I don't know that I've ever before eaten a meal swathed in latex, but having dined at Hot 'n' Juicy Crawfish, I can say not only that I have but that I plan to do so again very soon.
This Las Vegas-based restaurant chain opened on Mill Avenue last April (there is one in Glendale, as well), and it's been doing wall-to-wall business ever since. Shellfish is quite literally the name of the game here -- pounds of it, surprisingly fresh and seasoned with flavors of chili and celery salt and big notes of Cajun spice.
A small bar and a pair of dining rooms offer a casual, brightly lit barroom atmosphere. Disco music plays at a respectable volume while big-screen TVs broadcast game shows and sports events. Over the course of my visits, I ate most often on the large, open patio.
Dining at Hot 'n' Juicy resembles a Hazmat situation: Tables are draped in a plastic sheet, and diners are offered plastic bibs and gloves and a roll of paper towels. Accept the bib and gloves. And use them. Trust me.
Seafood is sold by the pound at market prices, all posted at the front of the diner and at your table, and served shell-on in plastic bags in which the shellfish of your choice has been doused with the high-flavor sauce and spices of your choice. There are no plates here; we saw diners dumping the contents of the bags of shellfish right onto the table, but we chose to leave ours bagged, so they'd continue to soak up sauce flavors while we grazed.
Five zesty sauces are offered: Louisiana Style, Juicy Cajun, Garlic Butter, Lemon Pepper, and Hot 'n' Juicy. These are customized with your choice of spicy heat: baby spice, mild, medium, spicy, and extra spicy. A word of happy warning: Medium is plenty hot; even the mildest version is pretty darn tongue-tickling.
Our server warned us that our food would arrive "in waves," which turned out to be a good thing. Just as we reached the bottom of a bag of spicy shrimp, a bagful of crab legs arrived. While we were gnawing on those, a bag of corn and potatoes turned up. Perfect.
An order of sausage can, like many of the sides, be thrown into a bag of sauce and shellfish, but we ordered ours as a starter. It came in a paper cup and was so tasty I'd have gladly eaten it out of our server's hand. These hot, crispy-skinned slices of porkand-beef links were excellent drenched in peppery Juicy Cajun sauce, but better when we had them again in Louisiana Spice. We ordered ours medium hot, in both cases, and found that the heat overpowered neither the sauce nor the luscious links.
The etouffee was another nice starter, one that took me straight back to New Orleans. Jammed with bits of bell pepper and yellow onion, this rice-rich mélange is a tasty diversion for crawfish lovers who don't want to mess with a lot of scraping, cleaning, and sucking. It's not an easy dish to share without utensils, unless you don't care about eating out of the same paper cup as your dining companions.
We moved on to a pound of shrimp in lemon pepper sauce at medium heat. These were as large as prawns, tender
and flavorful. Their shells popped right off, making them a better bet for anyone who doesn't want to clean crayfish -- there's more meat and less work to these tasty morsels. While we were gnawing our way through these, a bag of green mussels in garlic sauce showed up. These were fluffy and mild, with a snappy bite from a tomatoey garlic sauce that stayed with me well into the next day.
Hot 'n' Juicy's namesake is best, we found, in the hot and spicy sauce. Shucking crawfish is a lot of work for a little taste, but -- thanks to their freshness and the spicy juice from their boil -- these were worth the effort. We happily sucked away at crawfish heads to get at more of that pepperhot sauce mixed with fat from the little bugger.
Snow crab legs somehow didn't soak up much of the Hot 'n' Juicy sauce they came in, but the plain, tender crab meat offered a nice break from all the sweat-inducing spiciness of our previous dishes. Still, we didn't reach the bottom of our bag before we were dipping the easily de-shelled meat back into the sauce it had come in.
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Presumably no one who doesn't like shellfish will bother to come here, but Hot 'n' Juicy's menu offers nicely prepared alternatives to seafood. Chicken wings came lightly battered and fried, a little greasy but tender. Hunks of corn on the cob soaked up drippings and flavors of tomato and the fish they were bagged with. Whole baked potatoes also were jazzed up by these tastes when we left them to soak.
Service is imperative here: Diners need someone to tell them market prices and, in the case of newbies, to explain how to eat the pile they're about to order. Our servers were always super-attentive and jovial. We asked for Kayla each time we returned, because she'd so patiently answered our long list of questions about which mussels to order (the green ones, with the garlic sauce) and whether we should bother with chicken in a seafood restaurant (yes, especially if we ordered the chicken wings in the hottest sauce). Her recommendations and chummy banter made us want to come back again. Well, that and the pleasure of suiting up in yards of polyurethane to suck down bagfuls of delicious crustaceans.
Hot 'n' Juicy Crawfish 740 South Mill Avenue, Suite 185, Tempe www.hotnjuicycrawfish.com 480-634-6285 Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday