Pipe insulation for your Mardi Gras costume, cathode lighting for your homemade shopping cart float, plastic cigars and DayGlo panties by the gross for your truck parade — Carnival prep can present some peculiar shopping lists.
Shoppers can knock out many such Carnival needs among the specialized suppliers located off Jefferson Highway. If lunch also is on the list, Crabby Jack's sits in the middle of all this and fits right in by mixing both the essential and exotic elements of New Orleans cravings.
Duck is treated like roast beef, pulled into strands and slippery, round chunks, doused with a thin, brown jus and piled onto a Gendusa po-boy loaf. Drum fish is either encased in blue-corn taco shells or blackened and served with a surprisingly deft butter sauce. Oddities like calamari po-boys share the menu board with throwbacks like stuffed mirliton.
The commercial seafood distributor next door provides the shrimp used in old-school shrimp Creole or shellacked with a mac-and-cheese-style cream sauce with pasta shells and tasso. These shrimp also are dumped by the quart into king-size po-boys that look less like one person's lunch and more like a photo from a public relations campaign for Louisiana's abundant fisheries. Take one of these to the parade route and you can feed half the party.
Jacques Leonardi of Jacques-Imo's Cafe opened Crabby Jack's in 2002. It's the straightforward, lunchroom version of his loose and clamorously popular Oak Street restaurant, and it shares some of the same raffish spirit. Crabby Jack's also ranked near the top of the chart for violations of restaurant health codes between 2008 and 2012 in a recent analysis by The Times-Picayune. But that news was evidently shrugged off by lunch regulars — warehouse workers, medical staff in Ochsner scrubs and budget-stretching college students — and it hasn't swayed my affection for the place.
Frankly, I'm more concerned about the fried chicken. The late Creole chef Austin Leslie once ran the fryer at Jacques-Imo's, and Crabby Jack's has access to his acclaimed fried-chicken recipe. But recent batches I had were disappointing, and Leslie's trademark topping of dill pickle and persillade (a garlic/parsley garnish) were missing — so was evidence of seasoning in the oily coating.
The paneed rabbit po-boy, once a specialty, is gone, but an excellent new addition fills the gap: barbecued brisket with a touch of sweetness, a lot of smoke and enough peppery juice to make any other sandwich seem dainty.
Soft drinks, the only beverage choice, come in oversized plastic cups emblazoned with Leonardi's mug. Over the years they've accumulated in kitchen cabinets all over town, and they come out each Carnival season, carrying street cocktails to the next parade or block party. Whatever future duck and calamari may have as po-boy standards, the go-cup as keepsake has already assured Crabby Jack's one distinctive measure of New Orleans popularity.