Atlanta Food Tour: Boiled crawfish

Here’s the truth: If you want the absolute best boiled crawfish to be had this spring, you need to get in your car and drive to Louisiana. When you get there, try to find someone nice with a big boiling pot in the backyard. They’ll probably treat you well.

If you stay in Atlanta, you still have some pretty good options. The stretch of strip mall-lined highway between Doraville and Duluth boasts a variety of locations where boiled mud critters are the main attraction. I settled on evaluating four. Boudreaux’s Cafe Acadiana in Duluth and Crawfish Shack in Doraville are old enough to be local favorites. Boiling Crawfish and the Bayou Boil, both of which have opened in the past year, are the newcomers.

I was born in Baton Rouge, La., which is to say I have opinions about crawfish, though they are not as strong as some. When I mentioned to a relative in Louisiana that I’d be writing about boiled crawfish in Atlanta, he responded, “Oh, they do that there?” with the same condescending tone that a professional athlete might say, “Oh, they let children play, too?” I’m not such a snob.

Yet, my Louisiana heritage obligates me to explain that there are several rules to be observed when eating boiled crawfish.

First, they’re to be consumed in the spring to early summer, roughly from Easter to late June, when warm weather and rain push the crawfish population up and prices down.

Second, they’re best served outside in good weather, while standing up. Eating them sitting down at a restaurant is simply too formal. When you order them to-go from a restaurant, it helps to bring a cooler to keep them steaming hot until you get home.

Third, you need ample amounts of cold, refreshing beverages. Don’t be fussy about it. The flavors of that craft beer and fine wine are going to be mostly obscured by boiled crawfish spice. Miller Lite, preferably kept on ice, will do just fine.

Fourth, you’re gonna need a lot of crawfish and even more time. Estimate a minimum two pounds per person. Three is better. It can take hours, especially in novice hands, to peel all of those bugs. Don’t give up until you’re full.

I’ll stop there with the rules. If it sounds like I’m being too didactic about all of this, let me assure you that I’ve left off at least 35 commandments about how to eat boiled crawfish, which all of my relatives from Louisiana will call me to remind me of as soon as this is published.

To evaluate the relative merits of these boiled crawfish options, I decided to adopt a similar rule-based rigor. I purchased about 10 pounds of boiled crawfish to-go from each location. If given the option of seasoning, I simply asked for their standard Cajun spice. If given the option of heat level, I asked for the middle one. I ferried the crawfish in a thick, 100-quart cooler to my backyard, where a small crowd of hungry crawfish experts and novices was waiting to evaluate them.

I presented each order of crawfish in trays labeled with a number and no name, so that the tasting and evaluating would be truly blind. Only I knew where each had come from. During the course of the evening, I asked each attendee for their ranking and opinions of the crawfish served. It was a highly scientific process, aside from the two cases of Miller Lite that were consumed.

At the outset, I assumed that we would see a clear winner. One tray, I thought, would be finished off far earlier than the rest, and that would be it — the best boiled crawfish.

Nothing like that happened. The trays grew empty at a roughly similar pace and opinions were all over the place. One person’s least favorite was another’s winner and vice-versa. It all came down to a matter of taste.

The clear winner for heat and spice was Crawfish Shack. Its crawfish were on the smaller side, but moist and deeply flavored. Anyone who sucked the heads of these got a clear, juicy shot of crawfish and cayenne. For some, that was too much, but for folks like myself, who crave a nasal-clearing jolt of heat, these were an addictive option.

On the other hand, Boiling Crawfish served by far the meatiest bugs. On the table, they were visibly much larger and darker than any other crawfish in the selection. That meat, though, I found to be woefully underseasoned, heavy on garlic but light on salt and heat. Yet, there were a few at the party who liked these the best. Their reason was simple: “You get more meat for your money with these.”

Some of the crawfish aficionados present (by which I mean people from Louisiana) honed in on the crawfish from Boudreaux’s Cafe Acadiana. These were not spicy, but they weren’t bland, either. Several folks noted they had the clearest, most unencumbered flavor of crawfish; they seemed particularly fresh. As it turns out, while all the locations surveyed here made some claim to the freshness or origin of their crawfish, Boudreaux’s makes the strongest: “Crawfish are purchased in Louisiana each Thursday and are available for pickup beginning each Friday.” Friday, in fact, happened to be the day of our evaluation.

However, for the Goldilocks tasters of the bunch, it was crawfish from a newcomer, the Bayou Boil, that came to be a favorite. These were neither too spicy nor too bland. The crawfish were neither too big nor too small. They had a rounded out flavor that many said was “just right.”

There are more tips I could share — don’t forget the red potatoes and corn, get a roll of paper towels and plenty of trashcans for the shells, peel your leftovers for etouffee — but the most important one is to forget the rules. Eat what you like.

The best boiled crawfish might just be a matter of taste. Just don’t tell my folks in Louisiana that.


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