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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Boilin’ Crawfish 4
1679 86th St., 225-3622
Daily noon - 10 p.m.

Boilin’ Crawfish 4

Zip codes can define restaurants. One of the world’s best Vietnamese restaurants (Thanh Long) began humbly in a west San Francisco neighborhood where its signature dish of whole crab with garlic noodles drew visitors from afar. They expanded to a glitzier cafe in the heart of downtown with the same successful menu. Then customers talked them into expanding to Beverly Hills. Whole crab didn’t sell in 90210 — it was too messy for diners in that zip code. The entire menu had to be revamped to offer foods that didn’t involve getting one’s fingers dirty. Today, in Central Iowa, another Asian-American-owned restaurant is testing whether Clive has a San Francisco type, or a Beverly Hills type personality.

Self-titled “Des Moines’ only seafood sports bar,” Boilin’ Crawfish 4 is an enigma wrapped in a mysterious plastic bag. The café sparkles with wood, neon, high-def televisions and friendly help. When I asked what the number 4 was doing in the restaurant’s name I was told that it’s lucky in Chinese. When I asked in what way, adding that many Chinese avoid the number 4 because it’s associated with death, I was told, “Yeah, but it’s a divisible of 8 which means prosperity. And mainly, it’s just personal.” With that death-defying attitude, this restaurant seeks to turn Des Moines on to the hardcore art of cracking crawfish shells. Their signature dish, and one of the just four on their menu, is Cajun-spiced crawfish, boiled whole in their shells and served in a tied-off plastic bag, on butcher paper with written instructions for breaking the shells and extracting edible flesh, organs and ovaries.

Crawfish were sold by the pound, and one pound was the minimum order. With just my fingers and a fork, which I had to request, it took me 30 minutes to break open my pound of crawfish flesh. Most claws were too small to yield more than a sliver of meat. Even some tails delivered disappointing yields. Heads cut my hands as often as they provided much fatty meat, but their multiple flavors and textures became an easily acquired taste. Still, my pound, with potatoes, cost $20 and left me hungry. Plus, I can buy a pound of crawfish tail meat at the supermarket for $6 and it never cuts my fingers. I am hardly a 90210-type diner, so I figure this crawfish-centered business plan works better after heavier drinking than is my custom. Part of the problem is just unlucky timing. Recent hurricanes stressed Gulf Coast crustaceans and larger crawfish should become easier to find in the future. So should crab, one of the menu’s four items that was unavailable in the first three weeks after the sports bar opened. I also tried a pound of steamed clams, delicious in their simplicity, served with cocktail sauce, horseradish and bottled lemon juice, or sliced lemons on request. Oysters on the half shell were bargain priced, at $1 each for orders of a dozen or more. I enjoyed some of the biggest oysters I ever saw, identified only as “from Oregon.”

Still a bit hungry after each visit, I also stopped at nearby King & I, which recently expanded service to seven days a week and added a sushi menu. That café also installed a TV monitor that ran a slide show of menu items — an innovation that seems to work in its zip code. I saw several customers point to the screen and order additional dishes. I even became one of those customers. Sushi featured popularized style — with lots of local names (Hawkeyes roll, etc.), drizzles of mayo, cream cheeses and choices of seared or raw fish.

Side dishes
The Ankeny Waterfront teaches sushi class on Sunday, Oct. 19, $75; 963-1940. … Greenbriar’s five-course Harvest Moon dinner on Friday, Oct. 10 ($40) pairs exotic beers with seasonal delights such as lacquered Iowa elk; 253-0124. ... Sage’s California wine dinner ($70) pairs four lesser-known vineyards with lesser-known plates like sweetbreads and snail pasta, Wednesday, Oct. 15. CV

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Uncle Wendell's (1-17-08) Jesse's Embers (1-24-08)
Taste of Elegance (1-31-08) Old Country Buffet (2-7-08)
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Daddy O’s Bodacious Foods (3-13-08) Maverick Grill (3-20-08)
Phat Chef’s (4-03-08) Shotz & