I've grown accustomed to traveling a bit to satisfy a strong crawfish craving. After all, when pickings are slim in New Orleans, even a short trip to restaurants in surrounding parishes usually pays off. The closer you get to the source, it seems, the bigger, better and more reliable the crawfish become.
Lately, though, I've been getting my fix closer to home, just across the Harvey Canal in fact, thanks to the network of seafood specialists strung along the Westbank Expressway. Sam Perino is the man behind two of them — Perino's Seafood & Deli, a market and take-out joint he's run for more than 30 years in Marrero, and Perino's Boiling Pot, a full-service restaurant in Harvey that his family opened in 2000.
Volume is a big factor in the crawfish game, and a restaurant that shares DNA with a busy seafood market seems to have a hereditary advantage. Sam's daughter Vicky Perino says the family restaurant gets the cream of the crop from the market supply, and they've certainly looked and tasted that way, even early in a season hamstrung by a dry autumn and a cold winter, which always inhibit crawfish growth. Picking through a platter here a few weeks before Mardi Gras turned up a good mix of mid-sized and outright large specimens, all run through with a moderately spicy, lemony boil mix. A few links of boiled sausage, brick-red and seething with spice, and a few ears of corn ignited the whole feast, while bland boiled potatoes functioned primarily as a sop to the heat from the other items.
Perino's menu is short and straightforward, offering the usual seafood joint options. The seafood gumbo is first rate, and an artichoke arrived so overstuffed with garlicky, herb-laced, Parmesan-dusted dressing it took substantial digging just to find the 'choke itself. Crawfish boudin oozes from its casing with whole tails and plenty of spice but mushy rice. It's best when spread on crackers.
When the main act here isn't boiled it's fried. The batter is uniform, forming a light, mildly seasoned shell-on shrimp, catfish and alligator alike. Sweet, fry-crusted crab claws are worth a try, and at least two dozen of them are generously piled over a tangle of curly fries.
No one seems to eat at Perino's alone, and the restaurant is designed to serve large groups quickly with long tables, stackable seafood trays and reusable picnic-style plastic plates that might bear the knife marks of earlier meals. Appropriately, the Boiling Pot takes more care with its beer service. Frozen plastic batons are stuck in oversized glass pitchers like icy drink stirrers and they keep the brew cold until it's poured into frozen mugs.
The jukebox cranks a mix of swamp pop, Led Zeppelin tunes and New Orleans Saints anthems, and there's such a robust collection of hunting trophies mounted on the walls, posts and in nooks that the brightly lit dining room could double as a gallery of taxidermy. The lunging black bear propped over the bar seems to promise that even if you come as hungry as a beast, you'll leave stuffed.