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BayouEats: Crawfish

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Eats
Mar 31st, 2014
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It’s Crawfish Season in the South
article by Michael DeVault  |  photography by Joli Livaudais

When the hot summer months start to stare Louisiana down and Spring begins to coax the green back onto the trees, it’s time to slip on down to your favorite watering hole, juke joint, or seafood restaurant for a touch of Louisiana class, compliments of the men and women who spend their days purging, seasoning, and boiling up crawfish. That’s right, it’s crawfish season. And whether you want your crawfish spicy or mild, crab boiled or seasoned-on-the-shell, BayouLife is there to help you find that perfect mudbug.

Crawfish are one of the most recognizable symbols of Louisiana, and people from around the world associate the arthropod with backyard crawfish boils, community gatherings, and fun-filled parties at local eateries. But like so many other Louisiana fine dining experiences, crawfish have a season. You can only get this delicacy from late November until Independence Day–if your lucky. So you won’t want to wait too long before you dive into a few pounds. Spicy or mild, steamed or boiled, seasoned in the water or on the shell, we’ve made the rounds to help you pick the perfect place to get your mudbug fix.

When it comes to crawfish restaurants in Monroe, there has to be a first. That title belongs to Larry Cormier and Cormier’s, on Forsythe Avenue in Monroe. Larry brought an original south Louisiana recipe to the Twin Cities almost by accident. He never intended to open a restaurant.

CORMIER’S
1205 FORSYTHE AVENUE IN MONROE

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“I moved to Monroe to manage a rice farm,” Larry says. “I started serving crawfish to some of the duck hunters who came to the farm to hunt.” When farming took a turn for the worse, Larry knew he needed to do something to provide for his family. A few months later, Cormier’s was born in a converted gas station and the rest is history. “I really didn’t think this thing would get as big as it is.”

From late November through the end of June, Cormier’s opens its doors–and its patio, and the parking lot–to patrons from around the state, who crowd in around picnic tables to consume pounds of Larry’s secret recipe–which has evolved very little since he first came to Monroe.

“The basics of how we do things, ain’t nothing changed,” Larry says. Over the years, Larry’s family have all gotten hands-on with the business. His son Jamie was running the kitchen the day BayouLife visited. Larry’s other children are involved in the operation, though, as are his grandchildren when they’re not away at school. It’s all part of the family atmosphere at Cormier’s, which includes the ubiquitous space jumper in the parking lot for the kids. Larry notes that this is how he grew up eating crawfish as a kid, and Cormier’s crawfish have become a north Monroe tradition.

The Cormier’s recipe calls for crab boil in the water, which gives the crawfish a bit of a kick. Also, there’s lemon, other seasonings, and even a little salt. But the cooking method is what sets Cormier’s apart from other vendors. Where most chefs boil the crawfish “until they’re done,” Cormier’s method stops short of that. The crawfish are then “shocked”–dumped into colder water, seasoned, and then put into a steamer trunk. The finishing cooking time is done in the steamer–a 100-gallon Igloo Ice Chest, where master cooks douse the crawfish in Cormier’s secret blend of spices. The steam, Larry says, forces those spices into the crawfish.

The result of this method is firmer tail meat, a fast, crisp peel time, and a subtle spice that doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the crawfish. That’s a good thing, too, because Larry says Cormier’s uses only the best crawfish he can find. Seasoning the crawfish after cooking, Larry adds, provides more control over what the end product tastes like. And what about that taste?

“All I can tell you is we’ve been voted the best crawfish for 25 years in a row,” Larry says. His crawfish speak for themselves. They’re mild at first, but they get hotter pretty quick, so you’ll want to keep something cold handy to wash them down with.

Before Cormier’s shuts down, be sure to drop by for lunch, too, where you can chow down on a Pig Sandwich, a dripping, spicy slab of deliciousness on New Orleans Gambino bread. The sandwich developed as Cormier’s began offering fresh Boudin, which involves cooking rice with a hog butt. “Dad thought it’d be good on a sandwich,” says Jamie. “He tried it and now it’s our best selling sandwich.”

CATFISH CHARLIES
2329 LOUISVILLE AVENUE IN MONROE

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When Doug Wood bought Catfish Charlie’s seven years ago, he knew he wanted to expand the menu options and grow the business. Three years in, he found his stride when he added a crawfish season. Doug is comfortable, though, with his relative newcomer status in the world of Monroe Crawfish.

“I love crawfish,” Doug says. “I love cooking ’em.” He’s mastered Catfish Charlie’s technique, too. Immediately after removing the crawfish from heavily seasoned boiling water, chefs dump a bus tub of ice on top of them to “shock” them. Before the ice, though, comes what Doug calls their secret weapon: soak time.

