Summer is when I forever will associate eating in New Orleans, a city I first visited during its relentless summer heat.
This Northwest native and sworn enemy of heat and sun endured New Orleans’ humidity, which felt like a muggy hot towel I couldn’t peel off. I timed trips for when I could safely escape the air conditioning. That’s how I came to enjoy beignets at midnight at Café Du Monde. And because the French Quarter stays up late, that also meant late-night gumbo and something cold from New Orleans’ Abita Brewing Co.
Come August, I want to dig into both of those, plus a seafood-laden po’ boy sandwich, a big bowl of spicy crawfish, smoky jambalaya and stuff covered in shrimp. But forget flying to New Orleans to do so.
The South Sound yields just two choices for Cajun dining, and they’re both decent options whether or not the sun is out and heat is on.
Where: 750 S 38th St, Tacoma, 253-301-0020, dragonscrawfish.cf. 1-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11:30 a.m.- 9 p.m. Sundays.
Delicate is never a way to describe Cajun seafood boil.
It’s boldly spiced. It’s messy. You will leave with sticky hands and a greasy shirt.
Dragon’s Crawfish is a micro-focused, pay-by-the-pound Cajun boil restaurant that’s just about to celebrate its first anniversary.
The restaurant in Tacoma’s Lincoln District comes from partners in business and life, chef Minh Phan and Sina Kong, who runs the small dining room.
Phan’s mother, Xuan Phan, owns the pho restaurant across the street. They named their restaurant with a nod to her Pho Dragon. Vietnamese touches show up here and there at Dragon’s Crawfish, including noodles that easily could live on a Vietnamese menu ($5.99-$6.99), but Phan’s inspiration came from the Cajun boil restaurants he visited while living in California.
The protocol here is simple. Order what you want by the pound. It shows up in a bowl, which you can throw out onto the table, if you want. You use your hands to peel and eat. If that bothers you, stop reading now.
Two styles of boil include a Cajun style that’s peppered liberally with cayenne and served dry, with little or no broth.
The other version, the garlic butter sauce, is Phan’s creation. It’s a sweetened broth — the kind of sweet one would expect of Southeast Asian cooking — spiked with butter, about a half cup of minced garlic and Defcon Level Ouch spices, even for the “little spicy” mild version. If you’re insane, you’ll order the “dragon’s breath,” but I take no responsibility for your injuries.
The garlic broth commands a bread dip ($1.50), a small baguette that is the same type used to build a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. Add-ins include sliced sausage ($2.99), corn on the cob and potatoes ($1 each), or all three for “the triple play.”
Adjust your expectations when visiting. Service is friendly, but can be neglectful. You’ll be charged 50 cents for using a credit card. Occasionally, they won’t be open during stated business hours. Most likely, one or more of the menu items will be out. The restaurant’s format is built on highly perishable stuff, so that last one is expected.
Crawfish, the restaurant’s namesake, was never out on any of my visits. The restaurant offers market pricing, but it was listed at $11.99 on most of my visits (other prices varied across four visits).
If you suspect you’re being served frozen crawfish, you are. Washington state fish regulations require Louisiana crawfish — also called crawdads, crayfish or mud bugs — to be frozen before they’re shipped here because the live version, an invasive species, could out-compete our native species.
Head-on shrimp ($15.99) also were never out on four visits. Three kinds of crab are offered, although they’ll surely be out of one or more. Snow crab ($24.99) showed up as two body-and-leg segments, the meat sweet and fresh-tasting. King crab ($35.99) was even sweeter, with four meaty legs. Clams-in-the-shell were a killer deal at $9.99 a pound.
There are few items beyond seafood boil. I learned that the slippery noodle dishes were safe to skip, as were the gummy fish and chips ($9.99) and shell-on Cajun shrimp that was fried, and impossible to peel ($6.99).
What you don’t want to miss are the outstanding garlic fries ($4.99). This is a restaurant armed with loads of garlic — and not afraid to use it.
Bourbon Street Bar and Grill
Where: 401 S. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-604-4404. Serving lunch and dinner daily.
Bourbon Street Bar and Grill carries that New Orleans vibe of a restaurant built into an old building.
In this case, it was an old service station, but feels nothing like that now. Sunny yellow walls climb from the concrete floors to tall ceilings. Where roll-up doors once accommodated cars, double doors spill to a patio. Wrought iron is used as an accent throughout.
If the restaurant feels transported from Louisiana, that’s because owner Mike de Alwis lived and worked his way from New Orleans to Lafayette, Louisiana, with stops at several restaurants.
Since 2010, he and his wife Karen have run Puyallup’s Misty Mountain Montessori. He opened the restaurant in 2013 with son Jehan, a culinary school graduate, who is executive chef. Another son, Michael, is the barkeep behind the restaurant’s terrific cocktail menu.
Michael’s Sazerac ($9), the quintessential New Orleans rye cocktail, burned with the intensity only a rye whiskey can, brightened up with lemon oil and two kinds of bitters — Peychaud’s and Angostura — and just enough burnt sugar to give training wheels for those who find rye too assertive.
The menu read like the greatest hits of bayou cooking, plus the restaurant’s secondary specialty, three kinds of steak: blackened ribeye ($18.95), filet mignon ($19.95) and New York striploin ($18.95).
And, yes, there’s plenty of fried fish, including oysters and Cajun shrimp (both $15.95).
From the starter menu, deeply flavored gumbo ($8.95 small/$10.95 large) was built on a slow-cooked roux, thick with andouille and shredded chicken. Don’t worry, it’s not as spicy as you think it will be. Crab cakes ($10.95) were all crab and no filler, and worth a dredge through sweet chili sauce.
Entree standouts include shrimp and grits ($14.95), served here as a bowl of cheddar-enhanced grits holding just enough texture to be on the good side of pebbly. Spicy Tabasco butter was thick with capers and more baby shrimp than two people can devour in a sitting.
Another go-to should be the jambalaya ($16.95), a kicky rice dish fueled by Cajun spicing and the Cajun holy trinity — bell pepper, onion and celery. I dug deep to find never-ending slices of andouille sausage and lots of shrimp. In-the-shell mussels perched on top.
Fried catfish ($14.95) was devoid of that funky, muddy flavor I dislike. A crunchy cornmeal breading broke to a delicate filet. Dunk the accompanying hush puppies — fried balls of cornmeal dough — into the remoulade, a piquant dipping sauce, along with the garlicky French fries dusted with Cajun spicing.
Those same terrific fries showed up with the oyster po’ boy ($13.95), a two-hand sandwich on a French roll dressed with shredded lettuce and tomato, with plump oysters dipped in cornmeal batter fried golden brown.
Finish a meal with beignets ($5.95), squishy-puffy squares of dough, freshly fried, with hollowed out middles and a crown of powdered sugar.
Service has improved since the restaurant’s early days. I found knowledgeable servers ready to offer suggestions.
The downtown Puyallup restaurant Uncorked Cajun is a work in progress — still. Owner Keith Daigle planned to open his 100-seat restaurant featuring the cuisine of his native Louisiana, last year at 209 W. Stewart. A dispute with his contractor has led to a lengthy delay. Daigle still doesn’t have an opening date, and construction has stalled. When he does open, the restaurant will feature family recipes, including gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya and boudin.