Originality is dead. It is a universal truth that we have come to accept, whether it be with regard to Hollywood's inability to produce anything but sequels and remakes, fashion's predictable cycle of "what's old is new again" or restaurateurs who seem to latch on to a popular idea and perpetuate it ad naseum. We could have solved a litany of societal woes if any one of them garnered as many resources as does trying to discover the next Chipotle or a new twist on sushi.
But almost without exception, the old adage hold true: The imitator is rarely as good as the original.
And that brings us to a curious exception in the realm of restaurant game theory, a case where he who copies is far better than who he copied.
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Make no mistake about it: Angry Crab Shack is a blatant rip-off of Hot N Juicy Crawfish, a Cajun seafood concept founded in Las Vegas by a Vietnamese entrepreneur that has started its regional expansion and recently opened an outpost on Tempe's Mill Avenue. Hot N Juicy gained national notoriety when Food Network buffoon Guy Fieri anointed it, although, by then, the idea had already caught on. I was excited when I heard that Hot N Juicy was coming to town; it was always one of my first stops in Las Vegas. But my experience in Tempe was missing a certain je ne sais quoi; it was good, but not as good as the original. It was too clinical compared to Las Vegas, lacking the edginess, grit, loud music and service staff consisting most of off-duty strippers biding their time before the night shift started.
So it's ironic to find that missing grit in Mesa, an otherwise safe-haven of conservative values under the tight grip of the Mormon establishment. But given the quantity of cold beer and Hurricane cocktails being served in plastic cups on a crowded Friday night, no one in those parts seems to care much about the church-imposed moral code. Angry Crab Shack serves up culinary hedonism in a hokey Neptune-themed space where the walls are covered with faux fishing nets, schlocky nautical themes, and graffiti from the diners. It's loud, messy and decidedly unexpected. It's also fantastic, a better facsimile of the concept that it copied.
The idea is a simple one: Choose one or more of nine different types of seafood, order by the pound, and choose a seasoning and heat level. Moments later your server will deliver a plastic bag of your desired seafood, steamed as requested, accompanied by a metal bucket for the shells and debris. You'll be supplied with a plastic bib which you'll need, if you're doing it right. Plastic gloves are for the weak and when they run out of crackers for the shells, the staff might supply you with a large rock as they did on my first visit. It's primal.
The seafood is sourced based on freshness and availability; long gone are the days when anyone can rightfully claim that seafood in the desert can't be good. FedEx has solved that problem, so you can expect that the sweetness of your snow crab legs will permeate the "Trifecta" seasoning, a mix of lemon pepper, garlic and "Kajun." Sourced from Alaska, the legs are a good choice, too, easier to eat for a first-timer than Dungeness crab, which was also available.
But far and away the best value at Angry Crab Shack is the shrimp, yielding the most favorable effort-to-meat ratio. Said to be harvested from near the Galapagos Islands, they're perfectly fine unadorned but, as with everything I tried, they're best with the Trifecta sauce. The kitchen is serious about the heat level; "medium" is plenty spicy for all but the most sadistic diners. Based my on my experience, "angry ghost" heat level is not advised.
Crawfish are a Cajun seafood staple, and they are available seasonally. They're also a lot of work to eat relative to the amount of yield. Still, these mudbugs are cheap. They were only $9 per pound, and if you ordered two pounds the third was free. It might be a lot of work, but it's also a lot of food for $18 bucks. In fact, the only thing on the menu that didn't seem to be a good value was the order of clams in lemon pepper seasoning. They were rubbery and flavorless, and at least half of the shells were closed on arrival...a clear sign to stay away.
You can add Andouille sausage to your seafood, along with corn on the cob and red potatoes. But what's really missing here is bread. The garlicky sauce at the bottom of the bag is the best part, and Angry Crab should offer a crusty baguette to sop it up. I was tempted to sneak-in my own.
As expected, the deep fryer gets a work-out. There are frog legs and calamari strips, but I'm partial to the fried clams. The breading is dense and highly seasoned; at times they seemed over-breaded but that never got in the way of the flavor. The hush puppies were more successful -- light, airy and filling. There is fried fish available as part of a basket with fries and cole slaw. I was disappointed by the soft shell crab (available seasonally); the portion was skimpy and the crab was limp and oily. You'll also see Gator Gar on the menu but it's not alligator; it's a prehistoric looking predatory fish that's much more common on southern menus.
It's nearly impossible to talk about Cajun cuisine without mentioning gumbo, a dish that elicits strong opinions throughout the gulf coast with every chef believing that his or her version is the "right" way. The foundation of any good gumbo is the roux, culinary-speak for a mix of flour and butter. The longer a roux is stirred, the darker it gets and with color comes depth and richness. A dark roux can yield a nutty flavor; lighter roux has more subtlety. Angry Crab Shack's gumbo was a flop; while it was dense with sausage, shrimp, tomatoes, rice and okra, it was watery and flat. With a better roux, it could have been a centerpiece of the meal.
Dessert is mostly forgettable; cute "Crabbie" frosted cookies are available, as is a selection of supplier sourced cheesecake, chocolate cake and Red Velvet cake, but you're well advised to walk-off the gluttony with a visit to Dairy Queen, located across the parking lot. Alma School Road may be a sad substitute for the bayou, but at that point you won't really care.
And if you doubted my assertion that originality is dead, consider this: Angry Crab Shack will soon be expanding to Arcadia, although that outpost will also offer Cajun style barbecue.
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Angry Crab Shack 2740 S. Alma School Road #13 Mesa, AZ 85210 480-730-2722 (CRAB)
Sun - Thu 12 pm - 10 pm Fri - Sat 12 pm - 11 pm
Fried Clam Strips $9 Gumbo $6 One Pound Shrimp $12 One Pound Crawfish $9 One Pound Clams $11 One Pound Snow Crab $15