Cajuns and Cantonese may not seem like culinary kissing cousins, but both of these cultures know that crawfish, shrimp, crab and clams cooked and served in the shell have superior succulence and flavor. The fare at Craw Station, an Asian/Cajun house of boiled and fried seafood, proves it.
The drippy, messy, finger burning ordeal of extracting the tail meat from a pound of crawfish in spicy Cajun boiling liquid is more fun than you might think. By necessity, you spend a long time shelling, dunking, wiping and talking, a shared experience.The precious morsels, extracted one by one, feel like prizes and the pace of the meal allows your stomach to catch up with your appetite. You can’t help but feel close to your fellow eaters since everyone is literally immersed in the fiery dinner together.
Craw Station provides a cozy setting for this kind of congenial eating. A handful of square and round tables covered with thick waxed butcher paper fill a small front room which has a small beer and wine bar and a couple of flat screens. In the back, a glassed in patio/courtyard has larger tables for bigger groups. Rolls of paper towels and metal shell buckets stand at the ready at each table.
Start with cleanly fried seafood in a crunchy, spicy batter. Catfish fingers ($9.99) are particularly tasty with sweet, tender flesh. Fried oysters ($8.99 for 6) get such a quick hot fry that their brine is captured inside a craggy, nubbly coating–a sensation. Calamari ($8.99), can be perfect or a touch chewy. It only takes an extra second to overcook them.
Roll up your sleeves and tie on your plastic bib for the boiled stuff. I like the house cajun boil for crawfish ($11.15/lb.) At medium hot, it packs plenty of heat to season the dripping little tails as you twist them out of the shell. The cajun boil also works on fresh gulf shrimp ($11.99/lb.), thin shelled, plump and much easier to peel. Lemon pepper seasoning is nice with manila clams ($9.99/lb.), which release their own juices into the mix. For a whole, local Dungeness crab, ($29), I prefer “simply boiled,” because its meat, when properly cooked as it is here, has such delicate, natural flavor and satiny texture, you don’t want to overpower it.
As the bucket fills with shells, you’re left with double plastic bags of spicy liquid which call out for toasted french bread ($1.50). Some days sausage ($1.99/six pieces) thrown into the boil will be lively boudin from Louisiana; other times, work-a-day hot links. Ask first. Other boiled sides–new potatoes ($1.50), corn on the cob (.75), rice ($1.50)–also work for sopping, though house noodles ($6.95) crunchy with tobiko (flying fish roe) in a light Asian dressing, are too slippery and require a fork. Remember, once you dive into the boils, you’re done with glassware and silverware.
Towel off at the end and finish the job with wipes that arrive with a check that is surprisingly low for such high quality seafood–about $25 a person with drinks. Then head down 9th street to Park Chow for house made coconut cream pie for dessert.
With eating this good, you just might want to hop off the N Judah at Craw Station whenever you can.
Craw Station, 1336 9th Avenue (between Irving and Judah), San Francisco
Contact: 415 682-9980; www.crawstation.com
Hours: daily from 4 to 10 p.m.
Price range: fried seafood $8.99-$9.99; boiled seafood $9.99 on up; sides $.75 to $6.95
Recommended dishes: fried catfish, fried oysters, shrimp and crawfish boiled in house cajun; simply boiled Dungeness crab; lemon pepper boiled clams
Credit cards: all major
Reservations: for 10 or more only