4646 Convoy Street, San Diego
Crab Hut advertises, "You'll swear you're in New Orleans." (They clearly don't mean the drowned, empty neighborhoods and the crack-dealer gangs, but the pre-"Brownie" foodies' paradise.) But you can't believe everything you read. Take Crab Hut for what it is -- fun -- and have yourself a great old time suckin' da heads and getting spicy red sauce on your hands, chin, and pants. Won't cost you a lot -- four of us ate our way through most of the menu (crab, crawfish, shrimp, and starters) for a single C-note. (I really ought to have let Tin Fork review it, but I wanted it for myself.) Still, I can't bring myself to come up with a "star rating." You just don't get that uppity about a down-home crab joint, especially one that's so far (in so many ways) from its culinary hometown.
This is a Louisiana restaurant run by a Vietnamese family, including the cooks. After the initial surge of immigration some 30 years ago, numerous Vietnamese eventually found their way to America's own version of the Mekong Delta to work the shrimp boats on the Louisiana bayous -- so Vietnamese have become honorary Cajuns. Hence, it's not all that outré for a Vietnamese-owned Convoy Street restaurant to be serving Louisiana-style crawfish, shrimp, and crab. The owner's uncle, who inspired the restaurant, is himself a New Orleans resident. But, alas, like most of the ersatz "Cajun" food that swept America during the Great Paul Prudhomme Scare of the '80s (and periodically still pops up today), the cooking bears little resemblance to anything that natives of Louisiana actually eat. They're working on it, but right now the food's mainly just spicy.
Crabba the Hut is next door to Yogurt World, a hangout for hordes of Asian teens, who are the reason the small strip-mall parking lot is usually jammed. The restaurant is a plain, spacious room with white butcher paper on the tables. Toward the back is a hanging board that lists what's currently available -- worth checking out because at our visit it offered an off-menu soft-shell crab special -- and it also notes which species came in live. Pop music squawks on the sound system, and several TVs are tuned to sports with the sound turned off. Once you order, your waitperson brings plastic bibs and gently ties them behind your necks. Do not spurn the bib! You need the bib! In place of napkins, each table bears a roll of paper towels. Don't be modest, take four or five at a time. If you intend to order the house specials, a serious mess lies in your immediate future.
We began with a dozen raw oysters (only $13). They are smallish specimens from Delaware, and they are passable, not thrilling -- clearly the Chesapeake Bay is a lot warmer than the great oyster waters farther north, but not as nurturant as the Gulf waters that breed those giant, sensual Apalachicolas of N'awlins. They come with the house cocktail sauce, quite spicy, but benefiting from a squeeze from the heap of quartered limes strewn on the table.
Next, a Creole-style okra seafood gumbo arrived scalding hot. Even before it cooled enough to sip, its color and viscosity made it apparent that this was in no way one of the numberless versions of true Louisiana gumbo, but a lighter Asian reinvention of the dish. I believe the chef must have read some recipes and was put off by the thought of stirring flour in oil for an hour to make the "red roux" that's the basis of gumbo and was equally horrified by the idea of cooking okra for two hours until it melts nearly away and all the "draw" (okra slime) melds with the broth to thicken the liquid. Instead, you get whole heads-on shrimp, crawfish tail meats, chopped ham, andouille, tomatoes, and near-crisp okra rounds in a sweet and savory light seafood broth. Unlike the version at the Shores, it's not a "gumbo of ignorance" but a gumbo of another culture. Call it by an Asian-sounding name, maybe "Gum Bo." It's delicious by any name -- just don't expect it to be authentically Creole.
Our sweet young waiter (who looked like a college kid) cautioned that the Crab Hut rolls were made with fake crab and recommended, instead, the new crab wraps. These proved to be good ol' Crab Rangoon -- lightly fried wontons stuffed with molten cream cheese and crab meat. They're okay if that's what you want to eat.
Then came a barrage of fried seafood appetizers. Catfish filets were flawless, in a light batter with a fine (not sweet!) tartar sauce on the side. This would make a great entrée for a cash-strapped single diner. The "Cajun fries" were frozen specimens with a little Cajun spice rub and once tasted were forsaken. A smallish fried soft-shell crab from Chesapeake Bay (the larger ones are past their season) had sweet, tender meat, fatally assaulted by excess batter, given their dainty size.
Finally -- ta-da! -- the house entrée specials of Louisiana-style shellfish. Each of these dishes -- crawfish, shrimp, and several different crab species -- arrives in a plastic bag, aswim in thick red sauce, which you upend onto the butcher paper on the table. There are three sauces: "Cajun Sensation," lemon pepper, and garlic butter. Regardless of their names, all are dense and colored red with cayenne, but you can choose the spice level.
"Medium spicy," our choice, proved the equivalent of Cajun-spicy -- ha-hot! It is about the same heat as you'd get at Franky and Johnny's legendary crawfish dive near the corner of Arabella and Tchoupitoulas Streets in uptown NOLA -- but by a different means. At a Louisiana crawfish dive, the mudbugs are cooked in a "boil" -- water simmered with a complex seasoning mix, which includes Louisiana hot sauce. (F&J's uses Crystal brand, 'cause it's cheapest, sploshed in from a gallon bottle.) Once the boil develops its flavor, the heat is upped and the crawfish are gently tipped into it. (At Franky and Johnny's they use a special tipping technique so the live mudbugs rapidly crawl and dive to their fates like lemmings, while the dead ones don't move and are then discarded.) When done, they're drained and served plain and simple, nothing more added, because the boil has all the spice the crawfish need for flavoring. Here, in contrast, the shellfish are boiled in a seasoned mixture, too, but minus any hot stuff. Then they're robed in a heavier, grainier mixture that includes powdered cayenne for piquancy. The cayenne has a stronger impact than hot sauce dissolved in a boil, so if you're not used to Cajun cooking, the "mild" might suit you better than the "medium."
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.