“We leave the crawfish in the pot for five to seven minutes,” he says. “Then we put it in the ice chest.”
The ice bath causes the shells to rapidly contract and loosen, easing the peeling process and allowing more flavor in. That flavor is different from other restaurants because of a unique twist on the traditional crab boil recipe, according to Doug, who says he’s worked to perfect the Catfish Charlie’s recipe.

“We feel like we have a totally different flavor profile, because of our preparation,” he says. For a bonus, each serving of crawfish comes with the traditional potatoes and corn. But Catfish Charlie’s also adds a serving of smoked sausage to the tray. Doug says he was surprised how quickly people took to the idea.
“If we forget to put it on the tray, they’ll come back and ask for it,” he says.

Between the sausage and the crawfish, you’re in for a flavor explosion. The sausage is smoky and rich, the crawfish fluffy and flavorful. Well-seasoned crawfish offer plenty of spice but not too much heat. You’ll notice they’re spicy, but your lips won’t burn off. And for those brave souls who like it hotter, there’s a big box of Tony C’s on every table.

What sets Catfish Charlie’s apart from the other crawfish vendors is that the restaurant does not offer beer, wine, or spirits, a holdover from the restaurant’s earliest days as a family eatery. “This is the only crawfish environment in town without alcohol or beer,” Doug says. His crawfish colleagues questioned the logic at first, but for Catfish Charlie’s, which has never served alcohol, the lack of beer hasn’t hindered. They still sell plenty mudbugs every season.

While you’re waiting on thosefirst five pounds to make it to the table, be sure to order the fried cheese sticks. Unlike many restaurants, who use pre-breaded mozzarella sticks, Catfish Charlie’s fried cheese is lightly coated in a homemade batter and deep fried. The result is striking. A crispy, airy batter gives way to hot, melted cheese. Whether dunked in marinara sauce or ranch dressing, fried cheese at Catfish Charlie’s is a must-try.

Also, for those non-crawfish eaters, Doug recommends the Thin and Crispy basket, a selection of wafer thin catfish fillets deep fried to perfection. “We were the first to bring the thin catfish to Monroe,” Doug says. “It’s our best seller.” Served with hush puppies and french fries, the Thin and Crispy is a good alternative to the spicy critters, and it’s available year-round.

RIVERSIDE CONEY ISLAND
CORNER OF WALNUT AND LOUISVILLE AVENUE IN MONROE

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Tom Hardy opened Riverside Coney Island as a small hotdog and burger stand in 1988. With seating for thirty or so inside, the diner was all he was aspiring to with his wife, who helps run the business. Two years later, though, he dropped his first crawfish into a pot of boiling water and changed his future. Today, Riverside Coney Island is by far the largest seller of crawfish in northeast Louisiana.

Today, Riverside Coney Island occupies half a city block under tents, canopies and awnings. In the massive outdoor kitchen, Tom’s crew will prepare and serve tons of mudbugs each week. To supply this massive operation, Tom “buys from everyone.” If a farm has crawfish, chances are he’s already cooking them.

“I run my trucks back and forth every day,” Tom says.

Riverside Coney Island’s crawfish are the perfect blend of all the elements of a crawfish. They’re spicy, flavorful, easy to peel. Served with corn and potatoes, Tom sells them by the pound. If you need an endorsement of Tom’s product, look no further than the seating area, where some 300 seats are available, cafeteria style, which Tom says is a throwback to the way they do things in south Louisiana. On any given night the place is packed to the gills. “We get so busy sometimes we have to put tables almost to the road. And then we fill them all up.”

In addition to crawfish, patrons dine on hotdogs, gourmet hamburgers, and a half dozen other popular dishes that keep Riverside Coney Island busy year round. Tom is always there, too, smiling from beneath the rim of his black fedora. Sometimes he’s on the floor, running his signature buckets of beer from table to table. At others, you’ll find him in the hut, dishing out orders to go by the bag full. Every once in a while, you’ll find him on the stage, talking to the band or to the Karaoke emcee.

Throughout the season, Riverside Coney Island has live music. There are also games for the kids, so that everyone has something to do. “Dad can drink a beer and mama doesn’t have to hire a baby sitter,” says Tom.

It’s an interesting place to find a man who moved to Monroe after getting married in 1976. He says his success shouldn’t be a surprise, though, because he comes from Canada, “where the real Cajuns came from.”

CRAWFISH CITY
3426 CYPRESS STREET IN WEST MONROE

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Monroe hardly has the market cornered on delicious crawfish delicacies. Now in it’s 12th crawfish season, Jeff Jarrell and John Hopper Jr.’s West Monroe enterprise has become an institution. And at this institution, the name says it all. Crawfish City.

