the phone.

“Why bother?” I kept asking my friends.

“It’s the crawfish, stupid.”

What makes the crawfish at Cajun Claws so good is a combination of connections and technique. Donni Choate was a crawfish broker for 25 years, culling out the big boys, called “select,” for some of his best restaurant customers. It finally dawned on him that he could keep the select crawfish for himself and offer diners the best and biggest bugs in Acadiana.

Choate purges his crawfish for 24 hours, a technique pioneered by “Hawk” Arceneaux at another crawfish destination, Hawk’s, in Robert’s Cove. That step sets Cajun Claws apart from most of the boiling patios. The crawfish are so clean they look like they’ve been scrubbed with a toothbrush, and the purging process cleanses away any muddy taste. Cajun Claws crawfish taste distinctly sweet.

Finally, Choate boils his crawfish in unsalted water. He says that keeps the shells from sticking to the tail meat, making for easy peeling. The seasoning comes in the second pot, where a mechanical pulley system lifts the full boiling basket and splashes it down into hot seasoned water. About 15 minutes of soaking imbue the crawfish with old-fashioned boiled-in flavor. If you order spicy, you get an extra dose of house-mixed seasoning, sprinkled right onto your order. After that, appreciate the ride home through the starry night, trailing your tingling fingers out the window in the cool evening air.