By Eric Schaefer
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Justin's Ragin' Cajun, 13416 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 404-2900. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 6 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 10:30 p.m.
You can't live in the Valley very long without becoming aware of a local affliction: desert denial. We may be in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, but too many folks who've moved here from other places ignore this reality. The result? We find homeowners who insist on planting a grassy lawn. We get architects who design buildings to withstand Chicago winters. We see hatless fitness buffs who sprint up Squaw Peak in August at noon without a water bottle. And even more inexplicably, we encounter diners who order seafood when they eat out. Yes, it's possible to hook a fresh slab of perfectly cooked fish in a local restaurant. But the fact that the nearest pier is 400 miles away ought to give us some pause.
For the most part, the Valley's best seafood isn't served at nautically themed places with tridents and nets on the wall and a deep-fried "Captain's Platter" on the menu. You're better off going to a top restaurant, like Christopher's, Vincent's or Etienne's. They may not specialize in fish, but their fussy chefs demand high quality from suppliers, and they know how to cook. But there's another alternative. Some of this town's best seafood comes out of kitchens serving regional or ethnic fare, places not usually linked up in our minds with the sea. Think of the seafood nabemono at the Mikado, the garlic-stuffed shrimp at C-Fu Gourmet or the salmone al cartoccio at Nina L'Italiana Ristorante--these dishes are good enough to make you think the ocean is just down the street.
And now I'm pleased to report that we can add a Cajun restaurant and Mexican seafood joint to this list. The proprietor of Justin's Ragin' Cajun is the same chef who ran the kitchen at the late, fire-ravaged Cafe Creole. His new base of operations once housed a seafood restaurant, and many signs of that former incarnation still remain. But the distressed wood etched with anchors isn't really at odds with the mostly seafood Cajun menu. He's added some decorative Louisiana touches like French Quarter grillwork, photos of the New Orleans Saints and an accordion and clarinet perched on ledges. An eye-catching mural of street musicians brightens one wall, while diners get to listen to piped-in zydeco music. I know lots of people who order seafood because of its low-fat, high-nutrition qualities, and after last week's report publicizing its health benefits, even more folks will be going fishing. But if that's your rationale, stay away from here. Healthy-minded diners may be only marginally worse off ordering the Love Canal's catch of the day than they will feasting regularly at this Cajun restaurant. That's because most of the seafood comes breaded and fried or drenched in butter or cream. This kind of briny bayou fare promotes clean living about as much as bayou politics promotes clean government. But corruption, whether nutritional or political, does have its charms. The food here inspires lots of lip-smacking.
Take the oyster artichoke stew. It's a decadently rich starter, fashioned with big chunks of artichoke and plump oysters, plunked into a lava-thick cream sauce. This is not the way you should be eating if you're training for the New Times Phoenix 10K.
Grilled shrimp r‚moulade is another dish that displays the Cajun talent for injecting calories into seafood. The seven freshly grilled crustaceans are luscious on their own, right on target for taste and texture. They're even better, though, when you dip them in the r‚moulade, a peppy mix of mustard, mayonnaise and horseradish. And when we ran out of shrimp for dipping, we found the excellent French bread made a reliable substitute.
You can also edge your way into dinner with gumbo. However, the chicken-and-sausage version here isn't very assertive, perhaps because of some unseasonably mild pork.
After just a few bites of the main dishes, your brain should be releasing those chemicals that signal the rest of your body that it's having a good time. (Of course, a swig of icy Voodoo or Dixie beer will move that message even more swiftly.) Crawfish ‚touff‚e is probably the most famous Cajun specialty, featuring freshwater critters that resemble miniature lobsters. They're flown in from Louisiana and fixed with seasonings that will make you wish you were born on the bayou. They're served with cornbread, over rice. An unadvertised bonus on the crawfish plate is the scrumptious side of maque choux. It's corn creamed with butter and studded with onions, pepper and tomato. You'll wish it came in a king-size bowl. The Ragin' Cajun platter, the most expensive menu option at $16.95, gives you a taste of almost everything. It will help if you're not squeamish about deep-fat frying. But the shrimp, oysters, catfish and whole soft-shell crab are so appealingly breaded and freshly fried that it seems churlish to complain. Sizzling French fries and homemade coleslaw provide topnotch diversion. There is one fish option for the calorie counter in your group. That's the baked corvina, a meaty, white-fleshed specimen, accompanied by a nondescript green peppercorn sauce and seafood stuffing. It's agreeable, but doesn't pack nearly the flavor wallop of the other dishes. If fish doesn't tempt you, the pasta jambalaya should. The kitchen sends out bow-tie pasta topped with chunks of chicken breast, andouille (smoked sausage), red peppers and tomatoes in a hearty, Cajun-spiced butter sauce. You won't find noodles like this at your neighborhood Italian restaurant. One word springs to mind when I think about Ragin' Cajun's two desserts: medic! They're not for wimps. The hard-hitting sweet potato pecan pie is dense and decadent. Brandy-and-chocolate-flavored bread pudding in heavy-duty caramel sauce also won't win any subtlety awards. Too bad there's no chicory coffee to help wash them down. Along with tasty food, Justin's Ragin' Cajun also sends out good vibes. This is a fun, casual, unpretentious spot to eat, drink and converse. Let the good times roll.