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Cajun spice at Crawfish Shack Seafood

Ethnicities blend on Buford Highway

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One morning, we are all going to wake up and find that we have turned the same color. A post-racial world will eliminate a significant portion of Americans’ conflicts. Until then, there is Buford Highway.

For at least 25 years, the road has been transitioning to an intense multicultural enclave best known for its ethnically diverse restaurants. Stop a moment to ponder the role of dining in the diminishment of ethnocentrism. Every visit to Buford Highway is an opportunity to cross a cultural boundary. Dining on delicious, unfamiliar ethnic food is a serious step toward the realization that ethnocentrism and racism not only oppress other people, they also limit our experience of much of the world’s beauty.

During the decades of Buford Highway’s transition, I’ve watched the cultural diversity blend ever more. It’s not just a matter of an authentic Chinese restaurant now. A few years ago, for example, I went to a Mexican restaurant that specializes in Chinese cooking. (A fist fight erupted while I was there.) My understanding is that there’s a restaurant in another area of town that features Indian-style Italian cooking.

I’ve recently been to a couple of restaurants on Buford Highway that presage the coming post-racial apocalypse. Crawfish Shack Seafood (4337 Buford Highway, 404-929-6789) is the first. This is mainly a Cajun seafood restaurant whose owner, Hieu Pham, is a blend of Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese. (His sister and mother also work at the restaurant.) The customer base could as well be milling in the lobby of the United Nations.

Despite his mixed lineage, Pham was born and raised in Georgia, so it’s actually no surprise that he would be into an American regional cuisine. Consider, too, that for many years if you wanted really good seafood in this city, the best place to go was an authentic Asian restaurant. And if you wanted bracing, super-fresh Cajun-style seafood, you were out of luck.

Pham is, as his menu says, obsessed with freshness. Believe me (and 59 people on Yelp), you can tell the difference. The restaurant, which only has three or four tables inside and a couple outside, offers six meals that feature fried catfish, tilapia or grouper with boiled, steamed or fried shrimp. Or you can get a pound of crawfish. These meals, which are mostly less than $7, come with a choice of two sides.

I ordered the “crispy-fried” catfish (rather than the “lightly fried”) with fried shrimp, corn on the cob and red potatoes. The catfish was the best I’ve tasted in many years. I actually stopped eating catfish long ago because I got sick of the heavy, greasy batters everyone seemed to use. Crawfish Shack’s was perfectly crisp with piping hot, almost sweet flesh. Ditto for the jumbo shrimp, lightly battered and fried until they were al dente.

The menu also offers seafood by the pound, including blue crab, snow crab, king crab, oysters and mussels. You can buy these, along with fish, to take home raw, or the restaurant will cook them according to your instructions and you can eat them on the premises.

I was craving fried oysters for two days after my first meal there, so I returned for those. Unfortunately, they had sold out. Pham explained to me that he’d bought what he could from his supplier but wouldn’t settle for a type he considered inferior. Against my better judgment, I was convinced to order the snow crab legs.

I confess that I really do not enjoy breaking open legs with a nutcracker and fishing for slivers of meat with one of those implements that looks like a dental instrument. I went through two washrags, eating four or five of the legs. Yes, the crab was delicious – all 2 ounces I managed to eat – and made more so by the spicy Cajun-style spices the restaurant uses in its seafood boil. Even my corn on the cob was anointed in it during my second visit. The seafood boil was also among the best I’ve ever tasted outside New Orleans.

I did not order any crawfish. I heard Pham mention that they were previously frozen that day. A man sitting at the table next to me, however, went through an enormous number of them. When I asked him how they were, he obviously got annoyed that I had interrupted his robotic eating. He stopped only long enough to say, “Good.”

Side dishes were all just about perfect. The hush puppies were just this side of crunchy, hot and redolent of corn meal. Red potatoes were almost pleasingly bland beside the stinging Cajun spices.

The night after my first visit to Crawfish Shack, I visited Asian Pearl Buffet (4166 Buford Highway, 404-329-1850) in Plaza Fiesta. Parking was all but impossible to find because of a carnival being held in the parking lot.

I knew I was taking a risk by going to this restaurant. After all, it advertises – in Spanish – that it serves all-you-can-eat Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and American food. Further, its leaflet also says that it is the largest and most elegant restaurant in the city.

For just over $9 at dinner ($7.55 at lunch), you wander around countless buffet tables, one of which is in the shape of a gigantic boat. The experience is every bit as surreal as you might expect. The crowd is another multicultural scene out of Blade Runner. The food looks somehow lonely.

During my meal, a guy sitting at the table next to mine pried open what looked like a deep-fried taco. He frowned at it.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” he said.

I got one for myself. It was the only “Mexican” food I found on the tables and the filling was seasoned frijoles refritos.

Mostly you’ll find Chinese food on the hot buffet. It all tasted like canned food to me – sweet-and-sour this and that, sesame chicken, etc.

The only thing I considered really decent was the boiled and steamed seafood. You could pay more than $9 at most places to eat your fill of boiled shrimp, steamed mussels, oysters and clams. The mussels, in fact, were better than many I encounter around town. Do not, however, touch the sushi, or whatever it is made to look like sushi. Just take my word for it.

Desserts were of varying indiscernible origins. Huge vats of Jell-O cubes sat alongside displays of fruit and super-sweet pastries. I did find something I liked, though – peanut brittle. If I go back, I’m making a meal of steamed mussels and peanut brittle.

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