By Vickie Lewis
Paper towels? Check! Latex gloves? Check! Crab Crackers & Scissors? Check! Bibs? Check! All of these items are provided for your convenience when you dine at San Pablo’s new Cajun restaurant, the Rocking Crawfish. This is the perfect restaurant for those who are seeking a casual dining venue that offers delicious seafood options, and where it’s okay to eat with your hands and make a mess, because it’s just part of the experience. When you finish eating at Rockin Crawfish, if your table is clean, you haven’t done it right!
Rockin’ Crawfish held its Grand Opening in the El Portal Shopping Center on August 24, 2015. The owners are a group of four young partners-Chris, Zach, Nhan, and Hai–who recognized that San Pablo and the surrounding areas represented an untapped market for Cajun cuisine, and so decided to open Rockin’ Crawfish to fill that void. Currently there are only two other Rockin’ Crawfish locations—one that was established several years ago near Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland; and the other opened in Concord last summer. Expansion is definitely a possibility, with a new location currently being considered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about trying Rockin’ Crawfish, as my taste for seafood is somewhat limited. I like shrimp, crab, and most kinds of fish, but I’m generally not a fan of shellfish, and I’d certainly never even considered eating crawfish! I was hopeful that the menu would include something I would want to eat. The menu, though somewhat limited, did not disappoint. The main entrees served are seafood boils, including whole Dungeness Crabs, King Crab Legs, Shrimp, Clams, Mussels, and of course, Crawfish. Oysters on the half shell are also available. All of the boils are sold by the pound at market prices, which are posted near the bar. Side orders include corn cobbettes, red potatoes, rice, pork sausages, and garlic noodles. In addition to these choices, there are over a dozen appetizers available, several of which also qualify as entrees. Examples of these include Fish & Chips (made with catfish); Chicken Strips and fries; and a fried Shrimp Basket with fries. Beverages include an assortment of draft and bottled beers, sodas, lemonades and iced teas. An intriguing alcoholic drink, Saketinis—the Rockin’ Crawfish’s version of a Martini but made with Sake—is also available in five different fruity flavors.
On our first visit, my guest and I were promptly greeted by our server, Adriana. She showed us to our table, provided menus, and brought us water. Even before we looked at the menu, she offered a very comprehensive explanation of the various offerings. Sensing my apprehension about the crawfish, she recommended several appetizer options for us to try, and then left us to decide what we wanted to order.
While we perused the menu, we were somewhat distracted and intrigued by the very interesting interior décor of Rockin’ Crawfish. The restaurant is large, with table, booth, and bar seating for close to 100 guests. All tables are covered with white butcher paper, each equipped with a roll of paper towels. There are 10 large screen TV’s mounted behind the bar and around the dining area, tuned to various channels. There are brick walls and walls made from wood resembling old fence planks, and all are thoroughly tagged (i.e. decorated with graffiti) by design. Even the booth seats are tagged, as are the walls in the bathrooms. Guests are welcome to add their own special artwork or messages with colorful Sharpies provided by the servers! Various neon beer signs mounted around the dining area supplement the recessed lighting and the natural light from the large front windows. You’ll also find a real phone booth, a fire hydrant, a guitar and a stoplight, in addition to an aquarium tank with live Dungeness crabs awaiting their fate. Assorted beer cans decorate the overhang above the bar, and another wall in the dining area is covered with metal license plates. Most notable is a wonderful hand-painted mural that spans the entire length of the right wall as you enter the restaurant, depicting large, frolicking crawfish against the backdrop of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and skyline. (No tagging allowed on the mural!) Suffice to say that there is no shortage of visual stimulation at Rockin’ Crawfish!
When Adriana returned, we ordered a bowl of gumbo and the Fried Shrimp Basket with waffle fries from the appetizer menu. Within minutes, our food was delivered to our table. Our gumbo was served with a side of rice, although it can also be served mixed in with the soup. The gumbo included shrimp, pork sausage, crab, celery, okra, and onions, and we had a choice of spice levels ranging from original spice to very hot (volcano). We ordered mild spice, and it was plenty spicy for both of us! The gumbo was delicious and very filling. The shrimp basket included nine large, breaded and crisply fried shrimp, and a generous serving of large, thick, waffle fries. The shrimp were plump and tasty, and neither the shrimp nor the waffle fries were at all greasy or oily.
