I’m convinced that Cajuns keep the best crawfish for themselves. While people in New Orleans thrill over piles of specimens measuring between three and four inches in length our brethren to the west are bellying up to tables mounded with crawfish the size of kittens. They take the consumption of crawfish seriously, often forgoing hours of time, creature comforts and impressive sums of money for the pleasure of tearing through five to 10 pounds of the critters in a sitting.
“Down in New Orleans people hire others to stand in line for them so they can get a table at Galatoire’s,” says Janice “Boo” Macomber, a masterful private Cajun chef and author of “Tastes, Tails & Tales with The High Priestess of the Bayou.”
“Here in Abbeville, we sometimes trade a few beers to get someone to stand in line for us at Cajun Claws. Either that or you better show up at 3:30 in the afternoon to get a table for round one of the crawfish eating when they open for dinner.”
When it comes to where to eat and what to order anywhere in Acadiana Boo is one of my go-to sources.
“They have that fried seafood platter absolutely down pat at Shuck’s,” she says. “And for the best, I mean the best crawfish bisque you ever want to eat — the old fashioned kind with stuffed heads that’s such a pain in the ass to make — I’m heading to the Yellow Bowl on Highway 82 in Jeanerette.”
Cajun Claws. 1928 Charity St., Abbeville. 337-893-9437. cajunclaws.com
Hawk’s. 415 Hawk’s Road, Rayne. 337-788-3266. hawkscrawfish.com
Shuck’s. 701 W. Port St., Abbeville. 337-898-3311. goeatshucks.com
Yellow Bowl Restaurant. 19466 Highway 182 W., Jeanerette. 337-276-5512
The telephone at Hawk’s rings incessantly with lost souls trying to find their way. There’s a map on the restaurant’s website but the place is so buried in the middle of nowhere that you should plan on getting lost even if you have been before.
It’s worth the effort. You will know you have arrived when you come upon the jammed parking lot.
In 1978, after securing a peaceful legal emancipation from his parents when he was 15, Anthony Arceneaux obtained a $60,000 loan from the Farmers Home Administration, bought some boats and traps and leased 480 acres. He lied his way out of afternoon classes in high school and began calling himself a crawfish farmer, ultimately working his way up to 12,000 acres. His father, Hawk, followed him into the business in 1982. By 1983, they were so loaded down with crustaceans they opened Hawk’s Crawfish in a shed-like structure on their property so they could move more of the swarm. The senior Arceneaux, obsessive about the purity of the crawfish, found a purging technique developed by Texas A&M University.
In the beginning, Hawk’s started with select, live, hand-graded crawfish, then placed them in the well for up to 24 hours. It was a labor-intensive, expensive process, resulting in an average 9 percent loss due to crawfish death and the sheer volume of dirt the bugs gave up in the process.
Indulging the elder Arceneaux’s passion for purity paid off for the family: Hawk’s was an instant success due to the clean, fresh flavor of the product. People started driving hundreds of miles to the 1,000-square-foot shack in the middle of nowhere to experience the connoisseur’s boiled crawfish. The meat is pearly white and the fat is golden yellow.
The restaurant, which has expanded four times in its 30-year history, has its own extensive purging facility and is only open from early February until the beginning of May.
Hawk’s moves an average of 7,000 pounds of boiled crawfish a day. Every batch is boiled and seasoned to order.