In the 18 hours and 43 minutes since my last meal at Boiling Crab, I have taken three showers, washed my hands thirty-seven times, soaked in the juice of four lemons and scrubbed twice with a stainless-steel bar. I have brushed my teeth six times, flossed five and gargled with Listerine and Plax. My khakis are in the midst of their second round with Snuggles the fabric-softener bear, and my shoes have been quarantined on the back porch. I would like to think that I will be ready to reconnect with the outside world soon, but my son scooted away rather quickly when I dropped him off at school this morning, and the cat regards my fingers with an ominous hunger in her eyes.
The Los Angeles restaurant world has long been a place of improbable carom shots, but even here the Boiling Crab, a Cajun seafood restaurant opened by a Vietnamese family from southeast Texas and serving a young Chinese clientele, is unprecedented in the complexity of its resonances: Southeast Asian seafood culture colliding head-on with Franco-Acadian cuisine, Tabasco running into the bird pepper, spicy Vietnamese-Chinese crabstyles bleeding into the swamp cooking of the American South. The wait for a table often exceeds an hour. The beer is cheap. You are never farther than a couple of feet from a flat screen showing the game, but the soundtrack is loud rock & roll and the neon signs and graffiti-scarred walls are college-town juke-joint funk — a New Iberia seafood patio whose parking lot happens to be thronged with Lexuses and souped-up Scions instead of F-150 trucks.
The vast, swampy stretch of Cajun Louisiana between New Orleans and the Texas border has always been known for its seafood, especially at the “boiling points” that pop up in prefab metal buildings practically everywhere around the countryside, especially during prime springtime crawfish season. At a boiling point you can get boiled potatoes and corn on the cob, and usually spicy shrimp or crab, sold by the dozen or by the pound. What you usually get, of course, is crawfish, bright-red and ominous looking, boiled in a vat of peppers and bright spice, occasionally including the odd tub of Tabasco-pepper mash imported from the factory in New Iberia but always spicy enough to knot your insides and scorch your lips.
At Boiling Crab, you choose seafood, all sold by the pound or three, boiled with your choice of supersaturated garlic butter, lemon pepper or a fiery Cajunesque seasoning that will stain your fingers and seep out of your pores — or more likely what the restaurant calls the Whole Sha-Bang, a mixture of the three. (It is good to remember that what the restaurant calls spicy is extremely spicy, of an intensity that more or less blots out the flavor of the seafood. Medium-spicy is fine.) There are French fries, seasoned with a spicier version of the stuff that coats barbecue potato chips, fried chicken winglets and boiled corn on the cob. The waiters seem to take special pride in the restaurant’s refusal to serve bread, and I suspect that even a Five Easy Pieces gambit — a cup of rice and gumbo, hold the gumbo — would be insufficient to get you an order of rice. It may take four or five attempts to get a glass of ice water, but a second beer appears on the table almost before you have a chance to open your mouth.
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If you haven’t been here before, the extreme informality of the service may be a little off-putting, big plastic bags of seafood plopped down in the middle of the table and not a utensil in sight, shrimp and crab and crawfish ready to be plucked from the bag and dismembered, heads smashed and sucked, meat stripped from smoking-hot shells until you reach a gross seafood satori.
The restaurant claims that all the seafood is delivered fresh daily, but crawfish is not in its peak season right now, although the plump Gulf shrimp may be at its best. Alaskan king crab legs respond extremely well to the Boiling Point treatment. Dungeness crab may also be out of season, but the plump, sweet backfin meat hidden inside the shell is still pretty great with garlic butter. It is a primal, satisfying feast.
But even the cat, fond as she is of fish guts, would recoil at the aftermath of a Boiling Crab dinner, a wax-paper tablecloth piled high with shrimp shells and mangled crawfish carapaces, oozing green crab guts, scarlet antennae and shattered claws, spiky shards of chiton, orange bits of liver and dismembered spinnerets, and a dozen human elbows smeared with garlic, peppers and the stinking viscera of a hundred former animals, a scene that makes an abattoir seem as civilized as croquet. I can hardly wait to return.
Boiling Crab, 742 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 576-9368, www.theboilingcrab.com. Mon.-Fri., 3-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-10 p.m. MC, V. Beer. Takeout. Severely limited lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $30–$40. Recommended dishes: shrimp, crab, crawfish.