It's hard to say just where the West Bank's suburbs end and the Louisiana countryside begins, but I think a case can be made for the gravel parking lot leading to Sal's Seafood — at least during crawfish season.
Sal's is a small, old-fashioned seafood restaurant in the middle of Marrero, but on the inside it seems like a place you'd expect to find closer to Bayou Teche than the West Bank Expressway.
In a paneled room lit by fluorescent tubes, in a setting that's about as romantic as a Dollar General store, everyone from nuns to the guys who parked a bunch of Harley-Davidsons out front get their elbows on their tables to dispatch enormous amounts of boiled seafood. The abundance, the quality and the single-minded focus behind the boiling operation here — as well as the diners' abandon — are all hallmarks Sal's shares with the so-called "boiling point" eateries out in crawfish-producing Cajun country. It makes the short journey over the Harvey Canal to visit Sal's feel like a satisfying mini road trip.
Sal's traces its roots to a bar run by owner and namesake Sal Penino in the 1970s. He put out boiled seafood for his regular customers and it proved such a hit that by 1979 he opened Sal's Seafood. Today the seafood operation continues, with an industrial-sized apparatus of conveyor belts and purging tanks that looks ready to handle a truckload of crawfish at once.
The boil is not so spicy — I wish it were more so — but the crawfish size is consistently impressive and there seems to be a constant supply of baskets full of seafood hot and ready for your order. There's no waiting around for the next boil batch or settling for cold crawfish.
Penino also worked in the meat business, which may explain why this seafood restaurant makes its own hot sausage patties and serves such a good roast beef po-boy. A deli case by the entrance is filled with good things to bring home or to order for your table — from palm-sized crawfish pies and pints of etouffee to stuffed artichokes and little cups of creamy crab dip to spread over crackers.
Still, the way to put Sal's through its paces is to surround a table with friends and then inundate it with crawfish. At this time of year, it's a good idea to get a few rounds of the plump, salty raw oysters too. Cans of beer, served ice-cold, cost $2.
Before your seafood arrives, you cover your table with newspapers, reams of which are stacked in the corner. A page of obituaries always seems to end up as part of my place setting, but maybe looking down at those pages is a healthy reminder to enjoy what we have while we have it. After all, it's hard to sit before a feast of crawfish, oysters and cheap beer at Sal's without thinking that you're really living.