It's been nearly a decade since Asian Cajun restaurants began taking off in the Los Angeles area, forcing diners to wait for hours for the opportunity to tuck into bags of spicy, buttery, boiled seafood. The trend quickly made its way north, and by 2010, the Crab Boil, the restaurant often credited with introducing the Asian Cajun trend to California, had opened up its own branch in Sacramento, amid a host of imitators. One of the newer additions to that genre is 938 Crawfish in Albany.
What makes Asian Cajun seafood different from traditional Cajun seafood boils? While your classic Southern seafood boil involves poaching shellfish in a mix of spices, Asian Cajun places go a step further and toss the whole lot in melted margarine spiked with aromatics and seasonings such as garlic, chili and lemon pepper. And they add items like mussels and snow crab to the Gulf Coast seafood mix.
At 938 Crawfish, you can choose from whole Dungeness crab, king crab legs, crawfish, clams, shrimp and/or mussels, tossed with lemon pepper or garlic butter sauce. Order your shellfish by the piece or the pound, or go for the Combo ($32.95), a shellfish assortment served with corn, new potatoes and sausages. The Meal ($45.95), which serves two or three, adds garlic noodles, fried fish and dessert. We went for the Meal -- shrimp, clams, crawfish and mussels -- smothered with a mix of the two sauces.
The seafood arrived bundled in a humid plastic bag that we disgorged into a common bowl -- a steamy, buttery riot of crimson mudbugs, blushing head-on shrimp, golden corn and other colorful gems. The crawfish were probably the best of the bunch, smallish but sweet. The restaurant has crayfish flown in live from the Gulf Coast. The sauce, which we ordered mild, with a bowl of spicier stuff on the side, was addictive, studded with garlic, and bits of Thai chili and spices. The sauce was at its best when mingled with the sweet, fatty and slightly iodine juice from the shrimp and crayfish heads.
A few of the other items were less impressive, particularly the green-lipped mussels (almost all of which come frozen from New Zealand, and taste-wise are vastly inferior to live mussels of any sort) and the corn. Although waterlogged and limp cobs are almost true to form for most seafood boils, we still harbored hope.
You can get bread, rice or garlic noodles to soak up the brothy, unctuous goodness. The slightly springy lo mein noodles had a mild garlicky flavor and were topped with a scattering of roughly chopped scallions; we skipped the powdery Parmesan that came on the side. The Meal also included fish and chips; the fries were just OK, but the catfish, breaded in herbed cornmeal, was deftly fried with a lovely crisp exterior and just-cooked juicy interior. Mild, simple and flawless, it needed no adornment. The catfish can also be ordered as an appetizer ($9.95).
There are other appetizers, including Buffalo wings ($6.95) we wished had been simply fried rather than coated in a soggy batter. A better choice is the Kumamoto or local oysters on the half shell ($29.95 for a dozen Kumamotos, or $23.95 for local) -- they're $1 each during happy hour (4 to 6:30 p.m.).
As one might guess, the vibe is casual seafood boil establishment: light and bright with tables adorned with butcher paper, rolls of paper towels and discarded shells. The servers are friendly and accommodating, with an eye toward keeping you hydrated (several beers are on offer, perfect for refreshing a chili-scorched palate) and managing the mounting mass of dining detritus.
The Asian Cajun genre is now deep enough to have its own variations, from Oakland's upscale alaMar to El Sobrante's pan-Asian Champa. But between the spicy, saucy shellfish and garlic noodles -- and fried Oreos for dessert -- 938 Crawfish is a good place for Asian Cajun done the "traditional" way.
WHERE: 938 San Pablo Ave., Albany
HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays through
Thursdays, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and until 9 p.m. Sundays
CUISINE: Asian Cajun
VEGETARIAN: Few vegetarian options. You'll be dining on noodles, fries.
BEVERAGES: Full bar with cocktails, wine and beer
RESERVATIONS: Not required
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Kids will enjoy the noodles.
PLUSES: Live crawfish, fantastic fried catfish
MINUSES: The mussels are frozen.
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