Break it in half and suck the head. That’s the motto for eating crawfish. There’s no better way to do it. For the uninitiated, crawfish are tiny lobster-like crustaceans found in muddy waters. When boiled with potatoes, Andouille sausage, corn, lots of butter and Cajun spices, they become a finger-food delicacy, best for social occasions.
San Jose has experienced a wave of new crawfish and Cajun restaurants over the last decade. And while new restaurant growth has slowed, the cuisine still remains a favorite among young and old alike. SJ Crawfish is one of the latest to offer a crawfish boil menu.
Set in the same plaza on North Capitol Avenue as newly opened neighbor Pho Tick Tock, SJ Crawfish offers a spacious dining room suitable for large parties, which makes sense considering how crawfish are best enjoyed. The crawfish here are served in double plastic bags weighed out for portion size. The Combo #1 ($36.99) contains one pound of crawfish, a pound of shrimp, another pound of mussels, two corn on the cobs, two potatoes and six pieces of sausage.
We ordered our combo with Cajun seasoning at original-mild spice level. Among the other flavor choices were tamarind, pineapple, and SJ Style, which is all the above. Spice levels range from mild to very spicy with an option for increased habañero pepper. The crawfish meat was sweet and the seasoning was flavorful with a strong kick. Err on the conservative side with spice level selection, as the lowest level is still plenty hot. The combo provided more protein than an all-crawfish bag, thanks to the heavier shrimp, and the corn and sausage pieces soak up all the flavor, making for an interesting bite.
Like most Cajun-Vietnamese joints, SJ Crawfish serves their food in plastic bags by the pound, on top of a table covered with butcher paper, paper plates and plastic utensils. All of our membrane-thin plastic bibs, which come with a generic red lobster picture, broke at the straps. But this wasn’t our first crawfish rodeo: we came prepared in clothes we didn’t mind dirtying. Using plastic gloves to tear off the crawfish exoskeletons, we dipped the hard-earned tail meat into small plastic containers of salt, pepper and lime juice. It’s a combination I prefer to clarified butter.
All this salty and spicy protein needs a starch for balance, and the garlic rice ($5.95) is a nice compliment. Roughly chopped garlic hunks were fried to add a fragrant aroma to the white rice. The sauce of the seafood masked any shortcomings in the rice.
I can never resist Asian-style chicken wings, as I am constantly on the hunt for the perfect wing. The SJ fried chicken wings with tamarind sauce ($9.95) caught my eye, because they’re not the usual soy or salt and pepper version. They ended up being my favorite part of the meal: tangy and crispy as expected with just enough tamarind.
Out of curiosity, I tried the steamed obtuse horn snail in coconut ($11.95). Snails are common in Vietnamese cuisine and I’ve had them before as appetizers, but the coconut broth was a first. The snails’ shells are horn shaped and spiral, making it difficult to remove the meat with a pick. The chef clips the end of each snail so meat can be sucked out. The snails don’t have much flavor—except for the rare and unfortunate gritty ones tasting of mud—and the coconut broth was just too sweet for me.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Cajun-Vietnamese food craze, a place like SJ Crawfish may seem unique. It’s actually very standard, even down to the sea blue walls and plastic fish and netting hung around the store. There’s often a sea theme that’s been interpreted in an over-the-top manner. The secret sauce that determines such a restaurant’s staying power is literally the sauce in the crawfish. SJ Crawfish is enjoyable and has potential to outlive its competitors.
393 N Capitol Ave, San Jose