Washingtonians weren’t the only ones hiding from the frigid temperatures earlier this year, when it felt as if the death squads of winter had summarily executed spring. The poor crawfish in Louisiana sheltered in place, too, buried in the mud, trying to ride out the cold fronts that blasted bayou country.
The few specimens, scrawny and flaccid, that dared to sneak a peek from their subterranean homes were quickly snatched up and served at crawfish houses dedicated to the sweet shelled meat. This chilly start to the mudbug season is the reason I’m grilling the waitress at Hot N Juicy Crawfish, a Woodley Park operation that’s part of a small (and this is not a typo) Las Vegas-based chain. The place’s junior-varsity atmosphere — think: LSU frat boys on a weekend bender at a crab shack — doesn’t bode well.
But the waitress tells me Hot N Juicy orders live crawdads from Louisiana.
“How large are they?” I wonder.
She uses her fingers to indicate length, maybe an inch-and-a-half long. “I’ve seen bigger,” she says.
The sexual innuendo is thick enough to cut with a gator tail, but this goes with the territory here. As the name implies, Hot N Juicy likes to pair its crawfish with a brand of swampy sensuality, purposefully blurring the line between human desire and peel-and-eat shellfish. The wait staff skews female, and they’re typically dressed in black tank tops and black, form-fitting pants. They’ll tie on your plastic bib, too, if you’d like. At this joint, you get mudbugs with a side order of Freud.
Like barbecue, that other staple of the South, crawfish should be a communal experience. The larger the group, the better. One Saturday evening, as a Final Four game glowed on flat-screens around the room, three friends and I sat down at a paper-covered table and ripped into a plastic bag filled with one pound of crawfish, one pound of shrimp, slices of andouille sausage, two sawed-off pieces of corn and several new potatoes. Hot N Juicy bills the meal as a “Get Your Feet Wet” experience, which must be ironic. Because it’s your hands that will turn soft, pungent and discolored from the cooking liquid.
The “Get Your Feet Wet” dinner costs $27.99, a price that would appear to bust the $20 Diner’s budget. But when divided among the four of us, the meal came to a tidy $7 each. The value cannot be overstated. That lone bag provided plenty of pleasures, both personal and communal, as we took turns fishing out our preferred morsels: lush head-on shrimp that smacked of butter and spice, petite cylinders of waterlogged corn whose sweetness poked through the pepper heat, orbs of soft new potatoes dipped in our preferred seasoning liquid, a garlic-assault dubbed the “Hot N Juicy Special.” Sure, the crawfish were undersized and slightly squishy, but they went down fine with a chaser of caramel-sweet Abita Amber.
Despite its blunt and jockish vibe, which attracts not just singles but families with babies in tow, Hot N Juicy doesn’t hold back with spice. If you order your shellfish “spicy” (not just crawfish, but blue crabs, king crab legs, shrimp, mussels and more on the “temptations by the pound” section), you will feel the heat. You’ll feel it on your lips, your tongue, even on your fingertips long after you’ve emptied the bag. Spice levels aside, Hot N Juicy also offers a selection of seasoning options, whether its titular blend (allegedly Asian-influenced, but mostly butter and garlic) or its lemon-pepper combination (not so acidic, actually).
The higher heat levels strike me as counterproductive, if not downright destructive, when paired with something as delicate as snow crab legs, whose lengths of ivory flesh need little more than a quick dunk in melted butter. So for our one-pound order (approximately six legs total for $17.99, the value shrinking fast), we played it safe, selecting a garlic-butter seasoning and “mild” spice, which were perfect for the sweet hunks of meat. The only problem? Without a mallet at our disposal, one diner at our table resorted to breaking open the legs with the heavy bottom of her Corona bottle.
So far, I’ve ordered crawfish four times at Hot N Juicy, and the boiled-and-steamed crustaceans have varied widely in size, from tails the length of a pinky finger to little nubbins of meat so scrawny they’re hardly worth soiling your hands over. (Co-owner Rita Nguyen, sister of the chain’s founder, says larger crawfish are on the way — and even sent me photographic evidence.)
Should you not want to work so hard for your nourishment, I would turn to the fried catfish, an oval basket of three thickly breaded fillets concealing the sweetest flesh I may have ever tasted from these bottom feeders. (Speaking of bottom, the “Cajun” fries under your catfish may be frozen, but they’re so aggressively seasoned that you won’t care as you shovel them down your gullet.) What I’d avoid here are the fried shrimp po’ boy (a few measly specimens stuffed into a heavily dressed roll) and the crawfish etouffee (an undifferentiated mush featuring the holy trinity of Louisiana cooking ingredients: bell peppers, onion and celery).
But, really, why go to Hot N Juicy and avoid the crawfish? The tactile experience — the dismantling of the creatures, the sucking of their heads, the tingling of your fingers from the spice — is worth the price of admission alone. But it’s also the season for Louisiana crawfish: By July or August, Hot N Juicy starts buying live mudbugs from California, which doesn’t . . . well, it doesn’t seem right.
A previous version of this article included an unclear reference to when Hot N Juicy will start buying crawfish from California instead of Louisiana. It’s usually in July or August. The story has been updated to clarify.
2651 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-299-9448. hotnjuicycrawfish.com.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday noon to
10 p.m., Friday-Saturday noon to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro Station: Woodley Park-Zoo, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Crawfish prices: Market price, but about $11.99 a pound.