Cajuns and Cantonese may not seem like culinary kissing cousins, but both these cultures know that crawfish, shrimp, crab and clams cooked and served in the shell have superior succulence and flavor. The fare at Craw Station, an Asian-Cajun house of boiled and fried seafood, proves that.
The drippy, messy, finger-burning ordeal of extracting the tail meat from a pound of crawfish in spicy Cajun boiling liquid is more fun than you might think at this Sunset district restaurant.
By necessity, you spend a long time shelling, dunking, wiping and talking — a shared experience. The precious morsels, extracted one by one, feel like prizes, and the pace of the meal allows your stomach to catch up with your appetite.
You can’t help but feel close to your fellow eaters since everyone is immersed in the fiery dinner together. Craw Station provides a cozy setting for this kind of congenial eating.
A handful of square and round tables covered with thick waxed butcher paper fill a small front room, which has a small beer and wine bar and a couple of flat-screen TVs. In the back, a glassed in patio-courtyard has larger tables for bigger groups. Rolls of paper towels and metal shell buckets stand ready at each table.
Start with cleanly fried seafood in a crunchy, spicy batter. Catfish fingers ($9.99) are particularly tasty with sweet, tender flesh. Fried oysters ($8.99 for six) get such a quick, hot fry that their brine is captured inside a craggy, nubbly coating — a sensation.
Calamari ($8.99) can be perfect or a touch chewy. It only takes an extra second to overcook them.
Roll up your sleeves and tie on your plastic bib for the boiled stuff. I like the house Cajun boil for crawfish ($11.15 per pound). At medium hot, it packs plenty of heat to season the dripping little tails as you twist them out of their shells.
The Cajun boil also works on fresh gulf shrimp ($11.99 per pound), thin, shelled, plump and much easier to peel. Lemon-pepper seasoning is nice with manila clams ($9.99 per pound), which release their own juices into the mix.
For a whole, local Dungeness crab ($29), I prefer “simply boiled,” because its meat — when properly cooked, as it is here — has such delicate, natural flavor and satiny texture, you don’t want to overpower it.
As the bucket fills with shells, you’re left with double plastic bags of spicy liquid, which call out for toasted french bread ($1.50). Some days, sausage ($1.99 for six pieces) thrown into the boil will be lively boudin from Louisiana; other times, they will be work-a-day hot links. Ask first.
Other boiled sides — new potatoes ($1.50), corn on the cob (75 cents), rice ($1.50) — also work for sopping, though house noodles, ($6.95) crunchy with tobiko (flying fish roe) in a light Asian dressing, are too slippery and require a fork.
Remember, once you dive into the boils, you’re done with glassware and silverware.
Towel off at the end and finish the job with wipes that arrive with the check, which is surprisingly low for such high-quality seafood — about $25 a person with drinks. Then head down Ninth Avenue to Park Chow for housemade coconut cream pie for dessert.
With eating this good, you just might want to hop off the N-Judah at Craw Station whenever you can.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 1336 Ninth Ave. (between Irving and Judah streets), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 682-9980, www.crawstation.com
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: Fried seafood $8.99 to $9.99; boiled seafood $9.99 and up; sides 75 cents to $6.95
Recommended dishes: Fried catfish, fried oysters, shrimp and crawfish boiled in house Cajun broth, simply boiled Dungeness crab, lemon-pepper boiled clams
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: For 10 or more only