As we were finishing our meal, Adriana returned to ask if we wanted to try one of the boils. Although we were quite full, she offered to sell us a half pound of whatever we wanted, versus a full pound. So we decided to try the boiled shrimp (with heads off!) All of the boils are available with either Lemon Pepper Seasoning, Garlic Butter, or the Rockin’ Combo, a blend of both seasonings, which is what we chose. Our shrimp was served in a black disposable plastic serving dish, and inside was a plastic bag the shrimp and seasonings. We emptied the bag into the dish to find nine boiled peel-and-eat shrimp in a red sauce that smelled wonderfully garlicky. Adriana brought us plastic bibs to wear while we ate our shrimp, which were appreciated since eating the shrimp tended to be a bit messy. The shrimp were plump and moist and had an excellent flavor. The shrimp were also accompanied by a plate of limes and portion cups of black pepper, intended to further enhance the shrimps’ flavor, but we really didn’t find it necessary to use much of this. We certainly used our share of paper towels during this portion of our meal as we peeled away the shells and legs. (Some guests use latex gloves to avoid getting their hands so messy; however, I found that the “taste” of the gloves was not at all appealing—so we proceeded to peel the shrimp with our bare hands.)
We had the opportunity to try several additional menu items during our second visit when we met with one of the four owners, Hai Truong, who is also the manager of the Oakland Rockin’ Crawfish location. We enjoyed a veritable feast consisting of King Crab Legs, Dungeness crab, Crawfish, and more Shrimp, this time with corn, potatoes and sausages as sides; and Garlic Noodles. My favorites were the shrimp and the King Crab Legs, which were large, making it easy to access the luscious meat inside. The Dungeness crab was flavorful, but was rather small and therefore difficult to get to the prized meat inside the legs and body. The crawfish, unlike the shrimp, cannot be served with the heads off, and I typically do not eat anything that appears to be staring at me! My guest tried the first crawfish, and after a bit of work, reaped a small bit of meat from the tail. Our server recommended that we pinch the head or the crawfish while simultaneously pulling the tail to make it easier to get to the meat. This tip worked well, and I will admit that when I tried my first crawfish meat, it was pretty tasty. But after only a couple, I turned my attention to the steaming Garlic Noodles that had just been served. The noodles were rich and garlicky, and had an excellent flavor—definitely worth a repeat visit to Rockin’ Crawfish just for these!
Hai also arranged for us to try four of the five fruit-flavored Saketinis. You may wonder, as I did, how Japanese sake-based drinks fit in with the Cajun-themed menu. However, after trying them, I realize that the sweetness of the drinks offsets the spiciness of the food, and helps to cleanse the palate when eating the various foods. We tried the Luscious Lychee, the Smashing Peach, the Apple Blaze, and the Mango Splash flavors. Each was served filled to the brim in chilled martini goblets. The first two flavors we tried were the lychee and peach. I found the lychee to have a stronger alcohol taste than any of the others. The peach was a bit sweeter and more to my liking, but our favorites were the green apple, and the mango, the latter which was made with mango/pineapple juice. These two were dangerously good because they didn’t even taste like they were made with alcohol. The fifth flavor is the Marilyn Monroe, made with strawberry and cranberry juice. We highly recommend trying a Saketini (or two) when you visit Rockin’ Crawfish!
When you go, allocate sufficient time to enjoy the full experience of dining at Rockin’ Crawfish! It’s a great social atmosphere where you can enjoy great food, make a huge mess, and scribble on the walls! Even if you’re not one who likes to crack crabs or rip the head off of crawfish, there are plenty of other options that make this restaurant one to add to your list of favorites! Enjoy watching your favorite sports event on one of the many TV’s, have your favorite beer, wine, or Saketini, and relax for a while in this casual, family-friendly atmosphere. You can also order all menu items to go; however, this would be a missed opportunity to experience the spot-on customer service provided here. When you’re in the mood for something different, Rockin’ Crawfish in San Pablo is the place to go!
2300 El Portal Drive, Suite L, in San Pablo | 510-230-4874
Hours: Monday through Friday 2:00 PM – 10:30 PM • Saturday – Sunday 1:00 PM – 10:30 PM