I walk into Crabby Jack’s, a small po’ boy shop on Jefferson Highway in New Orleans, and the smell of fried seafood and gumbo takes me back home. I haven’t lived in southern Louisiana since I was in high school, so each year I make at least two pilgrimages to New Orleans to see my family and eat as much seafood as possible. For me, seafood, namely shellfish, is the ultimate comfort food.
Comfort foods vary by neighborhood, region and ethnicity across the country. However, many of us think of true American comfort food as the meat and potatoes dishes that only our grandmothers still make. As a Cajun from just south of N’awlins, comfort food is unique from traditional American selections. My mom never cooked meatloaf and when I was gifted with it in college, I likened the creation more to a brick than comfort. My comfort food is gumbo, boiled crabs and fried shrimp po’ boys. Living in the D.C. area, I do have access to Maryland blue crabs and other high quality shellfish from the bay. However, Maryland seafood just isn’t the same as Gulf seafood.
I was okay with that and still got my seafood fix pretty regularly, until about six years ago when my dad — after three trips to the emergency room — finally accepted that he had a pretty severe shellfish allergy. As a bona fide crustacean snob, I rarely eat seafood outside of my mom’s and my grandma’s cooking. Consequently, after my dad’s allergy surfaced, I found myself with no idea where to get my precious po’ boys overloaded with local gulf shrimp. Embarrassingly enough, I had to depend on my now husband (then boyfriend) who is from D.C. but attended law school in NOLA, to direct me to the proper place for a fried shrimp po’ boy. This quest took me to Crabby Jack’s, which is now a must have on all of my trips back home and my absolute favorite po’boy shop.
Needless to say, I’ve taken trips down home that have included multiple visits to the small, unassuming Crabby Jack’s building on Jefferson Highway, amidst warehouses and a thrift store drop-off. On this latest trip, I walk into the restaurant with Isaac, my husband, and Sienna, my daughter, all of us brimming with excitement. The restaurant is quite small, with family style seating where mostly local patrons frequently stand around waiting for a spot. The walls are covered with kitschy, local art by Dr. Bob — several of the pieces are for sale. Many of them pay homage to New Orleans institutions like Hubig’s Pies and local grocery store chain Schwegmann’s. I soak up the atmosphere of hustle and bustle tinged with Cajun accents. As the smell of gumbo and fried seafood drifts past my nose, I take a deep breath and hold it in a little before exhaling. I’m home.
As I mentioned before, I don’t eat much Cajun food outside of my mom’s or grandma’s cooking. The few times I’ve tried to eat Cajun food on the East Coast have been largely disappointing. For example, there’s a new Cajun restaurant in the H-Street Corridor — a trendy spot in D.C. — where, for the most part, the food was all wrong. The bread was too doughy for po’ boys, the shrimp was too small and tough, and the gumbo lacked sufficient filé. Having had similar experiences with most of the Cajun food I’ve eaten elsewhere, I’m always a skeptic where gumbo is concerned.
We order chicken and sausage gumbo to start, then a round of po’ boys for the table. The gumbo is fantastic. I didn’t expect the Crabby Jack’s gumbo to be so good: the roux was dark but not too dark and the slight heat was perfectly balanced with aromatic filé and bay leaves. For my po’ boy, I have the king size fried shrimp, dressed. For those who don’t know, po’ boys are best “dressed,” meaning they come fully loaded with lettuce, tomato, mayo and pickles — hot sauce to be added at one’s discretion.
Once I’m finished with my cup of gumbo, I delve into my king size shrimp. It arrives at the table tightly wrapped in a stretch of white freezer paper — as is traditional — with the words “king shrimp dressed” scrawled across a piece of tape, holding it all together. I unwrap the sandwich carefully, so as not to lose any precious shrimp. The sandwich is perfect. The bread is just right: light, airy and chewy all at the same time. The shrimp are fried crispy. Being as addicted to fried seafood as I am, Sienna ordered a regular size fried shrimp po’ boy. She beams with giddiness, excitement and hunger as she opens the sandwich. Isaac looks on in amusement at both of us. He almost always orders turkey or roast beef, much to my chagrin.
However, I’ve come to realize that he does this because their meat po’ boys are awesome too. The roast beef comes freshly roasted, with gravy and debris (little bits of roast in the gravy) and the turkey is real turkey breast. You’ll find no deli slices at Crabby Jack’s. My husband is smart, because I always order the king size and spill shrimp like plump rain drops onto the white freezer paper it comes gift wrapped in. He frequently and gingerly scoops those fallen shrimp into his mouth while I eat. In a way, he gets the best of both worlds and benefits from my eyes being way too big for my stomach. As I take my first bite, it doesn’t disappoint. I get a mouthful of fried, yet tender, shrimp with hints of lettuce, mayo, pickle and tomato. As my craving settles, I sit back and enjoy the much needed shellfish with barely contained gusto.
A short time later, I leave the restaurant with my tummy overfull and my family thoroughly entertained by my obsession with local gulf seafood. Ultimately, this trip to Crabby Jack’s was like every other; the food was amazing, the company local, and the atmosphere friendly and welcoming. I can’t wait until December when I’ll be a local N’awlinian again and can creep into Crabby Jack’s, hide among the weekday lunch crowd and order yet another king size shrimp, dressed.