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The Federal’s cure for crawfish cravings

One of America’s strangest delicacies is as rare and fascinating as the creature itself, and the traditions attached with it. We’re talking about the freshwater shellfish that abound the murky and muddy waters of the Louisiana bayous, consequentially entitling it the state’s official crustacean in 1983. (Where’s the stone crab’s love, Florida?). The Cajuns’ dedication to crawfish is unwavering, as it is a right of passage passed down from generation to generation. Hosting and cooking a boil is considered a “ritual meal” — a meal accompanied by behaviors or events that carry meaning beyond the food itself. And nothing says party like of an entire bucket filled to the brim with pounds of these bright red critters, poured over a communal table covered in newspaper for all to share.

You don’t have to twist a New Orleanian’s arm to give’em a reason to celebrate anything, and crawfish boils abound throughout the season. From happy hours, park hang-outs, office gatherings, Sunday fundays — anywhere you look the set-up appears. Having lived in New Orleans for many years, come January, I fiend for them like a mad woman. I’ve come to be known as an authority among my friends, and I can tell you when and where you’ll be able to find them at any given point in Miami. Considering how much Miamians love a good get together, family-style food with a kick and anything that resembles a mini lobster, it’s always surprising that they’re so hard to come by.

The unfortunate reality is that for us southerners beyond the South  — and aficionados of these addictively spicy crustaceans  — the season is filled with neverending goose-hunts and field-trips to neighboring Ft. Lauderdale authentic restos like Rosey Baby’s and Shuck N’ Dive, or marked calendar appointments for annual crawfish boils like those at The Stage and Tobacco Road. The impending doom of the latter institutions, is pushing this southern tradition close to extinction in Miami.

But, there’s still one spot in Miami that carries on the crawfish boil, and much like the rituals in Louisiana, they’ve established one of their own: Crawdaddy Wednesdays at The Federal. Chef Cesar Zapata and his partner, Ani Meinhold, have been importing live crawfish every Wednesday of the season since they opened the doors of their modern American tavern a little over three years ago. This year they began a bit later (a couple of weeks ago) but they will continue the hump-day special through early July. Not an easy, nor an economical feat.

http://www.thefederalmiami.com/The 75 to 100 pounds of crayfish are shipped overnight and usually arrive the day of around 2 p.m., after which they have to be purged of the mud in a saltwater bath. “The mud is real, it’s very real,” explains Meinhold of the process. Once cleaned, they’re boiled in a traditional seasoned broth with andouille sausage, corn and potatoes, before the first shift of diners arrives at 6 p.m. Some evenings, they sell out by 8. “There are people that don’t come here all year and couldn’t care less what we have on the menu: They don’t care about biscuits, they don’t care about the duck jar, they don’t care about the pig wings, they don’t care! They only come for crawfish,” she says. But there’s a greater reason why Meinhold and Zapata continue the seasonal treat; it’s a personal reminder of their love for one another and for the restaurant they created together.

“The reason why this is so personal for me, and why I have such an affinity for them, is because it’s one of the first things Cesar taught me how to eat during our second date,” she recalls tenderly. “I’ve always been such a super experimental eater and when he was like ‘let’s go to Tobacco Road and have some crawfish,’ I was like ‘what the hell are those things?’ He taught me how to do it step by step — how to eat a crawfish — and I was addicted! It has a soft spot my heart because, you know, my significant other taught me how to eat something that I’d never had before — and now I have a real love for them.”

After living in Houston for six years, and traveling regularly through the mouth of the Mississippi, Zapata is a crawfish connoisseur. In fact, according to Meinhold, “If he could put crawfish on anything and everything, he would.”

And he almost does. In addition to serving them traditionally boiled by the pound, he also offers an array of dishes crafted around the star shellfish — like a fluffy crawfish corn cake sprinkled with homemade grown sprouts and a creamy herbed buttermilk sauce, and topped with pearl-like salmon caviar. Putting Latin touches on Southern comfort staples is one of the chef’s signature moves. In his Crawfish Po’Boy Sliders you’ll find a generous portion of perfectly battered tails stuffed in the slit of a Medianoche eggy bread roll. The glaze really highlights the seasoning used in the batter, and makes dipping in the accompanying remoulade a sweet delight.

The Federal is the example of true Southern comfort and hospitality, done to fit Miami’s eclectic tastes. During our chat, Meinhold reminded me that my affection for the mudbugs and my unyielding love for Abita beer were reasons she remembered me. Speaking of which, Crawdddy Wednesdays go hand in hand with the Abita tap takeover, when they offer Wrought Iron IPA, Turbodog and seasonal cult-classic, Strawberry Harvest Lager. Did we mention the bottomless beer and bubbles special for $24? Jack up the spice on the crawfish, suck some heads, pinch some tails and quench the heat away!

By Paula Echevarria
Born in Madrid, raised in Miami, bred in New Orleans: Paula is a gregarious locavore, cocktail groupie and Emmy award winning culinary producer currently working as a freelance writer and multimedia producer for local and national food and beverage publications and TV shows, including Tasting Table, The Miami New Times, Edible South Florida, MIA Bites and WPBT South Florida PBS's Check, Please! with Michelle Bernstein.