The feasting protocol for Cajun seafood boil is pretty straightforward.
Don’t wear clothes that can’t withstand a spatter of garlic butter licked with cayenne.
Use your fingers to tear off the heads — or tails, depending on the seafood — and don’t be shy about dunking whatever you dig out of the shell into a butter bath, repeatedly.
As Minh Phan, owner of Tacoma’s new Cajun seafood boil restaurant, describes, “It’s a hands-on, get elbow deep, getting-into food. It’s messy food. You’re going to have shells all over the table, and it’s going to be greasy and you’ll be licking your fingers. Your hands will be full of crawfish and shells. Get up in there and eat it, that’s what I say.”
His restaurant, Dragon’s Crawfish, began serving Cajun-style seafood boil, a la Louisiana, in September. The menu is straightforward boil with the offering of only a few other dishes: raw oysters, two noodle dishes and fried fish and chicken.
Depending on what’s available from his distributors, Phan offers Louisiana crawfish (also called crawdads, crayfish or mud bugs); shrimp; Dungeness, King and snow crab and clams. All are served by the pound — boiled and served in a choice of broths — and priced according to the market, so check the chalkboard behind the register for that day’s prices ($9.99-$33.99 on my visit).
The Lincoln District restaurant is nudged into an eating neighborhood heavy on Vietnamese restaurants, but also home to excellent Japanese (Gari of Sushi); delicious soul food (Uncle Thurm’s); one of my favorite taco trucks (La Fondita) and a combination torta shop and Mexican bakery (Zocalo).
Dragon’s Crawfish decor and concept stay simple and the restaurant holds fewer than 10 tables, all topped with butcher paper ready to capture the remnants of a messy meal.
First-time restaurant owners Phan and Sina Kong, partners in business and life, bought the former Vietnamese restaurant more than four months ago, but continued to serve the restaurant’s original Vietnamese menu up until the health department approved their switch to seafood boil.
Phan’s mother, Xuan Phan, owns Pho Dragon across the street. She encouraged the couple to open a restaurant based on Phan’s home-grown hobby of hosting seafood boil parties. They named their restaurant with a nod to her Pho Dragon.
The recipes are Phan’s but he said what he knows about food he learned from his mother. He said he keeps his recipes intentionally simple.
“I keep it simple and the flavors will come out on their own, rather than complicating them and adding too many things that drown the flavor. I’d rather simplify everything. The flavors are more compact that way. I’ve been to so many other restaurants where they do too much, they add too much flavoring. It makes the crawfish muddy. It doesn’t bring out the natural crawfish appeal,” said Phan.
He learned to cook crawfish in California, where he’s originally from, and also home to more crawfish boil restaurants than this part of the country.
Phan said he’s adapted his recipe to what Tacoma diners have requested — heavy on the broth (people here like to dunk, said Phan) and served in metal bowls, not tossed out on a table as one might find in the southern United States.
He also had to adapt his offerings just like every other Washington restaurant that can’t cook live Louisiana crawfish. Phan gets his southern crawfish as a frozen import because state regulations forbid importing live non-native crawfish because of concerns they’ll out-compete native crawfish. Phan said he knows some Seattle outfits source fresh Northwest crawfish, but he’s not been able to find a reliable source.
Phan’s boils are offered with two sauce choices: A straightforward Cajun broth peppered with cayenne and Cajun spices, or a butter broth fueled by enough garlic to keep office mates away.
Spicing can be as mild as a light shake of cayenne or spiced to a level Phan calls “Dragon Breath.” That level of spicing uses ghost pepper because “if you use too much cayenne, it has that barky, earthy flavor. We had to switch to ghost peppers to up the spice,” said Phan.
Mild spicing on a bowl of shrimp ($12.99) was light on heat, while, conversely, Dragon Breath level spicing tasted authentically painful. Consider spicing level descriptions accurate here. I preferred the garlic butter sauce to the lighter Cajun broth because, well, it’s butter. Be sure to order a “bread dip” ($1.50), a small toasted French baguette.
Other add-ons included the usual seafood boil accoutrements — corn on the cob, potato and sliced Louisiana hot links ($1-$2.99). Ordering all three, Phan said, is called a “triple play.”
And, of course, there’s one menu item that is required with a seafood boil: beer. Eight brews are served by the bottle ($3.50 each).
Where: 750 S. 38th St., Tacoma.
Contact: 253-301-0020; dragonscrawfish.cf
What is it? Seafood boil is shellfish or seafood boiled in a choice of broths, fueled with as much spice as is ordered, served with additional add-ins of corn on the cob, potatoes and sliced sausage.
Eating protocol: Expect your hands to get messy. Wipes, bibs and plenty of napkins are offered.