March 24, 2016

Seafood-By-The-Bag Spreads Cajun Flavors

Restaurants across the country serve bags full of perfectly spiced seafood.

Restaurants across the country serve bags full of perfectly spiced seafood.

Seafood-by-the-bag is a simple, yet delightful dining concept that is gaining heat across the U.S. Inspired by the Cajun cuisine of New Orleans, this means of serving crawfish, shrimp and crab, among other dishes, has become increasingly popular. Students in culinary arts programs can both enjoy and learn from this stripped-down but immensely satisfying approach to delivering classic flavors.

What makes Cajun-style crawfish?
Seafood-by-the-bag restaurants may serve an array of items, but they are most closely identified with Cajun-style crab and especially crawfish boil. As Alton Brown explained, the most distinctive feature of the crawfish boil is the enticing, aromatic seasoning that goes along with it. Brown’s recipe includes cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cloves, allspice, Kosher salt, thyme, oregano, dry mustard, dill and bay leaves. However, there are countless variations on the seasoning either available at grocery stores or passed down through family traditions.

“The most distinctive feature of crawfish boil is the seasoning.”

Justin Smith, co-owner of Louisiana Crawfish Company discussed with Thrillist the rest of the preparation involved in a typical batch of boiled crawfish, emphasizing the importance of not overcooking. He explained that his cooking process calls for a pot containing a ratio of 2 quarts water to 1 pound of the mudbugs. Before adding any of the shelled main attraction to the mix, however, he recommended boiling potatoes for fifteen minutes and adding other vegetables like corn in the last five. Only then do the crawfish go in for roughly two minutes. If it stays in the pot for much longer, the shells become difficult to peel.

Fresh taste by the pound
Cajun cooking traditions have spread well beyond the Louisiana borders, delivering great-tasting crustaceans to patrons across the country. These meals are commonly cooked and served in a plastic bag that helps keep the shellfish juicy during boiling. As a side benefit, the bag arrives on the table full of seafood, sauce and vegetables, which makes digging into dinner a fun, if a bit messy, experience.

The center of this trend is California, home of The Boiling Crab. The chain has 12 locations in the state and has also expanded into Las Vegas and Dallas. Customers can choose among seasonally shifting options like crab, lobster or shrimp, while crawfish, clams or mussels are all available by the pound. Then they select Cajun seasoning, lemon pepper, garlic sauce or the most popular variation: a flavorful combination of all three known as The Whole Sha-Bang. Finally, diners choose from one of four levels of spiciness and perhaps throw in a side like Cajun fries or a cup of gumbo.

According to Serious Eats, the one drawback to visiting The Boiling Crab is that the wait to be seated can be quite long. At dinner hours, this delay routinely stretches to over two hours. Luckily, those who lack such patience when they are longing for a bag of crawfish boil can grab a carryout order instead.

Seafood-in-a-bag restaurants embrace the messiness of eating shellfish.Seafood-in-a-bag restaurants embrace the messiness of eating shellfish.

Continuing expansion
Based on this success, other restaurants have picked up on the concept of selling plastic bags packed with tasty Cajun seafood by the pound. The Angry Crab in Chicago brings a selection of crawfish, shrimp, clams, mussels and lobster, among other seafood favorites, to the Midwest. As RedEye explained, the three Nguyen brothers who own and operate the restaurant hail from California and set out to capture the tastes they remembered fondly. Indeed, the flavor and spice options, as well as the means of service, are very close to what customers would find if they traveled to the West Coast  and visited a Boiling Crab location.

Other establishments are beginning to contribute intriguing twists to the seafood-in-a-bag basics. The New York Post reported that The Boil in New York City provides customers with blue gloves and bibs to counter the messiness of cracking open crawfish while adding novelty. The Crab Pad, another Chicago spot set to open soon, will add a bar where patrons can purchase ice cream on a stick. According to DNAInfo, customers there will be able to pick from various flavors, drizzles and toppings in a setup similar to Popbar in New York. If there proves to be a long wait, as there has been at other such restaurants, diners will have the chance to enjoy custom-made ice cream bars until a table opens up.

Seafood-in-a-bag brings a fun, delicious approach to Cajun-style cooking. This trend seems poised to spread further, and graduates of culinary academy will have opportunities to try out various takes on traditional spices and cooking methods, incorporating them into exciting dining concepts.