“Life is about not waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
“Never get so busy making a living, that you forget to make a life.”
“If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”
These are but a few of the aphorisms printed on wooden plaques that fill the walls at Crawfish Shack Seafood on Buford Highway. Beneath them, on rows of communal wooden benches, sits a steam pot of Atlantans of seemingly every age, every race and every country of origin.
My family and I join the crowd, cracking crab legs and peeling shrimp. The young couple next to us speak Vietnamese and treat their iced raw oysters as a canvas for black pepper, lemon and sriracha sauce. On the other side, three women in matching biker T-shirts dig into overstuffed po-boys. A little girl at the next table – no older than 4, her cornrowed hair a riot of elastics with clanky pink balls – grows bored with her food-rapt parents and turns to observe us. Soon she and I are making surreptitious faces and trying not to giggle.
Everyone loves the good, fresh-tasting, affordable seafood at this restaurant, where the simple messages on the walls echo a friendly spirit of good faith and community. Hieu Pham – a young Atlantan of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian extraction who was born in Grady Memorial Hospital – opened the restaurant about 2 1/2 years ago as what he thought would be a carry-out joint. But those three tables on site filled quickly, so a year ago Pham knocked out a wall and expanded into the next-door space. Now people line up at the counter, order and wander into the dining room to sidle into benches and wait for their food.
The order of the day is Louisiana Cajun-style, through a prism. There may be a little lemongrass in that spicy boil, or a lobster roll on the sandwich list alongside the tilapia po-boy. It’s not precisely life on the bayou, but that’s what makes this charmer feel so here, so now.
Pham and his restaurant were profiled in a smart article in The New York Times last year as an example of the emerging national trend of Cajun seafood houses run by Vietnamese immigrants. It makes perfect sense when you come here and see Asian customers delicately work their way through a bowl of crawfish, sucking every bit of spicy goodness from the heads and even cracking the claws for the morsels within.
You know what you should do? Just go for it. We order the “shack-tastic” platter for two ($39.99) and get a cracker, wet towel, cups of butter and cocktail sauce and a huge, huge mess of yumminess. First comes a huge bowl of crawfish and then an even more enormous bowl holding snow crab clusters, blue crabs, shrimp, green-lipped mussels, corn and red potatoes in a wondrous, ruddy elixir. I love the way the kitchen splits and decorticates shrimp and boils them to coax that fleece-like softness from them. Also: Big love to the sweet blue crabs, a pleasure to smash and pick through. No, I didn’t mind the rubbery frozen mussels, but they seemed like seafood-medley cheap filler. A handful of fresh mussels would have been better and enriched the broth.
You can also order a fried platter, and this kitchen gives you the option of a light corn-flour batter or a crunchy cornmeal batter. We didn’t want to commit to a whole fried ocean, but a No. 7 combo ($9.99) gave us two juicy pieces of fresh snapper in a light coating along with four shrimp and two sides. Put it all together, and you have a mountain of food for a family of four.
So how are the sides? About what you’d expect or perhaps hope for. The corn seems pre-frozen, the hush puppies well spiced, and the sweet potato fries crisp and impossible to stop eating. They come with a container of powdered sugar that will end up smeared all over your face and clothing. Well worth it.
If I were a scientist, I might survey the dining population at Crawfish Shack Seafood and notice a correlation between the customers’ preference for fried or steamed seafood and their body mass index. Not being a scientist and not espying any mirrors in the room, I dig into my fried soft-shell crab po-boy ($11, half, $13.99, whole). Holy yumola: Crusty Amoroso Bakery bread, bibb lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, remoulade sauce and that juicy crab combine into a dozen happy mouthfuls. The lobster roll ($17.99, whole only) with garlic butter is kind of fun, though made with warm-water lobster tail chopped into bits and in no way any kind of kissing-crustacean cousin to a real Maine lobster roll. If you get it for a kick, go for fried rather than steamed lobster. But, really, you want the shrimp po-boy ($6, half, $8.99, whole) that is burstier, sweeter and more flavorful.
The experience here is pretty basic. If there are fried boudin balls ($5 for five) on the specials list, then you might have a tasty appetizer for the table before the bowls and platters of seafood land. If you want dessert, you can buy a crumbly, shrink-wrapped praline ($2.89) at the counter. If you want an alcoholic beverage, you’re fresh out of luck.
And as much as I warm to this restaurant, I don’t want to oversell it. Yes, that remoulade on the sandwiches is tasty and, yes, you may see tubs of it roll through the dining room right off the delivery truck. That bright yellow oleaginous dip tastes more of margarine than butter, but that won’t bother you.
More to the point, don’t go looking for gourmet sea treats at Crawfish Shack Seafood. There’s no sushi-grade tuna, swordfish, diver scallops or striped bass whispering a story of high-class shoals.
This is down-and-delicious, head-sucking seafood that’s always fresh tasting, sometimes farmed and once in a while previously frozen. So, I do want to sell the eatery just right, because that’s what Hieu Pham does. He’s a great restaurateur, and I think we’re just seeing the beginning of what he can do.CRAWFISH SHACK SEAFOOD 4337 Buford Highway, 404-929-6789 Food: appealing Cajun-style seafood, steamed or fried Service: friendly and prompt Best dishes: Shrimp po-boy, “shacktastic” platters, fried snapper Vegetarian selections: just side dishes and an American cheese po-boy Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa and Discover Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 12:30-8 p.m. Sundays Children: perfect family joint Parking: in attached lot Reservations: yes Wheelchair access: full Smoking: no Noise level: moderate Patio: a few tables facing the parking lot that could charitably be called a patio Takeout: yes