Walking into Boiling Seafood for the first time is terrifying. At each table, diners are hunched over what looks to be a gory heap, dismembering pieces parts with their bare hands and gobbling them up like extras in the Walking Dead. The fact that the restaurant is small and dim – a former Chinese carry-out – only seems to heighten the anxiety.
But within minutes we were those people, elbow-deep in a bottomless bag of boiled seafood, gleefully ripping meat from shell and depositing the tasty nuggets into our own gaping maws.
Whether it's cracking crabs by the Chesapeake, dunking Maine steamer clams in butter, or attacking a mountain of boiled crawfish deep in Cajun Country, the most enjoyable seafood experiences are usually a god-awful mess. Good luck finding a messier meal in town than this one. At one point, I literally was picking shrimp shells out of my hair, and I'm pretty confident that I ruined a perfectly good pair of pants.
Boiling Seafood opened quietly last fall, and it's one of the biggest sleeper hits of the year in terms of new restaurants. The Cleveland Heights spot is the first of its kind in the region, but it is modeled right down to the menu after similar boiled seafood shops down south and out west. And mark my words, it's a concept that's ripe for the picking in terms of replication.
If you were to cross a Louisianan crab boil with a Szechuan dry pot, this is what would come out the other end. Seafood is boiled in a flavorful broth, tossed in an aggressively seasoned spice mixture, and delivered to the table in clear plastic bags. Guests can pour the contents out onto the white-paper table toppers or eat straight out of the sack. Plastic bibs and gloves are supplied by staffers, but I find that the baggy plastic gloves only get in the way. Utensils are nowhere to be seen, replaced by a never-ending roll of paper towels.
The main meals here are built around seafood like crawfish, shrimp, crab, clams and even whole lobster. Specials like King crab, Dungeness crab and Florida stone crab make occasional appearances. One of the most popular items is called the Handful ($31), a Santa-sized bag filled with a pound of shrimp, pound of crawfish, half pound of clams, a handful of andouille sausage slices, two ears of corn and a few new potatoes. Diners can also build their own experience by ordering seafood by the pound and add-ons like corn and potatoes.
After choosing the fish, guests pick a seasoning from a list that includes Juicy Cajun, Garlic Butter, Lemon Pepper or Homemade Juicy, a mix of all of the above. Spiciness is on a scale of "Baby Spice" to spicy, with the latter being full-on hair on fire. "Juicy" is an apt label for the sauce, a fire-engine red paste that clings to the food and tastes of garlic, lemon, butter and tongue-tingling Asian spices.
This operation only works with fresh-tasting seafood, and that's precisely what we found. Whole (head, tail and shell intact) shrimp are firm and sweet. Same goes for the crawdads, which require a little more work for a little less meat but are worth the effort, especially if you're a head-sucker. The clams are small but tender, the potatoes hot and steamy, and the corn overcooked and mushy on both visits. You'll be using that zesty sauce in the bottom of the bag as a dip for sides like fluffy corn fritters ($6), soft Hawaiian rolls ($1.75) and appetizers like crunchy deep-fried shrimp ($12), calamari ($12) and oysters ($12).
If you're not up for the whole bag o' fish experience, the menu offers Po' Boys filled with Cajun fried chicken, soft shell crabs, and even lobster tail, all served with fries. There's also a soupy, savory version of crawfish etouffee ($8) with rice that is nothing like you'd find in Louisiana but seems to be staple at these boiling seafood places.
Our servers on both visits were fun, helpful and attentive, bringing round after round of cold Great Lakes beer ($4), refilling our paper towel roll as needed, and packing up the leftovers in a way that does not result in irreparable harm to one's automobile.
I can totally see this concept blowing up, perhaps popping up in roomier spaces. It's fun, it's social, it's interactive, and it's different. Sure, you'll wake up in the middle of the night with a biblical thirst, and that spicy sauce will do unspeakable things to your insides the next day, but by the time you have a craving for another bottomless bag of spicy steamed seafood, you'll have long forgotten about all that.
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