On the weekends outside The Boiling Crab the action in the parking lot is just shy of chaotic — not as bad as the pavement that surrounds Trader Joe's before a forecast dusting of snow or the American Airlines Center when Beyoncé comes to town, but packed full, with vehicles circling like slow-motion sharks and white-knuckle grips on steering wheels.
Inside, the desperation is worse, as those who have just bled to find parking on this side of Walnut Street are told their wait will be nearly as long as it takes to drive to the shore from which their eventual dinner hails. Three-and-a-half hours for a party of two one weekend evening, four hours the next. There are no buzzing pagers, no cell phones for text notification, just a teenager sprouting fresh facial hair, a pen and the fate of your happiness hanging in a spiral-bound notebook. Drop your name, say a brief prayer and then hope for the best.
Don't pass your time in the tiny lobby thinking proximity will shorten your wait. It won't. Many have tried this before, as evidenced by the messages drawn in marker on the walls so thick they are nearly black. "Me So Hungry" is scrawled out in a desperate Sharpie plea from the side of a wooden fish hanging near the entrance to the dining room, and its author likely stayed that way for some time.
Spirits are better outside the front door, and better still out in the lot, where beer is discreetly sipped from bottles in seats and on tailgates. But while drinking of any sort beats pacing the sidewalk or drawing on walls, the mood falls well short of a street party. How about a film, instead? The Alamo Cinema Draft House and a few other theaters are just a few miles away, and the wait for a table at The Boiling Crab just happens to be enough time to take in a local brew and a leisurely viewing of The Lego Movie. Don't worry if you think you're missing out on some waiting ritual, because it's more than likely you'll have to wait a little longer when you return and check in.
All this anticipation may just be the secret to success. Hunger amplified by exposure to the smells of butter and garlic can evoke an animalistic desire in the most picky of humans. Anyone forced to bathe in the heady smell of a crawfish boil for three hours without eating is likely to deem boiled Wonder bread delicious, never mind fresh seafood.
The Boiling Crab got its start in Orange County's Little Saigon in 2004. Owners Dada Ngo and her husband, Sinh Nguyen, went on to open 13 locations in California, Las Vegas and Dallas. Their Vietnamese roots are barely visible on the menu. There are limes available if you request them, to be mixed with black pepper and salt as a condiment, but a website for the restaurant casually refers to Ngo and Nguyen as Yo'Daddy and Yo'Mamma, and the menu is predominantly Southern: a mix of boiled and fried seafood, with potatoes, sausage and other simple sides.
The Boiling Crab may be Vietnamese-owned, but when your name is finally called over the fuzzy loudspeaker, the scent that hangs in the air when you walk through the door is as Cajun as boudin rouge and copper-colored roux: a mix of garlic and celery salt, with a prick of cayenne, all riding an oceanic wave of cooked shellfish. If you've been pacing in the parking lot for three to four hours, or eschewed Milk Duds at the theater, the smell can bring about a dizzying euphoria, which can be troubling because there's a little more waiting to come.
After your waiter ceremoniously ties a thin, plastic bib around your neck, grab your menu and order as much seafood as you think you can handle, plus one pound more. There are baskets of fried catfish, shrimp and chicken strips, served with freezer-bag fries, dusted with more Cajun seasoning if that's what you want, but they're average at best, and certainly not worth the wait required. Instead, stick to the top half of the laminated menu, where a number of shellfish depending on the time of year are waiting to receive The Boiling Crab treatment.
Enough diners opt for the "whole sha-bang!" that the wait staff assumes you will too. The option mixes their Cajun, lemon pepper or garlic butter flavor options into one big blur of savory. (The Cajun is good on its own.) After your seafood is boiled, it's drained and tossed in a massive bowl with your choice of seasonings, and the whole mess is dumped in a clear plastic bag and loosely knotted at the top. The butter, salt and spice mixed with excess boiling liquid form a sauce in a steamy enclosure that bursts with a savory poof when the bag is opened at your table. It's a magic trick — no rabbit, just crustaceans.
The official start of crawfish season is subjective, but if crawfish are available while you're sitting at a butcher paper-lined table, your personal season should start that second. The flavor of the seafood here, most of which is sold for market price, is directly proportionate to its ability to soak up that buttery seasoning. Crawfish, full of nooks and crannies, become inundated with the spicy fluid; shrimp take a close second. Crab legs provide more meat for less work but they don't integrate with the seasoning nearly as well. The corn, which can be ordered as a side, attracts spicy like a sponge. Every bite wrings sauce from the kernels and (if you ordered yours XXX spicy) tears from your eyes. It should accompany every order, along with sausage.
If you're new to boils of any sort, they offer messiest of eating — a carnal act of tail-twisting and head-chomping that will dirty your fingers before it saturates your hands before you end up with a shrimp leg in your hair. Tables end up covered with spent paper towels, carcasses and guts, and when you're finished, there's a chance you'll stand in line again. This time for the bathroom, your arms held extended with slack wrists as you wait to wash your hands.
After you have paid your bill, after the paper on your table is rolled up and replaced with a clean sheet, after you stumble out the door, it may seem as though little but your hunger has changed. A new set of ravenous seafood fans have already filled your booth, and cars are still circling, waiting for a turn at your spot or the one that belongs to the diners right behind you. But there will likely be a bit more evidence of that day's great wait. Watch out for the Stella Artois bottle tucked under your bumper.