Cracking shells and sucking heads at the Crawling Crab

In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...

When I was a kid, my bedroom featured a nautical theme with a shrimp net stretched across one wall, various plastic sea creatures purchased from corny maritime gift shops, and sea shells and driftwood collected from Gulf Coast beach vacations. For me, the kitschy stuff wasn't cheap or cheesy; it was just a reminder of the bounty of the ocean and of all the great seafood I ate in restaurants decorated just like my bedroom. My parents must have cringed every time they drove past a giant fiberglass crab or blinking neon lobster, because I wanted to eat at every boardwalk shack or strip-mall dive so adorned. After all, how could such a place possibly be bad? The Crawling Crab holds this allure for me -- leftover from childhood but no less potent -- because I know that the big red crustacean, coupled with a squiggle of neon promising "Louisiana crawfish," means uncomplicated seafood embellished with at most a layer of crunchy breading or a spicy sauce.

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The Crawling Crab's interior gives my inner child fits of envy. Life-sized sharks and pelicans swoop from the ceiling above life preservers, mooring ropes and raw timbers that seem salvaged from an old pier. Booths along one wall nestle inside a replica of a ship's prow. And punctuating the rail of the far seating area, a captain's wheel -- the item that would have completed my seafaring bedroom collection -- taunts me with its radial perfection. Such a treasure was beyond the means of my boyhood interior décor budget.

The aroma of the room is no less evocative of those Gulf Coast joints I managed to drag my parents into. The distinctive dry spice of Zatarain's crab boil or maybe Old Bay seasoning mingles with the sweetish, tidal notes of steam rising from boiling pots of crab, crawdads (yes, crawdads -- the regional name preference in the muggy stretch of Texas where I first learned to eat them) and shrimp. Tables are topped with a broad strip of butcher paper, indicating that this is the home of roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-messy, shell-on seafood with no pretensions of decorum or table manners. The waitstaff offers lobster bibs for those in their Sunday best. The dizzying smells from the kitchen whet my appetite, and I'm already ordering appetizers before Amy even has a chance to look at her menu. The clam chowder and fried calamari arrive quickly while we make our decisions about seafood and sauces. Our server admits that the chowder comes pre-made (and I suspect the same of the squid rings), but it's a fine, buttery chowder nonetheless, without the mealy potatoes I usually expect from canned chowder. Our decisions made, the server soon arrives with plastic bags stretched full with sauce-drenched crawdads and blue crab and a side of crawfish fried rice. Although shellfish are often served in buckets, bags or nets in many Louisiana restaurants, the addition of sauces may be the distinguishing feature of Vietnamese-influenced Cajun boils. While adding dried spices to the boil permeates the shells and perfumes the meat, tossing the cooked crustaceans in kicked-up, butter-laden sauce adds an additional layer of flavor, while upping the messiness factor considerably. To its credit, the Crawling Crab features a hand sink in the dining room so you don't have to push through a bathroom door with sauce-spackled hands. And then the frenzy begins. For those out of practice, crawdads require a tremendous amount of work for a tiny amount of edible meat. We dig through the tails for the tender morsels and suck the heads for the brothy goodness trapped inside the shells. We scorch our tongues on the XXX Rajun Cajun sauce and use the soy-tinged rice to put out the fire. The blue crab are somewhat more generous with their contents, but spines and sharp edges poke at our sauce-softened fingers as we pry out every last edible nugget. Once cracked, pried and separated, the crabmeat offers a delicate flavor of brackish brine, tempered with a garlic butter sauce that the cooks stud with softened bits of whole garlic. I get my revenge on that gloating captain's wheel by washing the feast down with a couple of cold lagers.

Maybe I couldn't have that wheel when I was a kid, but beer and Cajun-spiced seafood combine to remind me that occasionally, the simple pleasures of adulthood can eclipse the impractical yearnings of youth.

The Crawling Crab holds true to the promise implied by the mascot on its sign. The flashbacks stirred by the heavy-handed but charming décor and piercingly accurate aromas of coastal shrimp shacks give way to the reality of some of the tastiest Southern-style cooking I've had in this town. A few subtle Asian touches in the sauces and sides only moor the restaurant more firmly in the here and now of the cultural collisions so prevalent on Federal Boulevard.

For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.

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