A Southeast Asian Twist on the Gulf Seafood Boil | Culinary Backstreets
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Approach Seafood Sally’s from Uptown’s Oak Street and you might mistake it for a workaday, renovated home in the district’s bucolic Riverbend neighborhood. A highly-modified cottage-style double with a drab tan paint job and muted pink accents – the house is something you’d expect from a retired high-school librarian with a weakness for Hemingway’s Key West.

But the tables outside are a giveaway that it is something more than a single-family dwelling. A couple are scattered among clusters of wild calla lilies in the front yard, and more sit on the deep front porch. There are even wooden picnic tables by a shed and towering pine trees. What drives home the curiosity is the sign – a weathered, wooden rectangle dripping with rusty chains and the restaurant’s name in pink script that matches the shutters. Where most folks would see kitschy industrial driftwood, anyone who’s ever fished in the gulf (or has a friend here with a boat) knows it as a trawling board used by local shrimpers to net their catch.

The rusty yet stylish sign makes sense: Relative newcomer Seafood Sally’s specializes in one of the cornerstones of Louisiana culinary culture – the Gulf seafood boil – with a decidedly modern sensibility.

To the uninitiated, the idea of “boiled seafood” might seem bland and shrug-worthy, but as one might expect, we do things a little bit different around here. Spice profiles can accurately be described as “aggressive.” Portion sizes are measured in pounds. And the only required utensils are a diner’s bare hands. Flood tides of palate-cooling beer keep the party going.

During different seafood harvest seasons – crawfish in early spring, crabs in summer, shrimp spring through autumn – one is never far away from spicy, freshly-boiled seafood, either purchased from a neighborhood seafood market or prepared by somebody’s brother-in-law in their back yard.

Any seafood boil – commercial or recreational – is an epic affair involving huge quantities of wriggling crustaceans and bubbling cauldrons big enough to be stirred with canoe paddles. Unlike a New England lobster boil, where ingredients fit into a single grocery sack, Louisiana crawfish boils require advance planning, a quasi-industrial outdoor kitchen and at least one pickup truck for hauling.

The proper “kitchen tools” for a crawfish boil are spiritual descendants of industrial oilfield equipment. Many families in south Louisiana own oversized propane-powered gas burners – the perfect portable stovetop for crawfish boils (and summertime fish-frying extravaganzas). When fired up to full strength, these burners can bring a 25-gallon pot of water to a rolling boil in minutes.

The cooks season the water with halved lemons, quartered onions, prepackaged seafood seasoning – a mix of bay leaves, mustard seed, allspice, clove and other aromatics – and copious amounts of cayenne pepper. When the mixture is brought up to temperature, properly spiced, it resembles a pot of boiling blood.

Depending on the season, you might dig in to a mountain of steaming crawfish, a heaping tray of heads-on shrimp or a half-dozen blue crabs turned red from 10-20 minutes in the pot. Whatever’s on the table, you’ll have to peel it yourself. Your reward is primal seafood goodness, one tail or claw at a time.

Seafood Sally’s is a side project of Marcus Jacobs and Caitlin Carney, the young power couple that opened up mid-city favorite Marjie’s Grill in 2016. Veterans of chef Donald Link’s Herbsaint, the pair are best-known for their Southeast Asian riffs on southern US regional classics (smoked beef cheeks with Viet chimichurri, coal-roasted local mushrooms flavored with chili, fish sauce and lime).

Sally’s is their reimagining of the Gulf Coast seafood joint, with all the classic local seafood dishes shot through with just enough of a twist to showcase their tasty worldview. On first view, the menu seems to hit all the traditional seafood shack classics (raw oysters and their char-grilled brethren, onion rings, a few sandwiches, a nice fried catfish plate with hush puppies on the side), but the dish descriptions show the chef’s penchant for integrating Asian influences for a less-traditional savor.

Plump, freshly-shucked oysters arrive with the traditional tomato/horseradish cocktail sauce for dipping, along with a ramekin of a tangy, addictively funky mignonette sauce fortified with a hint of Vietnamese fish sauce. Crisp-fried turkey necks come topped with a similar citrusy nouc cham sauce, along with fresh-chopped herbs and honey.

Visitors might not recognize a few of the phrases liberally sprinkled throughout the menu – Area 3 oysters, Des Allemandes catfish, Jumbo #1 crabs – but for seafood-savvy locals, these code words demonstrate the kitchen’s dedication to sourcing consistently high-quality raw ingredients. Consider them a kind of secret handshake that indicates Grade A coastal connections.

Seafood Sally’s specializes in one of the cornerstones of Louisiana culinary culture – the Gulf seafood boil – with a decidedly modern sensibility.

Which brings us to the star of the show – the “seafood plates” section of the menu. Choose your preferred aquatic critter (crawfish, shrimp or crab, depending on season, of course) and a steaming metal tray arrives minutes later, studded with the classic “crawfish boil” vegetables to make it interesting. From there, it’s a peel-and-eat adventure, where you dismember the crustacean in question to get at the savory bits within. Peeling shrimp might be fairly self-explanatory for beginners, crawfish a little more of a challenge, and jumbo crabs requiring either previous experience or a patience to get at the delicious lump of meat beneath the armor. Attentive waitstaff can walk you through the basics, if needed.

In the best of times, this hands-on dissection process can be described as “a bit messy” – but Seafood Sally’s adds a distinctive layer of flavor that’s worth a little bit of additional spatter. For a few bucks more, the kitchen tosses the steaming seafood in their insanely flavorful “secret chili butter” before serving, adding a complex layer of richness that is full of pepper and herbs. (This technique gives a buttery shoutout to the Viet-Cajun crawfish preparation that first showed up in the Southeast Asian immigrant communities west of Houston a couple of decades back.) The sauce gives the whole experience another level of savor and burn (all of which calls for more beer or a well-poured cocktail to cut the richness).

Make your way through a tray, and you’ll end up sated, slick and spiced-up – in other words, just the way you’re supposed to feel after a boil. It’s a great way to celebrate and explore the bounty and variety of south Louisiana’s delicious, evolving seafood traditions.

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