Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hot N Juicy Crawfish

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PHM0714Flash-1-6Vegas import deals a winning hand with fresh Cajun seafood and down ‘n’ dirty dining.

Hot N Juicy is either the best place in metro Phoenix to take a first date – or the worst. Tables are covered in white plastic, utensils are nonexistent and bibs are provided to ensure Mill Avenue diners don’t dribble onto their Sun Devil T-shirts. Meals come in plastic baggies. Sea critters are served whole, eyes and all.

The original Las Vegas Hot N Juicy was founded by Dallas natives Tim Nguyen and Laina Vo, who turned their passion for seafood into a mini-empire lauded by Man v. Food’s Adam Richman. As with many Vegas imports, the scene is a bit gimmicky. But beyond the suspiciously attractive service staff and bare-hands lobster removal, Hot N Juicy dishes up fine Louisiana-style seafood.

Around a dozen types of market-price boiled crustaceans and mollusks are available, with five choose-your-own-heat sauces for flavor. HNJ’s signature crawfish is as refreshing as a Louisiana sunrise. Tucked into buttery étouffée ($7.99), the tiny tails add brightness to a base of mirepoix and buttery blonde roux. Head-on shrimp are sweet and fresh, and clams surprise with a tenderness that doesn’t require teeth-gnashing. Meaty crab legs are salty and sweet.

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The only disappointment was overcooked lobster, which suffered from what one dining companion dubbed “rubbery tail syndrome.” Its claws proved more supple, flooding our plastic-coated table with briny seawater after being flayed open. Of the five seasonings, Hot N Juicy’s namesake claimed the top spot with its mouth-puckering sweet-heat tango. The brothy Louisiana style is good for beginners, and lemon pepper wows with a zesty citrus complement to the Cajun spices.

It wouldn’t be Southern fare without fried… well, everything. Jumbo butterflied shrimp ($10.99) are rolled in cornmeal batter and lightly fried for a crisp starter that pairs well with starchy sweet potato fries. The same batter bathes HNJ’s catfish basket ($10.99), yet the flaky freshwater fish sinks in such a heavy coat. Chicken wings and tenders are also offered ($9.99/$8.50), but the flavorless fried fowl can’t compete with the spicy-sweet crawfish or tender shrimp. Corn and potatoes serve mainly as sauce sponges. They’re worth adding for 60-75 cents apiece, if only to mitigate spice levels. (The “extra spicy” will probably melt the plastic gloves provided by the restaurant.)

Desserts are conspicuously absent. The closest thing to a sweet ending is the addictive corn fritters ($5.95), battered and fried puffs of sweet corn in a creamy, sugary sauce.

My advice? Lose the gloves, leave your self-consciousness behind and dig right in. When your dining partner slurps the fat out of a crawfish head and offers you the delectable tail meat, it might be love at first bite.

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DETAILS
Hot N Juicy Crawfish
Cuisine: Cajun, Seafood
Contact: 740 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, 480-634-6285, hotnjuicycrawfish.com
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; Noon-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Highlights: Crawfish étouffée ($7.99); clams with Hot N Juicy seasoning (market); snow crab claws in garlic butter (market); boiled crawfish (market); fried shrimp ($10.99); corn fritters ($5.95)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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