Certain times and events of each year are celebrated with verve and ballyhoo, and crawfish season is no exception. This year the crawfish season came in sober like a lamb, but I have on good faith that it has built up steam in the past few weeks and is in full on lion-like rage at the moment.
I have been waiting for meager sized mud-bugs to prance their way off the early season platters, and now it appears that my wait is over. The larger and more flavorful crawfish are starting to rear their heads for us all to enjoy and now we can take delight in gnawing their meaty spice-kissed tails.
For me the wait ended this past weekend while scouting The Grapevine (the award winning Dallas dive bar on Maple Avenue) this past Sunday as the 13th Annual SuckFest was in full swing.
Sounds like an event you might wish to protect the children from, and after attending SuckFest I might tend to agree. This was a raucous event reveled by many of Dallas' finest party-goers who rang in the crawfish season with just over 800 pounds of the bugs. Bartender cum chef, Jon Bryan, spent the day adding spices, corn and potatoes to the dueling cauldrons of steaming crustaceans and called in the season officially for me and my companions.
This event not only marked what will surely be a long season of cracked shells and cold beer, but it also inspired this weeks Toque to Toque challenge.
Enter two Cajun-inspired opponents armed with pedigrees and praise, both equally qualified to snap up the prize that includes bragging rights and top honors for their mastery in the boil. Please accept for this challenge Nate's Seafood and Steakhouse versus Shuck-N-Jive: The Mudbug Melee.
For this challenge I tracked down for assistance one of Dallas' foremost seafood experts, Jon Alexis of TJ's Seafood Market. As happenstance would have it, Jon was en route to Biloxi, Mississippi for a crawfish boil and was able to give me some tips from the road.
"The crawfish season has come into full swing and the prices are much more reasonable than the early season prices. Currently the "washed and graded" crawfish are of superb value and quality," relayed Jon from the field.
When I asked about the season's longevity the TJ's Market co-owner gleefully added, "definitely late June, but likely even longer. Right now there is a LOT of crawfish down in Louisiana. The farms wouldn't want to be held to this, but they feel like they'll have great crawfish through July 4th weekend or longer."
That's a bonus considering the usual season peters out around mid-June.
I am sure most of us are familiar with the crawfish boil ritual, and in crawfish circles there can be as many recipes as cooks. Many will use a straight mixture of a ready-made seafood boil that contains various seasonings and spices, adding their own twists. The better recipes will have copious amounts cayenne and other heat-invoking solutions.
A typical boil can also include gratuitous amounts of small new potatoes and tiny shanks of corn that are tossed in the boil to soak up the spiciness of the steaming broth. Jon Bryan, of The Grapevine's annual boil also included whole mushrooms for their ability to sponge up a large amount of the juices to become "flavor bombs".
The first entry for today's Toque Challenge was Nate's Seafood and Steakhouse.
No stranger to crawfish, Nate's has been offering what he calls the Turbo. This is the spicier version of his crawfish and includes, as the name might suggest, an added bonus amount of sinus clearing, eye-watering seasoning. You can have the Turbo added to the crawfish, or as a dipping elixir on the side.
Nate also offers a bit of the boiling broth to those that ask for dipping the tails into. I have also witnessed a gentleman wearing latex gloves pour on to his unpeeled specimens what looked like a half pound of melted butter. To each his own I say.
When it comes to crawfish I prefer to delicately pluck the spicy tails and eat them as is, then suck out the small bit of fat in the head for the optimum flavor experience. If I am lucky to have mammoth crawfish I will crack the claws like tiny lobsters and enjoy that sweet bit of meat. Nothing goes to waste.
When my first order at Nate's arrived, I was eager to start snapping the tails. I took my usual rounds of photos and dug in eagerly. One pound went quickly, and the second even faster. Momentum and the power of inertia are amazing forces when eating crawfish. The beauties were larger than the versions I have been spying on the past few weeks. The Nate's crawfish had fresh firm flesh (a mushy tail can indicate the crawfish was dead before cooking and should be avoided).
The spices Nate's uses are celestial. It is not too unlike your first kiss, replete with fireworks and a heavenly chorus. The only thing missing was a chunk of corn and a few potatoes. I could stay at Nate's all day and enjoy pints of beer and his head-clearing mudbugs, but I had an appointment with an opponent.
The bar at Shuck-N-Jive has been historically elbow room only. I managed to find a stool at the end of the bar and took in a cold beer (Shuck-N-Jive claims to have the coldest beer in Dallas). The term "shuck and jive" means to talk nonsense, but the beer is truly cold and frothy and might possibly live up to its claim.
There was little shuckin' and jivin' going on with the crawfish. When my order arrived they too were freshly boiled, firm and extremely large. They were twice the size of Nate's if you consider size to matter. And they came with the necessary vegetation of potatoes and corn.
Did I say these were large? Most extended the full length of my hand. This made them a bit trickier to crack open, but when I did, the rewards were sweet. The spices were powerful and had the sprinkling of post boil powder similar to the Nate's Turbo.
I enjoyed a few rounds and pounds of these crawfish to check for consistency, and Shuck-N-Jive passed with flying colors.
I never wish to suffer through a bad meal and always try to pick contenders for the Toque challenge as fairly and pair as evenly as possible. In this instance the task of selecting a winner proved difficult, but a winner must be noted.
For their inclusion of the proper sides of vegetables, selecting the choicest mudbugs and serving what might be arguably to some as the coldest beer in Dallas, we award Shuck-N-Jive today's Toque to Toque Mudbug Melee and the street cred to brag the best crawfish.
Let's now all buckle up for an extended crustacean season and look with baited breath to Suckfest 14 which is now a mere 361 days away.
5000 Belt Line Rd #500
Nate's Seafood and Steakhouse
14951 Midway Rd.