I was full of doubt when I walked through the doors of Crackin' Crab, the third location of the well-established Albuquerque-based seafood chain. It's as if someone threw some chintzy nautical-themed tchotchkes over the Thai-inspired décor that once adorned the space, formerly J&N Thai Bistro. The walls are festooned with nets and anchors, and the tables are lit by small, neon-accented fish tanks. For a moment, I even questioned whether eating seafood in a high-desert mall parking lot was a good idea. But the aesthetic mashup is reminiscent of the spot's changing identity, since it remains in the hands of the family who started the bistro, and recently decided to completely revamp the concept.

The husband-and-wife proprietors of J&N Thai Bistro, Ratchanida Chaikew-Lovato and Joe Lovato, have partnered with Crackin' Crab's founders, Rack and Vanh Mingkhamsavath, to bring the bounty of the sea to Santa Fe. Crackin' Crab's other two Duke City locations can be found on the West Side at the McMahon Marketplace and off the Pan-American Highway near the Century Rio 24 movie theater. Rather than completely changing hands, J&N Thai Bistro has rebranded itself as a casual, seafood-boil restaurant with Cajun overtures—and the Lovatos are all-in, having closed their Los Alamos based-location, Thailand Thai Cuisine, in March.

It quickly became apparent to me that this is no on-the-go lunch experience. Crackin' Crab's dishes are messy on purpose, and meant to be shared among friends. Tables are covered in butcher paper, bibs are practically a requirement and utensils are available by request. You order seafood by the pound rather than by the dish, then choose your sides, sauce and level of heat. The menu also features recommended combinations, which equal out to two and a half to three pounds of fish for $49.95. Besides crawfish, there's also snow, Dungeness or king crab, mussels, scallops, clams and shrimp—with or without the heads. Sauce can be either lemon pepper or the house Crackin' Sauce. I went with the hottest version of the latter, obviously, which turned out to be a New Mexican riff on the classic Cajun boil, with black pepper and paprika accompanied by a softly sweet heat reminiscent of red chile. This would be the highlight of the meal, though sides like corn on the cob (75 cents), coleslaw ($2), Cajun fries ($4.50) and a giant order of thick, hearty bread ($1.25) for sopping up the sauce are not bad. Everything else on the menu is shamelessly fried, and includes calamari ($10), a trio of soft-shell crabs ($13.95) and chicken tenders ($9.25).

I started with a dozen Bluepoint oysters on the half shell ($18.95), served with lemon and sides of red wine vinegar and cocktail sauce. These were large and on the bland side, but free of any funky, off-putting tastes or textures; the seafood content of the menu is sourced from national food service supplier Sysco and comes in fresh every other day.

The crawfish ($11.95), however, knocked it out of the park. Maybe I'm just starved for any kind of Cajun-inspired dining experience in Santa Fe, but when the waiter plopped down a steaming
plastic bag full of spice-encrusted crawdaddies and red potato, I was immediately won over. I pulled off the tails and sucked the boil out of the heads, throwing the detritus into the provided plastic bucket. The sauce was salty and spicy, and I slathered it over slabs of bread and topped with coleslaw. By the time I was done, the table looked like a battlefield, and I was thankful for the complementary bib and subsequent wet wipes that accompanied the end of the meal.

The very things that made me a little leery about the experience—that it's in a mall parking lot, that everything is decidedly removed from the typical prejudices of what a restaurant in New Mexico can offer—ended up endowing my meal with an easy, appealing charm. And, with a couple tweaks, the menu and concept could really shine. Po'boys would be a welcome addition, especially for the single diner on the go. There are certainly the raw materials—or rather, the fried and sauced materials—onsite to make them. Thankfully, Crackin' Crab intends to acquire a beer and wine license in the next few months—because, truly, an ice-cold Corona to wash everything down would complete the seafood boil experience. As it was, I ordered a Thai tea ($5) for dessert, an homage to the space's former focus.

For a restaurant predicated on seafood existing miles from any ocean, Crackin' Crab exceeded my expectations—but next time, I'm bringing backup to help eat through a pound of crawfish.

Crackin' Crab
DeVargas Center, 604 N Guadalupe St., 982-9417
11 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday; 11 am-10 pm Friday; Noon-10 pm Saturday; Noon-8pm Sunday