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Restaurants specializing in Cajun-style boiled seafood in a bag have opened at a blistering pace in South Florida. What’s driving our crab boom?
You can’t seem to throw a claw these days in South Florida without hitting a Cajun-themed boiled crab restaurant.
They barely existed here a few years ago. Now fast-casual crab restaurants are scuttling into pandemic-emptied Ruby Tuesdays, Roadhouse Grills and Metro Diners at the blistering pace of Spirit of Halloween stores.
They all bear crabby names that are dizzyingly similar, like crustacean paint-by-number: There’s Crafty Crab and Yami Crab, Mr. and Mrs. Crab and Mr. Q Crab, Crab Holic and Juicy Crab, Red Crab and Cajun Boil, Crab du Jour and Rock ‘n Crab. While po’boys, burgers and fried seafood often pad their menus, the main attraction is always the same: Head-on shrimp, sauce-slicked crawfish, garlic-buttery clams and mussels, halved red potatoes, crab and corn on the cob, served tableside in a clear plastic bag that steams like a puffed marshmallow. Customers wear plastic bibs and plastic gloves because the meal is claw-crackingly messy.
More than 50 Cajun boil restaurants have popped up across Broward and Palm Beach – and the number is growing. Four restaurants — King Crab Shack, Juicy Crab, Red Crab, Rock ‘n Crab — recently crawled onto a one-mile stretch of Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach.
So what blew up South Florida’s crab bubble, and how is it distinctly Cajun? Call it a combination of well-timed pandemic opportunity and the cultural mashup known as Viet-Cajun cuisine.
The Chinese and Vietnamese restaurateurs who primarily own these Cajun boils describe a modern-day gold rush to open as many storefronts as possible – before the trend disappears.
“It’s pretty much about trying to get a piece of the gold mine as fast as we can,” says Chris Nguyen, general manager of Davie’s Crab Holic, a Vietnamese family-owned restaurant which opened in July inside a former chicken-wing joint that shuttered in the pandemic. “Red Lobster is boring. Have you tried it recently? The food is just plain, so Asian people got in the mix and added a twist to it, modernized it.”
Nguyen, whose brother, Phong, ran Vietnamese restaurants in New Jersey and Virginia pre-pandemic, says restaurant friends tipped off his family last year about a pandemic-proof idea: boil-in-bag seafood that kept mudbugs and snow crab legs hot during takeout orders. But the eureka moment came when Nguyen learned of the overnight success of another Viet-Cajun competitor – Georgia-based Juicy Crab, which has 35 mid-Atlantic spots and four coming to Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, Lauderhill and West Palm Beach this year.
“Other friends alerted us that the Cajun crab business is the hot thing to get into, even though it’s mostly Chinese-owned these days and we’re Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “We were like, ‘Dang – this is making lots of money.’ And they’re so easy to run.”
Every day, he says more than 50 takeout orders fly out of his dining room, and 80 percent of them are Cajun seafood boils. The décor at Crab-Holic? Like many Cajun boils in the area – Crafty Crab, Mr. Q Crab, etc. – the dining room has all-American crab shack décor: wooden piers, traps, nets, buoys, plastic crabs.
The Cajun boil has become a new moneymaker for Asian entrepreneurs who’ve seen profits at their Chinese and other restaurants decline in the pandemic, and because of recent anti-Asian bias, adds Tini Hui, a Broward real-estate broker who helped Yami Crab open its third location in a Sunrise strip mall.
“I’ve got so many Chinese entrepreneurs looking to open Cajun boils right now, but the only problem is space,” she says.
History of Viet-Cajun boils
You could disappear down a crawdad hole mining the origins of the Viet-Cajun craze, but here’s the truth: the seafood boils are not Vietnamese or Cajun, says Ani Meinhold, owner of Miami’s first Viet-Cajun restaurant, Phuc Yea.
Instead, it’s a complete invention, she says, spreading like wildfire in New Orleans, Houston and San Francisco since 2007 before belatedly catching on here. It’s also a story of migration and assimilation, what happens when immigrants unite flavors with new environments. The phenomenon was born in the 1970s when South Vietnamese refugees planted roots on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and took jobs in the area’s crabbing and shrimping industry.
Although crawdads didn’t exist in Vietnam, immigrants cottoned to the region’s river culture and finger-lickin’ backyard freshwater boils, she says.
“It was easy to cut and paste your life out of South Vietnam and bring it to the Gulf,” says Meinhold, who is half-Vietnamese and cooked for six years in Houston with her husband, Phuc Yea co-owner Cesar Zapata. “The river communities, the fishing economy was so similar. That’s a big reason New Orleans and Houston have the third- and fourth-largest Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam.”
“We are very used to eating with our hands, picking at seafood and noshing,” she said.
Mashing up flavors of the South with ingredients from Southeast Asia happened gradually, Meinhold says. A traditional Cajun crawfish boil, for example, drops cayenne, bay leaves, coriander, paprika and salt into the boil with potatoes and corn-on-the-cob. Once marinated, the mudbugs are served naked.
Not so with Viet-Cajun, which added a twist: Asian lemongrass, Thai basil and chili, or fish sauce instead of salt – all ingredients that compliment Cajun flavors well, she says. Although history is murky about who did it first, those Viet-Cajun boils wound up inside clear plastic bags, drowning in rich pools of garlicky butter, lemon pepper, Cajun spice and Asian lemongrass.
