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Our favorite was the shrimp with lemon pepper. (At $8.99 per pound, it's about what you'd pay retail for raw shrimp, often of lesser quality than these.) The shrimp were sweet-flavored specimens from Chesapeake Bay, cooked so they were still tender. Don't shy from the heads-on presentation: The shrimp fat (with so much of the flavor) is in the heads, and as the shrimp cook, the fat melts into the other ingredients. In NOLA, most local shrimp are sold heads-on.

Crawfish in "Cajun Sensation" sauce started out live (per the board), but this is the tag-end of their season, so they're peewee size -- from now until November, they'll either be small ones from northern Louisiana or else they'll be frozen. Normally, you eat crawfish by snapping the tails off the thorax, squeezing the sides of the tail-shell inward until the center cracks open, and then stripping off the shell by pulling both halves toward the back. (You pull out and eat the tail meat, and then you suck da heads!) Along with their skimpy size, these were overcooked by a few minutes, so the shells were too mushy to snap smartly open but had to be laboriously peeled by hand. And since the mudbugs were robed in a thick sauce rather than a thin, spicy boil, sucking the heads was thankless -- not enough "boil" liquid left in them. But in the bag with the bugs were two killer garnishes -- corn on the cob that had absorbed all the flavors and a few yummy slices of andouille sausage. So instead of sucking da heads -- suck da cobs!

Our Dungeness crab with garlic butter also came in a thick, cayenne-reddened sauce, and it was seriously overcooked -- a sad surprise for an ex--San Franciscan, where several Vietnamese restaurants specialize in Dungeness crab and cook it well. (The choices are, typically, roasted or stir-fried, not boiled.) Probably the Chesapeake Bay blue crabs would have been a better bet.

And yet, by the end of the meal, with zero alcohol, our table talk was turning a bit ribald. Hot pepper, like dark chocolate, stimulates the body's endorphins (pleasure hormones), so I guess we were all halfway smashed on cayenne. Even if the food wasn't authentically Louisianan, our conversation was sounding so, minus the Cajun accent.

So if you say Crab Hut is just fake-Cajun, I gotta say: yeah you right. It doesn't begin to scratch my itchy Louisiana food jones. And even on their own bogus-NOLA terms, they'd do better if they consistently pulled the food off the heat a few minutes earlier. But is the food flavorful and fun? You betcha! The big red cayenne splotch on my black pants tells the tale.

ABOUT CRAB HUT

Kim Pham is the owner of Crab Hut, a family-run restaurant. Her father, who's been cooking expertly (mainly Asian food) for 20 years, mans the "secret recipe" boil, while her sister (the cooking prodigy of the family -- who can reproduce dishes she's eaten once at a restaurant) and her boyfriend put together the rest of the dishes. Kim takes care of the front of the house as well as all the business aspects. None of them have been professional cooks or restaurateurs before.

"We have an uncle living in New Orleans, and my family lived in Houston for a while," Kim says, to explain why they opened a N'awlins-style seafood restaurant. "We have a small family restaurant in El Cajon, and they're working so hard all the time, so I was thinking of some way to help the family. So we thought of opening a lot of businesses -- we thought of crawfish, thought of other things, then came back to crawfish."

The recipes? "You can get all the recipes online, but they're basic. We had to add a little more to it. We practice and practice, and we go to other restaurants to eat. We didn't go to New Orleans. I think our style is a little different but mainly the same."

This month, Crab Hut will start to offer an Old Bay--seasoned boil for the Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, and garlic bread will soon be on the menu, too (suggested by customers, and exactly what's needed for sopping the sauces). Future plans include adding a salad to the menu and a shrimp cocktail. A customer from New Orleans gave Kim a gumbo recipe, and Kim's sister, the chef, will be testing it out and possibly furnishing a more authentic gumbo in the future.

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