Below them, a frozen daiquiri machine whirrs, and a double-door freezer closet contains enough frosted beer mugs to rival Paris Hilton's shoe collection. Proceeding the few feet to Perino's dining room, you pass a retail case containing shirts embellished with the outline of an oyster and the catchphrase "Cajun Viagra."
These are the sorts of regional contrivances upon which lesser restaurants cash in -- around Bourbon Street, at airports and in tourist destinations from Epcot to Edinburgh. But it's different at Perino's, where the almost all-local customers don't just get the joke -- they're in on it. It's like a Wisconsinite wearing a foam cheesehead at Lambeau Field, or a genuine wrangler straddling a saddle barstool at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyo. The silliest regional conventions become profoundly significant when cardholding natives agree to them.
Silliness is a non-issue, anyway, when people are as dead serious as Perino's clientele is about seasonal boiled shellfish. A scan of the restaurant two weeks ago, at the tail end of crawfish season, revealed an estimated three pounds of crawfish per diner. Everybody sat within arm's length of the local hot sauce trinity -- Crystal, Tabasco and Louisiana. Three rolls of paper towels spread across each of the long, community-style tables. The average visit lasted about two hours, long enough to peel through three pounds of crawfish with proper relish, plus a few extra minutes for stinging, moisture-wrinkled fingers to recover their shape.
With that final crawfish hoorah now tucked back with the calendar page for June, blue crabs -- fresh, Louisiana, shovel-clawed crabs with hunter-orange backs and jagged spikes -- are the passion at this fine boiling point near the Harvey Tunnel. Boiled with an undisclosed melange of spices that usually bows to cayenne, they arrive at the table not 10 minutes after you've ordered them, steaming hot, piled high upon round trays, their black beaded eyes staring blankly in every direction. Depending upon your previous experience with whole boiled crabs, this mound of carnage either holds the remedy to your deepest longings, or it frightens you nearly to death. Either way, you must get cracking.
Silver nutcrackers lie scattered on top of the crabs, along with plastic knives that accomplish nothing, and whatever side items you may want to chew on as you excavate the sweet crabmeat. Corn on the cob and kielbasa-like smoked sausage come well-seasoned by the boiling pot, but it's the red potatoes that sponge up most of the clove-and-cayenne spice. Waitresses place the loaded trays upon metal stands, slipping an empty tray underneath for spent shells and kernelless cobs. Everyone gets a colorful plastic plate still wet from the dishwasher.
The going rate for blue crabs two weeks ago was $12.50 per dozen, which meant you could fill up on the pearls of meat for a pittance if you had the endurance and the time to do all that cracking. Crab boils produce the perfect social food for two contrasting reasons: They lend to long and leisurely conversation as participants dig every last bit of meat from the skinniest legs and tightest crevices, and/or the crabs provide an excuse to focus elsewhere when you've run out of things to say.
Perino's dining room, busy with beer distributor paraphernalia and posters illustrating the life cycles of local shellfish, supplies additional distraction. Some diners take a break to program Bob Seger or Justin Timberlake into the jukebox; others take aim at the Big Buck Hunter video game or drop some change for a classic game of Galaga. Unfortunately, many pass the downtime smoking.
Limited by the dimensions of a recipe card, Perino's short menu wastes no space on undeserving foods (except, perhaps, the less seasoned, unsnappy boiled shrimp). There's hot crawfish boudin, its moist, aromatic, rice-and-tail filling oozing out the ends. The deep-fried stuffed crab is exceptional, rife with lump crabmeat and the fresh aroma of green bell pepper. Stuffed artichokes pack in enough garlicky breadcrumbs to fill a family of Orleanian-Sicilians. (Like the crabs, these prickly, overstuffed orbs can intimidate novices, as one demonstrated by crying, "What's that thing?") Baskets of battered and fried crab claws are a novel way to eat lots of crab without trying very hard. Ask for your favorite domestic beer, as they probably stock it, but don't ask for any condiments beyond what's already on the table. "Some people like to make their own sauce with catsup and mayonnaise," suggested one waitress. The natives don't mess around.