Lulu and Bill Chi and their kin have grown their Asian-influenced restaurant empire in Little Rock during the past 35 years, including recent expansions into the Heights with Sushi Cafe and Oishi and a Chi's Chinese Bistro in Riverdale.
Their newest endeavor, though, Lulu's Crab Boil, also in the Heights, hits on Cajun and Gulf Coast notes that, when we first heard about the place, seem like a far cry from the Chis' specialties.
But, as Lulu explained to us, Bill's side of the family has long been serving this type of food in their home country of Taiwan, bringing in hauls from the sea and boiling them up for a big party.
So now Lulu and Bill offer similar fare in the Heights in a 50-seat space that formerly housed Haagen-Dazs. The fun of digging into a steaming sack of shrimp, snow crab legs, potatoes and corn, or whatever else you might select, at the preferred spicing you desire, starts daily at 3 p.m.
Before that, however, you can join the masses who have found lunch to be a hit, from gumbo and shrimp etouffee to various styles of po' boys served on French bread shipped in from New Orleans.
We made two trips to Lulu's to get the full experience. For lunch in the run-up before Christmas, we brought along two New Orleans foodies who felt right at home.
We started with an appetizer of meaty, somewhat spicy and abundant crab fingers. We were barely into those before lunch arrived: gumbo, an appetizer basket of fried oysters, Will's Oyster Po' Boy, Robert's Voodoo Chicken Po' Boy and shrimp etouffee.
Lulu's Gumbo ($6) ranked right up with the best we've had in Little Rock, with a thick, well-spiced, dark broth full of shrimp, Andouille sausage, crab and okra over rice.
The fried oysters ($10), too, were among the best if not the best we've had around town — creamy, perfectly cooked oysters inside a light, not-greasy beer batter. The sandwich ($12) was dressed with fresh lettuce, tomato and a mayonnaise-based (not creole mustard style) remoulade sauce.
But, as good as we found the oysters, the Voodoo Chicken po' boy ($9) put a spell on us with its balanced blend of hot chicken and cool remoulade. Don't miss this one.
All of our sandwiches and the crab fingers came with Cajun-style fries.
If anything fell short, it was the etouffee ($6). The fresh shrimp were large (four in the bowl), but they weren't "smothered" by a thick sauce, our preferance, and they were bland. Somehow after all that, we weren't finished, going with a dessert of beignets ($6) that, oddly, were dusted with granulated sugar instead of powered. Still, while we intended to bring most of the order of six home, we left with none.
Several days later, after the holiday rush had died down, two of us made a late-night (after 8:30 p.m.) stop at Lulu's to try one of the boils. Now, we were transported not to New Orleans but rather a coastal hideaway on Florida's Highway 30A for snow crab clusters and shrimp, new potatoes and quartered corn cobs ($23). We'd already been told: Go with the Rajin Cajin sauce and the "Hot to Trot" or medium heat level, as that would still be mild even for our finicky dining companion who doesn't like to have her nasal cavity blown away by cayenne.
We also figured with our server's help that one bag of steamed goodness wasn't going to be enough for two, so we ordered a pound extra of snow crab clusters ($18.95), this time with garlic butter sauce on the side (again Hot-to-Trot style).
Dining companion had to calm us down from blowing through the crab legs in record time. The shrimp were steamed perfectly. The corn got the brunt of the cayenne (meaning only that it went to OUR side of the tray), but we both enjoyed cutting up pieces of potato and running them through the leftover boil sauce. Lulu's provides you all the necessary tools, and bibs, to make this fun as well as delicious and not too messy.
This was coastal crab- and shrimp-boil-eating heaven.
As if we needed more, we were coaxed into the last serving left that night of Uncle Bill's Mousse ($7), which was decadent chocolate mousse and typical Black Forest Cake with whipped cream and cherries, all crammed into a chilled Mason jar. Of course it was fantastic.
Lulu's also will have crawfish for the boils when in season, as well as blue crab (they had a few the night we were there), while lobster, King Crab and Pacific mussels are always on the menu along with Dungeness crab and Manila clams. Combinations of the seafood range from $23 to $45 per order, with four styles of sauce and three levels of heat. Eat there or take it home and have a party, like they do on the Gulf Coast — or back in Taiwan, as we learned.
Lulu's Crab Boil
5911 R St.
The seafood boils and oysters on the half-shell are available daily starting at 3 p.m. Don't be scared off by the various levels of heat indicated by their different sauces; even the "Hot to Trot" is mild enough for a Cajun's taste buds.
11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Beer and wine available. All credit cards accepted.