In New Orleans, crawfish offers more than just sustenance—it’s an entire culture all its own.
The first time I ate boiled crawfish, I was in a living room that, oddly enough, I’d soon see depicted on television. It was April of 2010, and I was visiting New Orleans with my then boyfriend (now husband).
The house, in the Treme neighborhood, belonged to his friend Davis Rogan, a native musician and local radio DJ personality whose life would soon become the basis of a central character in Treme, the former HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans. Davis also wrote and consulted for the show, appeared as himself frequently, and eventually found himself sipping Sazeracs with Anthony Bourdain on his travel-and-food TV show, The Layover. But that afternoon, before all that, Davis was teaching me to eat crawfish.
Crawfish consumption: The technique
I watched as our friend plucked from a metal mixing bowl what resembled—and tasted much like—a tiny red lobster. He held it between his index fingers and thumbs; twisted the head off and sucked the juice from it; unwrapped the top of the shell; pinched the tail; and squeezed the seasoned, spicy meat into his mouth—all in one fluid movement.
Honestly, it seemed like a lot of work for something so small. But then he and my boyfriend dug in, and I was awestruck: The shells of the boiled crawfish accumulated at a dizzying rate—I’d rarely seen anything consumed so fast.
The history of crawfish as cuisine in NOLA
People travel from around the world to savor New Orleans’s distinctive cuisine, but nothing says “Welcome to Louisiana” like a mountain of mudbugs.
Although the act of eating them predates colonization (Native Americans harvested them long before Europeans arrived), Cajuns sometimes spin a different tale: When their shellfish-loving Acadian ancestors were exiled from Canada in 1755, lobsters followed them. The journey south was long and arduous, however, so by the time they reached Louisiana, they’d shrunk to crawfish size.
Local crawfish culture
In New Orleans, this particular crustacean means much more than just food. In spring and early summer (aka crawfish season), the culture of locals’-hosted backyard boils not only fills stomachs but also cultivates community.
Neighbors and friends gather elbow-to-elbow around newspaper-covered picnic tables, endlessly peeling (a typical serving size being 3 to 5 pounds per person) and drinking beer. Steam rises, hands get dirty, shirts get spice-splattered, mouths burn, and just when you’re about to throw in the paper-towel roll, someone dumps another mound of mudbugs on the table (plus corn on the cob, lemons, garlic, onions, potatoes, and sometimes even sausage), and you stay, and remember why you live in New Orleans—or discover why you’d want to.
That said, you needn’t move to Louisiana or score a backyard invite to enjoy crawfish—you just have to visit. Local New Orleans restaurants sell mudbugs year-round in gumbo, étouffée, and po’boys, and during peak season (April and May), in omelets and enchiladas, ravioli and risotto, bisque and beignets, mac-n-cheese and cheesecake. During Mardi Gras, you can (and should) buy crawfish bread from vendors selling it out of their coolers along the parade route: It might just be the perfect street food.
With the Crescent City’s culinary scene ever evolving, local chefs are also finding new and innovative ways to prepare crawfish.
At Marjie’s Grill, a Mid-City newcomer blending Southern and Southeast Asian flavors, chef-owner Marcus Jacobs’s sublime boil combines curry, toasted lemongrass, sambal, and butter. If there’s crawfish left at day’s end, he transforms it into a mouthwatering triumph of tastes: gingery, garlicky étouffée with house-made turmeric noodles.
Meanwhile, at Uptown Asian restaurant Luvi (opened in April 2018 and already renowned for transcendent dumplings, noodles, and raw-bar delicacies), chef-owner Hao Gong plans to add to his springtime menu fried wontons with fresh crawfish tail, sweet corn, leeks, and Mala chili soy sauce—a perfect balance of heat, sweet, salt, and crunch.
And at brand-new Southern eatery Gris Gris in the Lower Garden District (opened in August 2018), chef-owner Eric Cook serves, in season, a creamy, decadent, Creole-spiced dish of chargrilled crawfish on crispy fried green tomatoes with smoked tomato butter.
But don’t worry: You’ll still get your fill of good, old-fashioned boils, too. Many top-rated crawfish feasts require a drive to Cajun Country, a region set west of New Orleans, along the Gulf of Mexico (Hawk’s in Rayne being the prime example), or at least to the West Bank, a section of NOLA set across the Mississippi River (like Salvo’s in Belle Chasse or MiMi in Gretna). But plenty of establishments closer to the city center (mostly unfussy neighborhood joints) have earned dedicated followings. Just keep in mind that it’s like religion: Everyone has their own church.
Bevi Seafood Co., for example, with a new location in Mid-City, is highly respected for its careful sourcing and sorting. Also in Mid-City, family-run Clesi’s offers patio seating and a spot-on spice blend. Cajun Seafood has cheap and flavorful crawfish in four locations around town, and 76-year-old Frankie and Johnnie’s is a solid Uptown institution (but call first to ask if crawfish are available). And ever-popular Deanie’s, with its tasty amuse-bouche of boiled potatoes, recently opened a third restaurant in the Garden District (you’ll also find it in Metairie and the Quarter).
That’s what I do. Six years after trying my first crawfish in that Treme living room, I moved to New Orleans with my husband. And while I still can’t speed-eat like he can, I hold my own at boils. As does our three-year-old son, who devours mudbugs quicker than we can peel them. He has no idea he’s participating in a cherished, time-honored tradition. He just knows they’re delicious.