Hot N Juicy Crawfish Is Open in Tempe -- Prepare to Get Messy, Seafood Fans

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When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Hot N Juicy Crawfish Location: 740 S. Mill Ave., Tempe Open: Less than a week Eats: Seafood Price: $25+ per person

If you've heard of the Las Vegas-based restaurant chain Hot N Juicy Crawfish, then chances are you've either already gone to the new Tempe location or have plans to do so soon. The restaurant opened last Friday at the Centerpoint on Mill complex and has wasted no time in attracting diners. We waited about 30 minutes for a table on Monday night -- and we weren't the only ones. It seems this town has been waiting for a restaurant like this to come around.

And after our dinner, we're sure happy it did.

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Style isn't the focus here, though that's not to say the restaurant isn't comfortably designed. There's a small bar and two dining areas that feature tables, booths, and quite a few flat screen tvs. Before you take your seats, your table will be draped with a plastic tablecloth and equipped with a roll of paper towels. They're also going to give you bibs and offer gloves. You're going to want the bib unless you don't care about your shirt and unless you like the smell of garlic and seafood on your fingers, you'd be wise to take the gloves.

At Hot N Juicy, you can obviously dig into pounds of crawfish -- served in plastic bags, heavy with a flavored sauce of your choice -- but you also have the option of trying lobster, black and green mussels, four types of crab, and shrimp. Other menu options include fried catfish, fried shrimp, etoufee, corn fritters, and more. If you're a seafood fan, you'll probably have a hard time choosing.

All the seafood available by the pound is "market price," which can range from $8.99 for a pound of black mussels to $24.99 per pound of king crab legs. On our visit, the crawfish cost $10.99 a pound; for perspective, consider that a single person can usually eat anywhere from two to five pounds. Everything is available in five different flavors -- Louisiana Style, Juicy Cajun, garlic Butter, Lemon Pepper, and Hot N Juicy -- which can further be customized to the spice level of you choice: baby spice, mild, medium, spicy, and extra spicy.

At our table of four, we started with two pounds of crawfish, both Hot N Juicy flavored, with one at mild spice and the other at medium. Each pound arrived in a double-wrapped plastic bag that doubles as your plate with the crawfish soaking in sweet and spicy smelling seasoning. The Hot N Juicy flavor is finger-licking good and more than justifies sucking all the extra juices out of the crawfish heads. Of the two, we slightly preferred the mild variety, which delivered a nice heat but not so much that it overpowered the sweet side of the seasoning. The medium had us sweating halfway through the meal, so go hotter at your own risk.

Next, we tried a pound of shrimp with the Juicy Cajun seasoning and while the shrimp were large and juicy, they might have been better with a different flavor of seasoning. Compared to the Hot N Juicy, the Juicy Cajun pulls back on the spice leaving a heavy flavor of celery salt.

In the crab department, you can order snow and king crab legs, as well as whole blue and Dungeness varieties. If you opt for the latter, as we did, then your server will call the kitchen for the crab's weight before checking the total price with you. We ended up with a 2.5-pound Dungeness crab with Garlic Butter seasoning. The crab was hot, fresh, and flavorful on its own -- which is good because none of the seasonings made it inside the shell to the meat.

As far as the sides, we were happy we ordered the corn fritters. The grape-size balls balance sweet yellow corn with a crispy, salty exterior. Don't be surprised if they go faster than you realize. And the etoufee, loaded with crawfish, bell peppers, and onions, might be one of the best you can get in this town.

We finished with a fried catfish basket, and for those not looking for a messy adventure, this is a solid dining option. The deep-fried catfish was fresh and remarkably moist -- though the accompanying tartar sauce was a severe disappointment. It looked and tasted like it came out of a plastic jug.

It's only fair to mention that everything came out of the kitchen at different times, with as much as 10 minutes sometimes passing between the arrival of one dish and the next. Our server explained that the kitchen was still working out the kinks (understandable) and comped the catfish to make up for the fact that it arrived at our table about an hour and a half into our meal. On the upside, our water glasses were rarely empty and every staff member seemed more than eager to make sure our meal was going well. Assuming the service will only get better with time, this restaurant is on the right track.

We were sad to find out the restaurant doesn't yet offer validation for the Centerpoint Parking Garage (and even sadder when we found out parking for dinner cost us $10!) but the hostess told us they hope to have it set up within a few weeks.

For seafood fans with a taste for bold flavors and lots of spice, it will be hard to beat Hot N Juicy Crawfish. It's a messy endeavor to dine here, but well worth it. Even if you do have to wear a bib.

Hot N Juicy Crawfish 740 S. Mill Ave., Tempe 480-634-6285 www.hotnjuicycrawfish.com

Sunday to Thursday: Noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday: Noon to 11 p.m.

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