Red Crawfish in San Mateo

Theresa’s cousins suggested we all goto Red Crawfish in downtown San Mateo, to satisfy their crawfish cravings. Located in the downtown San Mateo district in a former commercial building along the CalTrain tracks, the decor is modern with a bar and several TVs that were showing sports.

Crawfish and shrimp are sold a la carte at “market price” on a per pound basis. The menu also has a selection of fried seafood plates/platters, stir fried seafood, and various sides (including steamed rice).  They also have some set menus that bundle several selections together for one price and are easily enough to share between 2 or 3 people .  You can substitute items, but there is a $2 surcharge in addition to any price difference (e.g. you can swap out one pound of shrimp for one pound of crawfish, or switch one of the sides for another). We opted for the #1 and swapped out 1lb of crawfish for a pound of shrimp. At Red Crawfish you can specify your spice level: mild, medium, spicy and xspicy. We opted for medium.

Spicy seafood is always better with beer. We were considering the 21st Amendment IPA, but were not sure if we would like it. Our waitress was nice enough to bring us a small sample of it to let us try it.  Clean and slightly sweet,  the IPA would pair well with the spicy food, so we ordered a full glass.

First to the table was the garlic bread and “cajun” fries.

The fries were delivered piping hot, fresh out of the fryer to the table. Garlic bread was toasted well, but was more like buttered toast with some garlic flavor rather than the garlic bread you typically get at Italian restaurants.  I characterize these as “standard” sides, nothing really memorable, but served as decent appetizers. Then, the namesake dish came.

The places I have been to here in the Bay Area cook up crawfish a bit differently than the way I grew up with in Louisiana. The crawfish are not boiled in salty, spice laden water (call a low country in some parts of the country) and served drained of all liquid, but rather par boiled and then served in a plastic bag with the seafood immersed in a steaming, garlicky sauce that is mixed with hot, spicy oil. Essentially what this means is the spice and flavor do not penetrate the meat like the Cajun boil method, but rather relies on surrounding liquid that you get on your hands to season the meat. For extra kick, you can dip your seafood after deshelling into the large pool of sauce in the bag.  This is probably done so the spice level can be set shortly before service, whereas the Cajun method commits the entire batch to one level.  All that sauce also means eating is messy affair, so diners are given lobster bibs and there are entire rolls of paper towels on each and every table. Crawfish and shrimp were firm and not overcooked, which tends to happen with boiled seafood, although I think they may steam their seafood here (the menu offered the option to serve seafood without sauce by as well).  Medium spice was plenty spicy for us, so I imagine the spicy and xspicy are really really hot (think asian spiciness standards). The burn was intense, but not a lasting, lingering burn, so you could still taste other foods after eating a few crawfish.  Besides the burn, the flavor profile was dominated by garlic and lack the follow up punch of lemon and herbs of the crawfish that I grew up with.

The garlic noodles came next and were delightfully chewy and super garlicky (but in a good, not overpowering way), and served as we were digging into our crawfish. It’s inclusion on the menu is probably because the owners of this and other similar crawfish restaurants around the Bay Area are of Vietnamese descent. If you don’t like garlic, this dish, and probably most of the dishes here, are not for you.

We ended up finishing all the seafood, as evidenced by the large pile of shells and empty plates that the waitress cleared from our table before the arrival of dessert, beignets.

Being a native New Orleanian, I have a very specific idea of what a good beignet is and should be, so I was really interested in seeing  Red Crawfish’s version. The “beignets” were the size of donut holes and came nice plated, topped with powederd sugar, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, all drizzled with chocolate syrup.  They might as well have been donut holes with a texture, mouth feel like a cake donut rather than a puffy, light beignet. A little disappointing, but I guess it’s their interpretation of a beignet.  Disappointment aside, eaten together with the ice cream, it was a decent albeit non-memorable dessert. Not something I would recommend as a must try, and if not part of the set menu, I would say go elsewhere if you really need dessert.

I would describe Red Crawfish as more of a fusion place rather than as a purely Cajun place because they employ a different cooking method for seafood, infused with some Vietnamese flavorings. If you go in with that mindset, I would say as a  seafood restaurant, it works. Food and service were good, and I can picture it being a fun place to hang out, perhaps even catch a Sharks, Niner, Giants game while eating. I would recommend going in a small group, as the act of messy, hands on eating is something that should be a shared experience. Red Crawfish fills a gap for those living along the Peninsula area who need a crawfish fix, although we feel that there are other places that are a slight notch above Red Crawfish. As with most restaurant choices in the Bay Area, it’s a question of how far are you willing to drive and then wait for a table versus the quality of the food you are getting.

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