Just past the diverging diamond on South Winton Road sits Juicy Seafood. Its exterior does not stand out from many of its neighbors in the Winton Place location, but its approach to its cuisine, service, and environment does. The idea for Viet-Cajun fare stems from a series of restaurants in the Southern US that fuse Vietnamese cuisine and seafood.
Juicy Seafood serves a mix of fried and baked seafood, including oysters, shrimp, calamari, mussels, and clams. Other seafood staples, such as blue crab, are offered seasonally. There are only a few sides on the menu.
It's easy to miss what makes Juicy Seafood's décor different than what you'd find in a typical suburban strip mall. At first glance, the tables, chairs, and walls all check out as average. As I waited for the lemonade I ordered, the difference creeped up on me. The booths and walls are covered with customer names and comments, written mostly in sharpie.
Restaurant manager Jim Wang says he allowed customers to write on the surfaces for the restaurant's first four months in business. They would continue it, he says, but they ran out of space.
"It adds a special touch for customers," Wang says. "A memory. You were here when we started." He says that Juicy has many repeat customers, some who visit multiple times a week. I visited the restaurant on a Saturday afternoon, when it bustled at about 75 percent capacity.
When customers are seated in a booth, the servers unravel a table-wide sheet of brown paper and top it with enough silver metal buckets for your party. Inside the buckets are bags filled with plastic bibs with giant orange crabs printed on them, gloves, crab-crackers, and forks. Prepare to get messy. You'll likely need all of the above.
When your order is ready, your server will bring you yet another plastic bag. This one is see-through and carefully carried on a silver-toned platter. The server stands at the edge of your table, braces the bottom of the platter while holding the holding the folds of the bag closed. Watching servers approach first-time customers is telling and entertaining. Some customers are amused, others are bewildered as they watch the staff jostle their meal in the bag with the sauce of their choice, like balls in a lottery machine. Hot air clouds the bag as the server sets it before you and unfurls it.
There are four seasonings to choose from: Garlic butter, Cajun-garlic butter, lemon pepper, and the Juicy special, which is a blend of all three flavors. You also have an option of spice levels of mild, medium, hot, extra hot, or no spicy. On the back of the menu, I checked off medium and chose a half-pound of crawfish, a half-pound of crab legs, and a half-pound of snow crab, with baked salt potatoes and a small-ish portion of sweet corn on the cob (a nice haul for $24.99). A close-up look at inside bag reveals millimeter-deep, lemon pepper-dominated waves of orange-colored sauce.
For the uninitiated, eating crustaceans can be a jarring experience. Accessing the juicy meat inside each shellfish is a skill unto itself. The head of each crawfish should be twisted and pulled off without damaging the chewy, slim sliver of meat inside. The next step is breaking the tail. "It's a lot of work for a little bit of meat." Wang says. "But it's worth it."
When eating snow crab, you pinch the tail and yank it off, then peel away the rest of its shell. In order to access sweet meat inside crab legs, Wang advises that the legs should be broken at the joints first. Depending on the thickness of the center, you can crack open the shell with your hands, teeth, or a crab cracker. Smaller forks are available upon request if you can't pull the meat out any other way. Dip the meat into your sauce and enjoy.
The baked salt potatoes showed no hint of greasiness, and the sweet corn on the cobb was a great compliment to the savory nature of the sauce's seasoning -- which remains a mystery even to Wang.
The seasoning is sourced from down South, he says, and its makers won't disclose the ingredients. "It's a secret recipe," he says.