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Cajun-style seafood boils — with South Asian flair — are shaking up Philly’s shellfish scene

Most of the restaurants serve the meals in plastic bags that, when sliced open, perfume the casual dining rooms with the aromas of garlic and Old Bay — and sometimes ginger and scallions.

The counter at Shaking Seafood, 243 S. 10th St.
The counter at Shaking Seafood, 243 S. 10th St.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

Paper place mats on the table, bibs on the neck, plastic gloves on the hands, fish nets and nautica on the walls.

Down-and-dirty seafood eating — once fairly commonplace at the local crab houses of yore — is coming back, as the Philadelphia area is seeing a string of new restaurants specializing in Cajun-inspired, family-style seafood boils that include a choice of shellfish (usually sold by the pound), corn on the cob, whole potatoes, and perhaps sausage.

Most of the restaurants serve the meals in plastic bags that, when sliced open, perfume the casual dining rooms with the aromas of garlic and Old Bay. Patrons can choose seasonings and spice level. BYO beer is the beverage of choice. Figure on $20 and up, depending on appetite.

The trend’s origins date to the late ’70s, when thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants resettled in the United States, many on the Gulf Coast. Diners and cooks began to discover local seafood preparations, and bare-bones crayfish restaurants in Louisiana, called “boiling points,” served as social hubs where patrons could pick and peel together over beers.

In the time since, Vietnamese-Cajun restaurants have flourished in New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. Besides standards like butter, Old Bay, and garlic, the restaurants often also offer South Asian-seasoned broths with lemongrass, ginger, and lime. (Other Southern staples, like po’ boys and BBQ, have gotten Viet-Cajun adaptations, too.)

The basic menus of the seven restaurants I found seem fairly interchangeable — with various crabs, clams, shrimp, mussels, crawfish, and lobster — but each puts its own spin on the food. Crack Crab, near Northeast Philadelphia Airport, offers teriyaki-spiked hibachi entrees, while Shake Seafood in the Rhawnhurst neighborhood sells Cajun fried rice. Boiling Pot and Boiling House do a seafood fried rice with crab cut fresh to order, as well as stir-fried crab with ginger and scallions, served over garlic noodles. All the restaurants offer fried fish and appetizers such as wings and onion rings, as well.

Though most of these boiled-seafood entrepreneurs are Asian, Tim Dedja, who opened Boiling House in Cherry Hill’s Tuscany Marketplace in 2017, is Albanian.

He saw similar eateries while visiting a cousin attending Louisiana State University. “I said, ‘The East Coast needs this,’” he said. Last month, he opened Boiling Pot at 319 Market St. in Philadelphia’s Old City section. His restaurants serve the food on plates rather than in plastic bags — which are not used in the actual cooking in any case.

“They lock in the flavor and aroma of the sauce,” said Jessica Huang of Shaking Seafood in Center City.

Huang and Chun Lin last month converted J’s Sushi on 10th Street near Locust into Shaking Seafood because, she said, the block had become saturated with sushi restaurants. Lin’s experience with seafood steered them to boiled seafood.

Center City will get a third such restaurant this fall as Mighty Catch opens at 1310 Walnut St. Owner Tom Lau owns other restaurants, including Aki Nom Nom, a Japanese restaurant a block away.

Economics seem to be on their side as the simple labor can help offset high seafood prices.

The food also lends itself well to takeout and delivery, an aspect that many restaurateurs are banking on.