Review: Cary Crab House serves the bayou’s amped-up answer to an East Coast crab boil

Crawfish with head-on shrimp combo with cajun sauce from Cary Crab House.
Crawfish with head-on shrimp combo with cajun sauce from Cary Crab House.

Given the location in Crossroads Plaza — hardly a trendy night-life destination — I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Cary Crab House slipped under my radar until nearly six months after its opening in April. Even then, it wasn’t the foodie grapevine but one of those discount coupons in a weekly mailer that alerted me.

I was truly surprised, then, when my wife and I arrived to a packed house — on a Sunday night, no less. Told the wait for a table could be 20 minutes or more, we opted to sit at the bar. Within minutes, the seats on either side of us were also taken by couples who told us that they were already regular customers.

And just what is it that has inspired such a passionate following? The restaurant’s name is a hint but doesn’t tell the whole story. The website description — “New Orleans Cajun-style seafood” — sheds a little more light. More precisely, Cary Crab House specializes in Cajun-style boil-in-a-bag seafood, the bayou’s amped-up answer to an East Coast crab boil.

In the classic version, any combination of crab, crawfish and shrimp are boiled in a heat-resistant plastic bag with potatoes, corn on the cob (and sometimes sausage) with Cajun spices, butter and other ingredients that meld with the shellfish juices to create a sauce.

At Cary Crab House, the shellfish offering expands to include nearly a dozen options, from baby clams to lobster tail. Hurricane Florence curtailed the season for blue crabs, which likely won’t return to the menu until next spring. In the meantime, you can satisfy your crab craving with either king crab or snow crab. King crab is reputedly sweeter, but it’ll set you back 10 bucks more than the snow crab. Your call, but I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two when they’re coated in spicy Cajun sauce.

Then again, you could opt to have your crab legs (or any other shellfish, for that matter) steamed in the bag with no sauce at all. Or with garlic butter, or lemon pepper. Or the Big Bang, a combination of all three sauces.

Crawfish are as big and tasty as you’d expect from a restaurant with a bayou country culinary pedigree. So are jumbo shrimp, which are available head-on (the preference of any self-respecting Cajun, and mine as well) or without the head.

But I wouldn’t recommend ordering the shrimp and crab legs combo. I did, and kicked myself for failing to anticipate that the longer cooking time required for crab legs would necessarily produce egregiously overcooked shrimp.

Regardless of your shellfish choice, consider adding sausage to your order. The thick coins of smoked sausage add flavor to the mix, and offer a meaty counterpoint to the shellfish.

By default, you also get a handful of small whole potatoes or a single half cob of corn — but not both, as the menu points out, unless you order a combo. That strikes me as a particularly stingy decision, given the relative prices of vegetables and seafood.

Fried Oyster Basket with Sweet Potato Fries from Cary Crab House. Greg Cox

The menu also offers a handful of fried seafood baskets, including shrimp, catfish, and more-than-respectable fried oysters. These come with your choice of side, among them Cajun fries, sweet potato fries, steamed rice, and my hands-down favorite, hushpuppies studded with kernels of corn.

An order of hushpuppies makes for a winning starter, too — and pretty much the only one, unless you count oysters on the half shell and surprisingly good wings (Cajun, Buffalo or lemon pepper). The menu doesn’t have an appetizer list per se.

But I suspect most people aren’t interested in starters, anyway. They want to cut to the chase: Put on the plastic glove and bib that are provided (believe me, you’ll need them), open that bag, and start doing some serious shellfish eating. A tin bucket is provided for discarded shells, and that crab cracker will come in handy if you’ve ordered crab legs.

Cajun Wings from Cary Crab House. Greg Cox

At the end of the meal, the butcher paper on the table will be spattered with sauce, and the satisfied grin of the well-fed will be spread across your face (seafood portions are as generous as the vegetables are stingy). And, as you settle back and look around the dining room — a sprawling space decorated with every nautical cliche you can imagine — you’ll notice that virtually every square inch of the plank walls is covered in graffiti contributed by customers. Clearly, you aren’t the only one to leave Cary Crab House with a smile on your face.

Cary Crab House

220 Crossroads Blvd., Suite 2460, Cary


Cuisine: seafood

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: crab shack casual

Noise level: moderate to high

Service: variable

Recommended: crawfish, shrimp (head on), crab legs, wings, hushpuppies

Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.