Yes, it is way too early to expect to be dazzled by the bugs I will find, but the season is legitimately upon us now that December is here, so I find that I can no longer resist the urge to see what's in store this year.
As I wrote here last season, I have three favorite places for crawfish - Ragin Cajun, Mardi Gras and Cajun Corner. Each spot holds a different lure for me when it comes to getting bugs. Mandola's spot has the biggest bugs, Mardi Gras uses a heavy dry spice and Cajun Corner has a simply unbeatable and incomparable flavor.
So this weekend, when I started to get the itch, I placed a few calls to see if I could get it scratched.
First I called Mandola's Ragin Cajun. I know that Mandola waits for good bugs to come in season before they start boiling. If Ragin Cajun has crawfish in house, then the bugs at other places are bound to be decent as well. But I also realize that being really early in the season, I am not gonna get big dads no matter where I go, so I figured I'd go for the flavor and head out west to Little Asia on the West Side. Cajun Corner on Bellaire at Belle Park is the destination.
After one last call just to be sure they were selling live crawfish, it was time to head out. Living in the Heights, Cajun Corner is about 17 miles west of the house so a confirmation phone call is always part of the preliminary protocol. (I've made the drive only to be disappointed more than once.)
The little restaurant is an odd incarnation. Imagine the decor of a taqueria with a menu that is a strange marriage of Cajun and Vietnamese cuisines. The clientele is also quite eclectic, drawing from all over the West Side, which makes for great people watching.
My family and I have been going to the Cajun Corner for quite a while. One of my wife's colleagues turned her onto the place a few years ago when they went for lunch. A strange choice for a professional lunch, I thought, but my wife was so impressed with the Dungeness crabs, she soon had me there for dinner. I, too, was hooked. The flavors in the seafood boil are intense and wonderful. A garlicky, citrusy and salty concoction that is decidedly Asian but would make any Cajun proud.
My wife and I were happy to make the trip last weekend and delighted to get our first fix of the 2009-2010 Crawfish Season. We slurped our way crazily through ten pounds and walked away feeling the salt coursing through our veins, with lips blazing and with eyes and noses running.
The bugs were small, but the flavors did not disappoint. Worth the drive.
That being said, there are a few observations to be shared before you decide to make a trek.
The spot has changed ownership over the last few years with some good and some bad effects. The restaurant has become somewhat cleaner and a bit more presentable in terms of its appearance. New flat screens are up, and the restrooms are more tolerable. The staff is also more tuned into the service they are providing, which is a nice change from the days when service was a total afterthought.
But the menu has suffered some. Boiled crawfish, shrimp and blue crab are among the best in the city and still draw folks from miles around, but the delicious Dungeness crabs and live lobsters that are no longer served are sorely missed and do affect the magnetism of this little eatery. (The tanks in which they used to lurk like death-row inmates are replaced by a coffee and beignet bar that seems to be unused.) Too bad to give up on what many considered to be their very best offering and what, in fact, first drew us to the place.
The rest of the menu is far less than stellar. From the gumbo to the fried rice, order at your own risk.
Also, I noticed, this year, a new auto-gratuity added to every check. Even parties of two. Having been in the service business for a lifetime, I can think of several legitimate reasons why management decided to implement this policy. And I will say that our server was worth the presumptuous 20%, but I was a bit surprised that it was unannounced. And I was more surprised that I was not given an itemized bill showing the gratuity until I, confused by the total, asked to see one. I felt a bit duped. Not so good.
But when all was said and done and my first seasonal yearnings had been sated, I was happy. After 25 or more visits over the past few years, I give Cajun Corner a solid recommendation. Just expect the unexpected and remember, it's all about the flavors.