Red Crawfish

As the sun sets, this quasi pan-Asian Tenderloin spot dons a delicious Cajun guise
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

The color of cooked crawfish isn't red, exactly — more a garnet. If it were a wine, it would be a medium-bodied pinot noir. Certainly it would never be mistaken for cooked lobster, which (pace Red Lobster) isn't red at all, but more of an inflamed orange. You see plenty of crawfish being rushed from the evening kitchen at Red Crawfish in the Tenderloin; the crustaceans make the journey in shallow white bowls and reach tables full of eager patrons who've fitted themselves out with plastic bibs in anticipation of mess.

Red Crawfish, like the Green Hornet, has something of a dual identity. By day it's a quasi pan-Asian place tending toward Chinese and Vietnamese favorites. But as the sun sets, it dons a Cajun guise, and a menu filled with familiars like five-spice chicken and beef noodle soup suddenly develops a bayou section that includes (besides crawfish) treats such as gumbo and Cajun fries.

The dual-identity restaurant is a rare phenomenon, but not an unknown one. Some years ago there was a spot on lower Haight Street that appeared to be an all-American café by day but turned into a Senegalese joint on certain nights of the week. And, in the present moment, we have Coffee Bar, which daytimers know as a coffee bar but becomes host to Radio Africa Kitchen several nights a week. Red Crawfish is close kin to these spots, but it has the additional charm of joining compatible, if unlikely, cuisines without fusing them. The Cajun dishes remain Cajun and the Asian dishes Asian, but they do make a nice harmony: a communion of spiciness.

The cathedral in which this union takes place is unprepossessing, in true Tenderloin fashion. The dining room is deep and very narrow — a half-storefront — with a long mirror along one wall to give the illusion of greater spaciousness. Ceiling fans do offer a hint of New Orleans. But the furniture, though plain, is well-made, the tabletops are clean, and you are greeted and seated promptly when you step through the door.

The Cajun dishes are dialed up according to the patron's preferred level of heat (on a four-step scale) and style of seasoning. For the seafood combo ($13.99), for instance, you choose among lemon-pepper, garlic butter, and red crawfish flavor palettes. The last turned out to be a deep red, slightly oily, iridescent soup flecked with dried chili and giving a faint charge of fruity acidity; had it been spiked with a mild vinegar? In this shallow pond frolicked shrimp (partly shucked), oysters (fully shucked), and chunks of calamari and white fish. The second-lowest level of heat ("spicy") proved to be more than sufficient, while the pre-shucking, while probably indicative of slackerdom on our part, also made the dish much easier to eat and enjoy and at the same time limited the mess. That's a lot of upside.

Cajun fries ($3.99 for a semi-gigantic plate) were fine but ordinary. We did detect a faint dusting of cayenne pepper on them, but not enough to make a serious impression. Better, for flavored-up starch, were the garlic noodles ($6.50). They would have gone brilliantly with the gumbo ($10.99), but the gumbo was somewhat late in arriving. In fact, it arrived last and, like a folk act following a death-metal group, its luster was at first somewhat dimmed by the potency of the seafood combo that preceded it.

But the gumbo found traction after a bite or two and was thick and satisfying even without rice — or garlic noodles. The thickener was okra, whose flavor has a ghostly bite, and the result wasn't particularly pretty: a bowlful of lumpy gray-green sludge.

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