Facing a sea of customers one Saturday afternoon -- a boy wanting a calamari po-boy, a man lifting his toddler toward a stuffed deer head on the wall, a pregnant woman massaging her lower back -- the cashier at Crabby Jack's suddenly yelps, "Where's my crawfish?" She twirls around and shoves aside a newspaper-lined basket of boiled Belle River crawfish. "Ah, there you are," she coos in a tone normally used with babies, puppies or, strictly in private, lovers. She tenderly lifts a live crawfish, which is practically the size of a puppy, and strokes its head. Then, wriggling crawfish in palm, she resumes her post at the register and asks, "Would you like that dressed?"
At Crabby Jack's, nobody cares if you play with your food. The wait in the 30-seater space is long; by the time customers get face-time with their food, they take it literally. You'll find yourself rubbing love handles with men wearing K&B T-shirts who let the gravy-mayonnaise drippings squeezed out of a Not Famous Ferdi po-boy trickle down to their elbows, and women who announce they haven't showered yet today in anticipation of boiled lake crabs by the pound. I once spent 20 minutes watching a man tugging single fried shrimp from a po-boy, showering each one with Tabasco and savoring them individually. Many customers push stools aside to attack their sandwiches standing. The only rule at Crabby Jack's is painted on folk-arty signs from Dr. Bob around the restaurant: "Be Nice Or Leave."
Anyone familiar with Crabby Jack's owner, Jack Leonardi, won't be surprised by the creed. Also the man behind the madly popular Jacques-Imo's restaurant Uptown, Leonardi is best known for his unconventional food combinations, his chile pepper chef's shorts and his generosity with a tequila bottle when the wait at Jacques-Imo's exceeds the standard hour and a half. He took over the restaurant end of Louisiana Seafood Exchange in April and retails the wholesaler's raw seafood out of the shop's refrigerated cases.
Crabby Jack's lunch service ends right when Jacques-Imo's opens for dinner; just as Leonardi is an active host at night, he sometimes passes through the lunch place patting diners' backs and making sure they lick their butcher paper clean. His efficient front staff embodies a similarly good-natured spirit, wearing flip-flops, shorts and rosy cheeks as if a shift in the sandwich shop were a day at the beach. The prep cooks, whose work area opens onto a crowded gravel lot, also smile as customers park within a Saturn's length of their parsley chopping and fish cleaning.
For the rest of us, there's little struggle in being nice where you can scoot in for a muffaletta and leave with raw scallops the size of key limes; where whole red snapper, drum and grouper recline on a communal bed of ice; where red beans are thicker and creamier than softened butter and, for $6.95, are served with a pork chop whose spiced meat easily pulls from the bone with a plastic fork; where go-cups printed with Leonardi's scruffy mug are reaching cult status; and where a roasted duck po-boy wetted with thin, brown jus is so luscious you don't mind that the kitchen forgot to dress it.
Crabby Jack's menu is a mix of casual New Orleans and typical Leonardi ingenuity -- all prepared to a surprisingly high standard considering the restaurant's youth, and all packed in Styrofoam. An innovative daily special of hard, blue-corn taco shells filled with blackened swordfish strips, salmon in shreds, salsa and cheddar cheese is every bit as rewarding as a basic po-boy made with Cajun-spiced fries and reddish debris gravy. Blackened drum fillets with lump crabmeat and lemony hollandaise are as popular as po-boys over-stuffed with frayed roast beef. There's a wonderful salad of fried green tomatoes with crunchy shrimp smothered in a warm, garlicky red remoulade. Even side dishes seem to be made with love, like half-mashed potato salad with Creole mustard and pickles, and tart red cabbage slaw with a dab of creaminess. In the balmy room, brownies are like chocolate chips melted over walnuts.
Like other Jacques-Imo's devotees blinded by the brilliance of a deep-fried roast beef po-boy and the enigmatic joys of simply sitting in the swamp-themed restaurant, I've overlooked blunders perpetrated by that kitchen -- woody greens, lukewarm fish, broken sauces -- that would close other restaurants. After four flawless lunches at Crabby Jack's, I began to wonder if this new Leonardi venture had cast a similar spell. Then I ordered the fried chicken. When the noon rush clears out, the only people left standing will be you and the other customer who ordered the fried chicken. Not even a 40-minute wait, however, guarantees crisp skin. Austin Leslie, the grand poobah of fried chicken at Jacques-Imo's, might consider offering classes.
Rather than turn me off, however, the sub-par chicken validated my previous lunches at Crabby Jack's. It absolved me of what I had begun to fear was a partisan palate. In truth, from spicy jambalaya shot through with crisp green onions to side salads slicked with creamy garlic dressing, Crabby Jack's rocks. And that's not just being nice.
- Donn Young
- Close in counter: CRABBY JACK'S owner Jack Leonardi, also of Jacques-Imo's fame, took over the restaurant end of Louisiana Seafood Exchange in April and retails the wholesaler's raw seafood out of the shop's refrigerated cases.