Crawfish Near and Far

New Orleans, La. –
The Cajun folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet is credited with a maxim that goes like this: in Acadiana your favorite boudin is always from the purveyor closest to home, while your favorite crawfish is invariably found rather far away.

The boudin selection around New Orleans isn't robust enough to test that adage locally, but getting to some of my favorite crawfish purveyors certainly does entail some travel. And frankly, for me, that's part of the fun of the feast. For instance, there's the drive over the Bonne Carre Spillway to get to the ramshackle but rewarding Crab Trap in Frenier, a cluster of camps on Lake Pontchartrain where at dusk you can peel shells and watch the boats come in. Similarly, getting to the nightly all-you-can-eat boiled seafood specials at Salvo's Seafood in Belle Chasse requires a trip over the Intracoastal Waterway and, occasionally, a considerable wait if the drawbridge needs to rise.

This year's crawfish season in particular has inspired a good bit of traveling, for which earlier weather is to blame. Last autumn was dry, which also means crawfish stay burrowed longer and start multiplying later. Then there were all those cold snaps over the winter, which always inhibit crawfish growth. It all meant that the crawfish we saw early in the season here were generally small, few and pricey. People may disagree on spice levels and other style points, but no one likes their crawfish like that.

Yet even when pickings are slim here in New Orleans, a short road trip usually pays off. Even in bad seasons, the examples served at the stripped-down "boiling points" and seafood restaurants around crawfish-farming parishes in Acadiana and the wild harvest areas around the Atchafalaya Basin come in earlier in the season and just seem consistently bigger and better than the export product that generally makes it to New Orleans. It was more proof for my suspicion that the best crawfish just don't make it very far from the source.

Lately, though, I've been getting my fix closer to home, just across the Harvey Canal in fact, thanks to the network of seafood specialists strung along the Westbank Expressway. Sam Perino is the man behind two of them -- Perino's Seafood & Deli, which is a market and take-out joint he's run for more than 30 years in Marrero, and Perino's Boiling Pot, which is a full-service restaurant in Harvey that his family opened in 2000.

Volume is a big factor in the crawfish game, and a restaurant that shares DNA with a busy seafood market seems to have a hereditary advantage. Picking through a platter here recently turned up a good mix of mid-sized and outright large specimens, all run through with a moderately spicy, lemony boil mix. The whole feast was ignited by a few links of brick-red boiled sausage and a few ears of corn, those reliable spice amplifiers of the boil.

No one seems to eat at Perino's alone, and the restaurant is designed to serve large groups quickly with long tables, stackable seafood trays and reusable picnic-style plastic plates. Around the dining room there's such a robust collection of hunting trophies mounted to walls, posts and nooks that the place could double as a gallery of taxidermy. The lunging black bear propped over the bar seems to promise that even if you come hungry as a beast, you'll leave stuffed.

Crab Trap
Peavine Road (off Hwy. 51), Frenier, 985-651-4150; open for lunch and dinner Fri.-Sun. seasonally

Salvo's Seafood
7742 Hwy. 23, Belle Chasse, 504-393-7303

Perino's Boiling Pot
3754 West Bank Expwy., Harvey, 504-340-5560

Perino's Seafood & Deli
6850 Westbank Expwy., Marrero, 504-347-5410