Despite the drab snowbanks and sodden streets that are common sights in Denver in February, March and even April, spring in other parts of the country brings warm weather sooner — as well as crawfish season, when the tasty crustaceans emerge from muddy banks in Gulf Coast states, only to be scooped up, simmered, seasoned and served in seafood restaurants specializing in the Southern delicacy.
The Yabby Hut, one of a handful of eateries that sprang up a decade or so ago as part of a trend touting a combination of Cajun seasonings and Southeast Asian cooking, is ready to celebrate spring after a tough year.
Hung Le and Linh Tran, who spent time in a Vietnamese refugee camp in the Philippines before making their way to Colorado, opened their restaurant in 2010 at 3355 South Yarrow Street in Lakewood, giving the suburb a taste of something that was almost unheard of outside of Gulf Coast cities. At the Yabby Hut, crawfish (called "yabbies" in Australia), crab, shrimp, clams, lobster and other shellfish are steamed and doused in a variety of seasonings, then dialed up to the spice level of your choice. So you can go completely without heat (for "Noobs") or go four levels higher with the XXX ("We dare you!," the menu challenges).
When it first opened, the maritime-themed restaurant brought a new style of hands-on dining in a familiar package, with fishing nets and other nautical decor hanging from walls and ceilings, beneath which customers would dig into plastic bags filled with saucy seafood. Discarded shells and heads were piled high in the center of the table (heap them high enough and you'd win a couple of pounds more), and hand sinks were located where you could clean up without having to push through a bathroom door. From its first day in business, the place encouraged return visits, with generous portions, bold flavors and walls dedicated to customer autographs and graffiti (as long as you promised to keep it family-friendly).
"For the first couple of years, we weren't slow, but we've definitely grown," says manager Chris Byun, who has worked at the restaurant for nine years. "A weekend night back then was like our weekdays now."
Since Yabby Hut opened, other Asian-Cajun eateries have popped up around town. The Asian Cajun opened a year later on West Alameda Avenue, and so did the Crawling Crab on South Federal Boulevard, operated by a relative of Le and Tran's. These days, you can count more restaurants serving this style of seafood — from Aurora to Englewood to Denver's neighborhoods — than there are legs on a lobster.
But capacity restrictions and dining-room shutdowns over the past year posed challenges for eateries that rely on drawing in diners to crack claws and suck heads. In August, Le and Tran opened a second Yabby Hut, at 6735 West Colfax Avenue, in the same Lakewood shopping center as the still-closed Casa Bonita. The new outpost not only gave the owners a second dining space, but a convenient spot for people living in central Denver to pick up meals to go (neither Yabby Hut uses third-party delivery companies).
Now that restrictions are relaxing, the new Colfax seafood house is taking off as a dining destination, especially on weekends, Byun says.
In January, the original Yabby Hut closed for a week — not because of COVID restrictions, but to expand the dining room. On January 21, the restaurant reopened better and bigger, having taken over a vacant retail space next door and inviting guests to fill a new graffiti wall with signatures and messages. Byun points out that when COVID restriction had restaurants seating at only 25 percent capacity, only a handful of customers could enjoy dinner inside at a total of eight tables, so the original eatery needed to expand just to survive. The new wing of the dining room nearly doubled the square footage, making it possible to spread out guests while selling enough seafood to last through the winter.
Of course, takeout is still an option. While to-go seafood may not immediately spring to mind as a great idea, shellfish steamed and then bagged in a sauce can only improve as everything marinates on your drive home; as long as the food stays warm, it won't suffer in transit. Byun says that takeout was a lifesaver in December and January, when indoor seating was prohibited, but he recommends taking food to go only if your drive is ten minutes or less. "We have people driving thirty minutes or more to get here," he states. "When they're driving from Aurora or Westminster, taking [food] home just doesn't work. That's why [the expansion] has been so good."
Still, to-go orders have tailed off as seating capacity has increased, because most of the eatery's regulars know that the messy fun is best experienced where someone else is providing the rounds of drinks and doing cleanup, leaving you to go elbows deep in bright-red sauce.
Whether you eat in one of Yabby Hut's dining rooms or your own, here are a few tips:
Make sure you order enough food. A pound of crawfish, for example, sounds like a lot, but there's not much meat to them, so a good rule of thumb is at least two pounds per person, if that's all you eat. But add-ons such as corn, potatoes and sausage will stretch that, and you can always mix it up with crab (whole blue crab or Dungeness and snow crab clusters), scallops or other options.
Since this is crawfish season, Yabby Hut will likely have fresh (not frozen) crawfish brought in from the Gulf Coast regularly. The restaurant's website gets updated regularly with a green smiley face icon when the fresh mudbugs are in.
When selecting sauces and heat levels, keep flavor in mind. If you go with the Yabby Cajun seasoning, any of the heat levels work, but the lemon pepper seasoning is better with mild or no heat. And the garlic butter seasoning comes with or without Cajun flavor, so you can dial it up based on your choice.
If you're ordering to go, choose your sides accordingly. Calamari and Cajun fries aren't going to hold up well, but wings, clam chowder and gumbo will — and they all make great leftovers.
Both Yabby Hut locations are open from 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Call 303-985-0231 to reach the Yarrow Street restaurant or 303-927-6431 for the West Colfax outpost. Visit yabbyhut.com for more details.