Seafood boil in the Duke City! If the notion conjures visions of heading to Tingley Beach and embarking on an unappetizing repast of catfish, trout and silvery minnows boiled together in a large pot of green chile seasoned water, you’re in for a treat. As of September, 2013, it’s possible for expatriates from any of America’s coastal regions to indulge in authentic seafood boil…and it’s very good.
If you hadn’t heard about Down N Dirty Seafood Boil, it’s because Albuquerque’s very first seafood boil restaurant launched to very little fanfare. The event should have been celebrated with ceremonial splendor and rejoicing. Think about it. Among the dozens of restaurant openings in the Duke City every year, very few actually serve an untapped market. Even fewer fill a real niche and offer a product unique to the marketplace, something that can’t be found anywhere else in the area.
Expats who’ve lived along coastal waters know of what I speak. As they read this, they may even be experiencing involuntary salivation at their memories of seafood boils in their past and the prospect of recreating that experience within easy driving distance. Others not fortunate enough to have ever experienced an authentic seafood boil may be scratching their heads and wondering just what a seafood boil is and why the launch of the Down N Dirty (no double-entendre intended) Seafood Boil is such a milestone event.
A seafood boil is, first and foremost, a social event, a gathering of friends and family to celebrate and luxuriate in succulent shellfish. In coastal areas, seafood boils are held on Memorial day to herald the start of summer and they’re held on Labor Day to wish summer a fond farewell. Optimally, they’re held on the beach where the heady aroma of briny seawater mingles with the smoke from the fire surrounding a large cauldron or stockpot of boiling water (or beer) in which the bounty of the sea is prepared.
Regional variations not only dictate what shellfish is prepared, but the spices and nuances that give that region its culinary personality. The seafood of choices in New England are clams and oysters served with Portuguese sausage. In Georgia and in the “Low Country” of South Carolina, it’s shrimp and smoked sausage while Louisiana seafood lovers prefer the triumvirate of crabs, crawfish and andouille sausage. Blue crab, Chincoteague oysters and clams are all the rage along the estuaries of Chesapeake Bay.
There is no one standard “recipe” for a seafood boil. Chefs and cooks have freelanced for generations, tweaking local variations with a pinch of this or a dash of that but never deviating too far from tradition. At its basics, a seafood boil is little more than seafood, water (or beer) and spices. The seafood is typically boiled whole and if you’re fortunate enough to experience it along the coast, extricated from the net or trap and tossed directly into a boiling pot. There is nothing like the just-caught flavors and brininess of fresh seafood!
Obviously, the Duke City and landlocked New Mexico are at a disadvantage when it comes to just-caught, fresh-off-the-boat seafood, but modern transportation has made next day delivery of fresh seafood a reality. The other elements–foamy waves crashing along the beach, pristine sands as fine as talcum, marine layers of soupy fog in the morning–we’ll just have to imagine. Though it does sport a thematic seaside decor, stepping into the Down N Dirty Seafood Boil restaurant on Fourth Street won’t transport you back to the coast. The seafood boil just might!
The menu invites you to “get dirty by the pound” offering at market price all the seafood it takes to sate expats from coast to coast. Blue crab, clams, mussels, crawfish, scallops, shrimp, rock shrimp, Dungeness crab, snow crab legs, Alaskan king crab legs, crab claws and even lobster are available. While you’re free to mix and match to your heart’s content, it’s got to be in full pound increments. You can’t, for example, order a quarter pound of rock shrimp, a half pound of crab claws and three-quarter pounds of mussels.
After you’ve selected your seafood of choice, you’ll be asked to pick a spice flavor and degree of spiciness. The spice accents include garlic butter, lemon pepper, Cajun and “Down N Dirty” if you want it all. Spice levels range from none (garlic butter) to mild, medium and hot. Your server will explain the process in as much detail as you need. After your inaugural visit you’ll have the routine down pat.
It wouldn’t be a seafood boil without the accompaniments which luxuriate in the fragrant stew of spices and herbs along with the seafood. Popular favorites include potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage and Andouille sausage. Down N Dirty will also fry up some of your favorites: chicken tenders, fish and chips, shrimp, catfish, calamari, soft shell crab and oysters, but let’s face it, you can get fried foods just about anywhere.
There are a couple of cautionary statements you should heed when partaking in a seafood boil: (1) it can get pretty messy as in buttery liquids running down your chin onto your shirt; and (2) you’ll want to use the bib provided by your server to protect that shirt. Better yet would be cutting a hole in a trash bag and putting your head through it. That would be fitting because the seafood itself is served in a clear trash bag (which really should be called “treasure bags” considering what they hold). Make that two trash bags (double-bagging). The inner bag is tied at the top. You’ll have to untie it then fashion it into a makeshift bowl before you can indulge in your seafood fantasy.
2 November 2013: While the seafood options with a carapace (an exoskeleton) are tempting, if your hunger won’t wait or, like me, you lack the manual dexterity to safely extricate the tender seafood from its craggy shell, you’ll opt for seafood sans shell. Scallops, the pearlescent beauties with a sweet flavor are a perfect choice. Because scallops are so delicate in flavor, you won’t want to overwhelm them with an assertive spice. The Down N Dirty spice, which can be made “mild” is perfect for scallops. The reddish, stewy liquid in which the scallops are served is rich and buttery with minced garlic and spices swimming around.
8 November 2013: Conventional thought is that most seafood boil seasoning mixtures come from a can, box, packet or decanter of some sort. There’s absolutely no shame in using Old Bay, Tony Chachere’s or Paul Prudhomme’s seasonings, all of which are good. It’s quite likely the good folks at Down N Dirty start with one of these pre-packaged mixes then “doctor” them to their liking, but they won’t reveal their “secret recipes’ to anyone. Who needs to know what’s in the seasoning as long as they enhance the flavor of the seafood. These seasonings do. The Cajun seasonings on a pound of rock shrimp, for example, brought me back to seafood boils of yore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The accompaniment options are worthy of sharing trash bag space with the seafood. The thin-skinned new potatoes are boiled to perfection and soak up the buttery-garlicky mix. The corn-on-the-cob is sweet and succulent, perhaps the messiest component of the boil because it’s hand-held. At the opposite spectrum of the sweet, briny seafood is the Andouille sausage, a coarse, smoky and nicely spiced sausage. The only thing missing is a baguette which would be perfect for sopping up any remaining liquid. Alas, the owners don’t want diners to fill up on bread. The menu also offers about a dozen and a half drinks by the can as well as bottled drinks. If you’ve ever looked inside the tubing of a fountain drink machine, you’ll be grateful.
11 November 2013: While the boiled seafood travels well, the fried clams do not. Instead of the plump, sweet and miraculously delicious whole bellied clams I had fallen in love with during the two years I lived in Massachusetts, the fried clams at Down N Dirty are of Howard Johnson’s quality. That is, they’re passable (barely) in New Mexico, but wouldn’t pass muster in New England. Experience has taught me that not even in San Diego and Las Vegas are excellent fried clams to be found.
The Down N Dirty Seafood Boil is located at the former site of several failed restaurants. There are enough expats from coastal regions and enough adventurous seafood lovers to make it a dining destination where they can make it a celebration of the seafood boil tradition as American as New Mexico’s red and green chile.
Down N Dirty Seafood Boil
6100 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2013
1st VISIT: 2 November 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Scallops, Alaskan King Crabs, Rock Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn on the Cob, Andouille Sausage, Lobster, Cherry Pepsi