After Hurricane Katrina, many Vietnamese resettled in Houston, Meinhold says, and the city morphed into a hotbed of Viet-Cajun cuisine. Crawfish & Noodles, chef Trong Nguyen’s mecca for Viet-Cajun crawfish, opened in Houston in 2008, giving clout to the cuisine and netting him finalist and semifinalist nods from the James Beard Foundation.
But South Florida almost certainly got inundated with crabs thanks to the pandemic, Meinhold says, with Chinese-American entrepreneurs mostly driving the trend.
“Because of the pandemic, we’ve had an influx of Asians and New Yorkers trying to make a living down here, and [franchising a Cajun boil] is the least expensive way of going about it,” she says.
“Just over 60 percent of traffic is off-premises, compared to 90 percent in the depths of the pandemic,” he says. “The products of Cajun boil restaurants align with the way consumers spend now.”
How have South Florida Cajun seafood restaurants boiled up so quickly? The answer, if you ask Jeffrey Schroth, is smart timing and a novel idea: Slipping into undesirable restaurants killed off in the pandemic.
“I hate to say it, but it’s capitalism at its best,” says Schroth, national general manager for Crab du Jour, which has added 100-plus locations in 18 states since 2019. “No one is buying old chains that used to be Ruby Tuesday’s or Chili’s or Outback Steakhouse, so they’re more inexpensive to lease. It’s sucks, and I’m sorry these places closed, but it’s an opportunity for us. It’s a trend with sticking power.”
Schroth is the company’s “official go-fer,” tracking down leases for new storefronts, filling them with employees, training cooks to boil seafood. Forty five days later, he’ll open another Crab du Jour, then another. His mandate – open as many Crab du Jours as possible before the trend jumps the shark – comes from his boss, Crab du Jour’s president, CEO and New Jersey-based Chinese entrepreneur Leon Chen.
Cajun boils, more common in Broward and Palm Beach than in Miami-Dade (where fewer Asian-Americans live, according to 2020 U.S. Census data), thrive on volume, not vibe, Meinhold adds.
“You have to try really hard to screw up shellfish,” she says. “You don’t need to hire great chefs. Skill isn’t necessary. And shellfish is considered a luxury good, and customers know they’ll pay a pretty penny for it.”
Lately the number of customers ordering from Chef Jimmy’s Yami Crab has been breathtaking, with 300 hundred pounds of seafood going out of their Sunrise location a day.
The restaurant also sells Korean BBQ and Chinese hot pot – Yami Crab opened as Friend’s Hot Pot last October, then rebranded as Cajun boils took off – but its Cajun boil ($46.99 for nearly a pound, $61.99 for 1.5 pounds) accounts for more than half of all sales.
“It has been crazy,” says Chef Jimmy – his given name is Zhi Chi – through a translator. “We spent $750,000 getting all these hot pot tables shipped in from China. And then my business partners, who own Chinese restaurants, told me to implement the crab boils. Lots of Chinese places are jumping on the bandwagon for profit.”
Chef Jimmy worked in Louisiana Cajun restaurants for 10 years, training under his mentor, restaurateur Steve Lin. Chef Jimmy sources his fish through Ocean Blue, a seafood wholesaler he owns in Pompano Beach, enabling him to import year-round: snow crabs from Canada, black mussels from Chile, green mussels from New Zealand, shrimp from El Salvador and crawfish from … Egypt?
“Not New Orleans. Louisiana crawfish are small, tiny, not much meat,” says Chef Jimmy, who this year added Yami Crabs to Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. “Egypt crawfish are more expensive, but there’s more meat, more juice.”
That’s not the only way Yami Crab diverges from traditional Cajun-style. At Yami Crab, customers choose their seasonings (Cajun, butter-garlic, lemon pepper) and spiciness from mild to what its menu calls “my mouth on fire.”
“Twenty years ago, people loved American Chinese food. Ten years ago, it was sushi. Now it’s changed again to boiled seafood,” he says.
As for how Chef Jimmy finds his storefronts, he says, “It’s a business secret I’d rather not disclose.” But he gives the Cajun boil trend another three to five years because places like Washington, Oregon and the Midwest are ripe for expansion.
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Now that more Cajun boils are heating up, so is the competition, forcing restaurateurs like Chris Nguyen to differentiate Crab Holic in Davie from new seafood shacks clawing into the market.
And he’s hit on a solution: the flavorful sauce that pools at the bottom of seafood bags. The restaurant created a signature Crab Holic sauce blend – fresh garlicky butter, lemon pepper, Cajun-citrus, lemongrass and other “secret” spices – when customers told him his competitors were blending sauces.
“Our family drove around and bought every other competitors’ seafood boil, and we dissected it, and came up with our own,” he says. “To make the most sales, the most important thing is, ‘Who has the best sauce?’ “
How does South Florida feel about the crab explosion? In the Let’s Eat, South Florida Facebook Group, run by the Sun Sentinel, locals heaped praise, cynicism and obvious puns (“Broward’s got crabs!”) in equal measure about South Florida’s Cajun crab bubble. Members applauded the easy-to-find locations but knocked their shabby décor and “value-priced frozen seafood boiled inside a plastic bag.” Other commenters declared the crustacean takeover “a short-lived fad” and professed love for local institutions such as Riggins Crabhouse in Lantana, Rustic Inn in Fort Lauderdale and Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach.
Ann Hildreth, of Oakland Park, thought her Cajun boil’s sauce “did all the heavy lifting” at a Fort Lauderdale Crafty Crab on North Federal Highway.
“The flavor was overpowered by the broth, and it was kind of mushy, but it was fresh,” says Hildreth, whose boil included snow crabs. “This is probably a fad but I liked it.”