Seven Weeks of Seafood: This week we begin a series showcasing different reads on the bounty, traditions and interpretations of seafood around the New Orleans area. Seafood consumption always soars this time of year for reasons that can be religious, cultural, seasonal or some combination thereof. We’re featuring dishes and styles of seafood to take you beyond the basics, to show the diversity of flavors at hand and to inspire some new cravings.
Gulf shrimp, Far East flavor
Kim Son means “golden mountain” in Vietnamese. But for some, the name of this Gretna restaurant is practically synonymous with salt baked seafood.
It’s a menu category that runs through shrimp and squid and crabs, and it’s also one doozy of a misnomer. Salt baked dishes here aren’t baked, and they aren’t especially salty. They have nothing to do with salt-roasted or salt-crusted fish, an old style finding new popularity these days.
Rather, salt baked dishes are fried – first deep-fried and then wok-fried to finish. The result is crisp, peppery and deeply savory with onion and garlic.
“Some people think it’s oven baked, but that’s just how the name got translated,” said Tina Dieu, whose family first opened Kim Son in 1988. “Only Vietnamese people ate it at first, but now everyone likes it. It’s just more flavor.”
Salt baked shrimp are the most popular example at Kim Son. Order them shell-on and they crackle with a perfectly edible crunch. Order them peeled and they can disappear from the platter as fast as popcorn shrimp.
They satisfy a craving for fried seafood, but go beyond a basic po-boy filling or seafood platter fodder by adding the spices and aromatics of southeast Asian cooking.
Known in Vietnamese as rang muoi, these dishes are closely related to “salt and pepper” dishes from Cantonese cooking, which can be found locally at a handful of Chinese restaurants serving traditional regional cuisine.
Shirley Lee, proprietress of Royal China, says salt and pepper dishes are staples back in her native Hong Kong. While her Metairie restaurant is better known for its lengthy dim sum menu and its bargain lunch plates, the deep roster of “chef suggestions” includes an array of salt and pepper dishes. As seasons and the market allows, there’s oyster, soft shell crab and fish, while Gulf shrimp is usually in rotation. A recent batch, sourced from Lafitte, were fat, thickly crusted in batter and very salty, with a hash of stir-fried jalapeno, garlic and green onions.
Seasonings differ between the Chinese and Vietnamese renditions, and the coating, texture and crunch vary from kitchen to kitchen.
At Nine Roses, another Vietnamese restaurant in Gretna, the same dish is dubbed Szechuan pepper shrimp. It’s one of the more distinctive versions going, with a very light coating barely clinging to the shrimp, browned bits of garlic generously piled over the top and a tangle of rice paddy herb, a mild citrusy green. A dry salt and pepper mix is provided for dredging, and lime wedges add a final burst of flavor.
Not far away at Tan Dinh, the rang muoi tastes like an altogether different dish, with a much thicker, more starchy coating and an intensely salty, pepper-speckled vinaigrette on the side for dipping.
What’s in a name?
At China Rose in Fat City, “salty and pepper jumbo shrimp” reside on the special Chinese menu (ask for it at the hostess station), and it delivers a platter of shell-on, pepper-dusted shrimp over a mix of red and green bell peppers.
Eating shrimp in the shell may not be to everyone’s taste. But in this preparation the thin shell gives the satisfying crunch of a chip and a deep flavor.
Little Chinatown, a traditional Cantonese eatery in Kenner, serves shrimp with or without the shell. Chef Allen Cheng explains that after a dunk in the fryer, the second step of wok-frying, or “toasting” the shrimp, makes the shells crisper. It also cooks in the Chinese five spice and white pepper from his seasoning arsenal.
“We do it with oysters, soft shell crab, with alligator,” he said, listing salt and pepper dishes that cycle across his specials board. Frog legs, lobster and quail are also up for the salt and pepper treatment at Little Chinatown.
Kim Son applies its salt baked technique various seafood and also firm cubes of tofu for a vegetarian dish. The most elaborate preparation, when supplies allow, is the salt baked crab, a buttery, divinely garlicky mess of blue crabs, hacked into quarters and cooked in their shells.
They aren’t batter-fried like most salt baked dishes, which adds yet another wrinkle to the menu name game. But in a city where BBQ shrimp is widely accepted as a dish with nothing to do with barbecue, semantics should not keep anyone from decoding this pleasure.
349 Whitney Ave, Gretna, 504-366-2489
600 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, 504-831-9633
1100 Stephens St., Gretna, 504-366-7665
1705 Lafayette St, Gretna, 504-361-8008
3501 N. Arnoult St., Metairie, 504-887-3295
3800 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-205-0580
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.