“We are a seasonal business,” says Jarrell. So don’t wait too long to visit, because Crawfish City is only open during crawfish season, when they’ll serve up hundreds of pounds of crawfish to thousands of patrons who pack the restaurant from open til close, every day of the week.

“We have our own way of doing it,” Jarrell says. That way includes a unique, rustic atmosphere and an enclosed play area for children complete with a party jumper. Over the years, they’ve become a different kind of family tradition, too, as the same employees return season after season. Eventually, though, even the best employees grow up and move on.

“Then their little sisters and brothers come to work for us,” says Jarrell, who hires the same students each year from West Monroe and West Ouachita High School and ULM. When you turn up at Crawfish City, chances are you’ll see the familiar faces you saw last year and the year before. They’ll bring you a cold Bud, a few pounds of crawfish, and maybe some of their famous boiled shrimp if you ask for them.

While they offer a great quality product, Jarrell says Crawfish City’s crawfish are “middle of the road” when it comes to the spice. That’s by design.

“Everybody’s tastes are different,” Jarrell says. “So we try to hit it in the middle, not too spicy, but not too bland.” The goal is to give each customer a satisfying experience with every bite. All things being equal, though, all that brave soul need do is ask, and Crawfish City will “turn it up a notch.”

“We’ll heat ’em up for the people who ask,” Jarrell says.

Business is booming, in spite of a changing market. Since Jarrell and Hopper opened Crawfish City in 2002, the market for crawfish has expanded from just Louisiana and parts of Alabama, to a more national profile.

“They’re taking crawfish to Houston and Dallas, Birmingham, all over the place,” Jarrell says. That means locals have to compete harder for the same crawfish that are produced at home. In fact, the proprietors of each of the restaurants BayouLife visited noted the changing nature of the crawfish industry. In the last ten years, the season has gotten much longer, often extending to well past July 4, but the supply has grown tighter due to the popularity of Louisiana cuisine throughout the country. The quality of crawfish has improved, too, according to Jarrell.

So while patrons pay a bit more for crawfish than they did in days past, Jarrell says they’re still getting a great Louisiana product for a great value.

CYPRESS INN ON THE BAYOU
7805 DESIARD STREET IN MONROE

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If you have a desire to relax over the water in the shade of a towering cypress tree while plowing through ten pounds of crawfish, your destination is Cypress Inn On the Bayou, where Vic Hendricks and crew will keep you well served throughout your visit. Between the service and the crawfish, you’re sure to be satisfied, but when a gentle breeze comes across the deck from the bayou, you’ll think you’ve arrived in paradise, or at least Louisiana’s version of it.

Vic says it’s designed that way. “This restaurant is literally built on top of the water,” he says. The restaurant has seating for at least fifty with direct views of Bayou DeSiard. A deck outside seats another forty. Atmosphere aside, from November to July, Cypress Inn On the Bayou is all about the crawfish. “We’re the only restaurant in town that serves All You Can Eat crawfish,” Vic says.

As a matter of pride and friendly competition, Vic says he tries to beat the competition to market every year. “I like to have the first crawfish served in Monroe every year, and I like to be the guy who sells the last one, too.”

Cypress Inn’s crawfish are hotter on the front end than some of the others in town, so be prepared for the heat. But the hotness quickly gives way to a flavor journey down the palette that includes lemon, white pepper, red pepper, crab boil and something else, too.

Wait. Is that garlic?

While almost every crawfish recipe calls for garlic in some form, those recipes moderate the garlic with salt and pepper, lemon juice, or other flavors. But not Cypress Inn On the Bayou. They revel in the pungent spice. “We use a ton of garlic,” Vic says. There’s minced garlic, powdered garlic, whole cloves in the water. Even the powdered seasoning that added after the crawfish are boiled includes garlic.

Don’t panic, though, because the garlic doesn’t overpower the crawfish. It adds a unique burst of flavor, opens up the other spices, and allows you to enjoy all the other flavors on the plate. During those moments when that garlic combines with the heat, kick back with a cold mug of draft beer and watch ducks and geese paddle by. Wander over to the rail and look down, where you’ll see dozens of turtles milling about, fish schooling around the posts, and even a few squirrels in the trees. Wildlife are everywhere. And it seems they’re all waiting on something.

Look no further than the center of the deck, where a friendly sign reveals what it is the wildlife are looking for. The “Bayou Feeder” dispenses a helping of nutritional pellets that pretty much every animal on the bayou seems to enjoy. It’s a good way to spend a family evening, letting the kids feed the animals while the parents enjoy adult company. And it’s all built around the crawfish.

If you want to try something a little different, consider adding a salad bar trip to your meal. Or, dig into a Cypress Inn Special–a fried or grilled catfish fillet served over rice and topped with crawfish étouffée. Whatever you do, make sure to try the fresh oysters on the half shell, a cold, icy finish to the perfect meal.