You may have heard of Viet-Cajun crawfish, and perhaps you’ve tasted these boiled mudbugs tossed in garlic butter. It’s all over food media these days as an example of cultural cross-pollination.
Less exalted is something I’ve started calling Italian crawfish, and for this we can thank Zimmer’s, a seafood market with the creative moxy of New Orleans home cooking at play.
Zimmer’s was founded back in 1980 by a former commercial fisherman, Craig Zimmer, and a former hairdresser, his wife Charleen. It has remained a reliable presence in Gentilly, a neighborhood that needs more local businesses.
It also happens to sit adjacent to a low-key New Orleans food landmark — John Gendusa Bakery, one of the last makers of the city’s foundational po-boy bread.
They’re all bound to become po-boys, but as soon as the fresh loaves arrive at Mahony's in the French Quarter, they go straight to the vault.
The supply chain from bakery to cutting board is basically arm’s length. This is as close to having an in-house bakery as any po-boy shop in New Orleans can manage, and since the bread makes the po-boy this relationship makes a big difference at Zimmer’s.
Order a Zimmer's shrimp po-boy on John Gendusa bread and you get layers of crunch. First it’s the toasty, malty-flavored, sesame seed crust of the loaf, then the airy compression of the bread beneath, then the golden-crisp, briny sweet shrimp within.
This week brings Good Friday and Easter. Seafood boils are such a part of the proceedings in New Orleans they practically feel like liturgy. Places like Zimmer’s are especially busy supplying them from their bins and hampers and boiling pots.
That makes this a good time to recognize how much our neighborhood seafood markets contribute to the flavor and character of New Orleans food.
Sadly, our town does not have the sprawling fish markets of other seafood-loving cities. But we do still have the neighborhood seafood market, synced to our seasonal appetites, supplying our celebrations and working their own quirks and character into the equation like only mom-and-pop shops can.
Zimmer’s own around-the-corner connection to John Gendusa Bakery gives one angle on it. The seafood deli case here gives another as the birthplace of Italian crawfish or, technically, marinated crawfish salad.
Marinated crab salad is one of Zimmer’s signatures. It's a gloriously messy clatter of in-shell crab chunks heavily coated with Italian dressing, parsley, celery, lemon and lots of garlic. It is in constant demand from Zimmer’s regulars. But crab harvests do not always cooperate with demand.
Sometimes, when crabs start running a bit scarce, Zimmer’s replaces the crabs with crawfish. This is one of those times.
What you get are chilled, boiled, whole crawfish in the shell, sopping with the same dressing. With this heavy, gleaming coating they look like garlic butter Viet-Cajun crawfish, but they taste much different. As you peel and eat the crawfish, the bright lemon and earthy herbaceous flavor of the marinade flows through, and each bite practically squeaks with oil.
It reminds me of the seafood salads some Italian families serve around Christmas time, crossed with the burly Louisiana bounty of crawfish season. It's not cheap, at $16 a quart (enough for two people to share a taste), but it is good.
This is roll-up-your-sleeves eating that also calls for a roll of paper towels. If you get a po-boy too, dredging the crust of the fresh John Gendusa Bakery loaf through the seasoned oil around those crawfish is just a little bit of heaven.
Zimmer’s is an eatery that is really mostly a market, so it is take-out only. There isn’t a seat to be had. You’re bringing this food back to your place or you’re eating it in your car or you’re headed to some patch of shade by nearby Bayou St. John or City Park or the lakefront.
You take New Orleans places like this on their own terms, and when you do they feed you in a way you don't get find anywhere else.
4915 St. Anthony Ave., 504-282-7150
Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
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