When it comes to crawfish, people closest to the source simply have it better. In Lafayette, for instance, in the heart of Louisiana's crawfish-farming region, restaurants started serving boiled crawfish in November, long before a reliable supply reached New Orleans. And anyone who compares the average crawfish that makes it to the Big Easy with the thumb-sized tails piled up in casual abundance at the rustic "seafood patios" around New Iberia or Abbeville must feel a pinch of envy.
The upshot is that local crawfish fanatics are accustomed to logging a few miles for special feasts nearer to the source. What a nice surprise it was, then, to find such a prodigious bounty at Salvo's Seafood in Belle Chasse, an easy 15-minute drive from downtown New Orleans.
Salvo's is a new discovery for me, but it's long been an institution in Plaquemines Parish. Owner Sal St. Philip opened it as a seafood market 25 years ago, and it has since relocated, expanded greatly and evolved into a restaurant while still clinging to its market roots. You can pick up individual soft-shell crabs, bundles of frog legs or Gulf fish for home cooking. But it's the boiled seafood that fills Salvo's oyster shell-covered parking lot all day. At lunchtime, camouflaged personnel from the nearby naval installation and guys in orange safety vests line Salvo's long, plastic-topped picnic tables. At night, families converge in greater numbers. In all cases, a platter of crawfish — or shrimp or crabs — is the centerpiece.
Crawfish trays come out lightning fast. At the service counter, waitresses scoop orders from waiting bins that always seem full. Shells slip off easily, a sign that a close eye is kept on boiling times, and the tail size for this time of year is more than respectable. The boil itself is rather mild, with more lemon flavor and aromatic pepper than forward, spicy heat, though the burn does build slowly. On the downside, the spice doesn't adequately penetrate the boiled side items, leaving potatoes bland and corn under seasoned.
Salvo's menu covers the usual New Orleans neighborhood restaurant standards and adds a few standout specialties. The broiled oysters, served without ceremony on a sheet of aluminum foil, are cooked just enough to bubble the buttery topping while leaving the meat taut and juicy. Fried jalapenos are crammed with a cheesy crabmeat mix. Nonseafood dishes are worth a try, too, especially white beans with rabbit, a Wednesday lunch special, and barbecued ribs, which are lean, crusty and surprisingly good for such a seafood-oriented restaurant.
One special attraction at Salvo's is the dinnertime all-you-can-eat boiled seafood deal, the specifics of which change daily. The one I caught earlier this month delivered one tray after another of boiled crawfish, shrimp and blue crabs for $20 per person. Washed down with very cheap pitchers of Bud Light, it added up to a huge and prolonged boiled banquet.
Any all-you-can-eat strategy is usually a bargain of gluttony over quality, but it's hard to think of a food more natural or satisfying in this format than boiled crawfish. A good backyard boil is a de facto all-you-can-eat affair anyway. Salvo's simply puts it in the restaurant setting, with happy results.