Crablicious - Artesia
Unlike nukes, the continual proliferation of the Vietnamese-owned, Louisiana crawfish joint is a good thing. A few years ago, short of driving to the gulf states, you could only find them here clustered around actual Vietnamese neighborhoods. There's a particularly dense population of them in Little Saigon, where the trend all started. (See my post on Boiling Crab).
But now, they're likely to pop up anywhere within earshot of a growling Asian stomach. Like mushrooms, they thrive under the shade of other Asian businesses and restaurants. Such is the case in Artesia/Cerritos, where the burgeoning boom of Asian mini-malls has cultivated at least two crawfish joints on a single block of South Street alone.
I went to one last night* -- a place with a name so contrived and gimmicky, it's gag-inducing. When I saw Zach Efron's autograph scribbled on the walls in permanent marker (along with other customer-created graffiti), I became even more suspicious.
You see, in my experience (ahem, Crustacean), the deliciousness of the food is inversely related to the number of celebrity endorsements touted. And if the word "delicious" is somehow worked into the name, well, you also have to take two or three points away, just as a rule.
But oh, was I ever glad to be wrong on this one. Crablicious turned out to be the best Vietnamese Cajun crawfish boil restaurant yet. And actually, it's not Vietnamese-owned.
I saw Korean soft tofu soup, Singapore rice noodle, teriyaki bowls, even fish and chips. I heard Cantonese spoken in the kitchen but our server looked Korean**. Adding to the mystery of its origins, Crablicious also repatriated some dishes from Macau Street, the Chinese-Macanese restaurant that previously occupied the space before it folded. Fitting right in with the new decor of hastily hung fish nets, port holes, and sailboat-print wallpaper is Macau Street's fried crab with chili. Almost every table ordered it. Mallets were provided.
New to my eyes was the Crablicious Noodle Soup ($9.99) -- a simple, chicken broth brew full of shrimp, scallop, thinly-shaved beef, squid, beef and fish meatballs. It's served family-style in pumpkin-shaped ceramic vessel with a choice of ramen, udon, or vermicelli. We took the ramen, ladled the boiling broth into soup bowls, and slurped our way to a warm gut.
The deep fried flounder ($8.99/lb) came next, all covered in bubbled batter. The flesh was creamy, the crispy bones crackled with an oily crunch. First, we went in with forks, but soon ditched them to go primitive, licking our fingers and smacking our chops.
But our digits hadn't seen the best of it yet. The main event had yet to arrive. To prepare for it, butcher paper was laid out. Its purpose: to contain the carnage that was about to occur. Around our necks plastic bibs were tied, intended to protect our shirts.
Then, with the blare of trumpets, they came. Steamed in plastic bags, and served in them, these were the crawfish ($8.99/lb), the shrimp ($8.99/lb) and the clams ($8.99/lb). Each was steeped in its own customizable, lip-throbbing, grease-slicked, cadre of seasonings. We opted for a mix of Cajun and garlic butter for the mudbugs; plain garlic butter for the shrimp; and basil lime for the clams.
Immediately, we took to the crawdads like a marauding medieval army to battle. We twisted off heads, tore bodies apart. We sucked out juices, licked off sauce and gnashed our teeth on flesh with a wanton bloodlust worthy of a Spartan.
To fish out the pasty green tomalley from the crawfish, I shoved an index finger into the upper thorax and wiggled it around. Later, I devolved even further. I held the decapitated heads captive underneath my teeth and bit down with my molars. And like a vice, it squeezed out even more fat from their skulls. The tiny amount of tail meat I savored slowly, noting its sweetness against the backdrop of lethal Cajun spice.
The shrimp -- after it was ripped clean of its tiny feet, its antennaed head and its papery armor -- I dunked back into the shimmering pool of sauce which had the sheen of pizza grease. After that, it came out shinier than an oiled bodybuilder, ready to be consumed. A salty, buttery, garlicky mess of dribbles dripped from my lips; a smile of keen satisfaction cut across my face.
The clams took less effort to conquer. Each quivering morsel was defenseless, nude and beautifully erotic on an open shell like Botticelli's Venus.
For dessert, our victorious palates celebrated with the "Crabzy Icy" ($7.99). A fruit-laced, red-bean-sweetened, ice-cream-topped slush of shaved frozen milk. Sure it's a little girly, thick with irony next to the mound of shellfish and crustacean carcasses that now lay defeated in a pile.
But it tamed our burning gullets and eased us into a more civilized form of eating. That is, until we go back to Crablicious to repeat it all over again. Maybe next week!
11612 South St.
Artesia, CA 90701
*Special Thanks to Monster Munching reader Cecile for this tip.
**According to Monster Munching reader Bubo, our server (and restaurant manager) was none other than Turbo Kong, a character actor originally from Hong Kong (not Korea, as I incorrectly assumed), who fought Bruce Wayne at the start of Batman Begins and has appeared in many other martial arts flicks. Check out his showreel here.