Vegas 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.
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.
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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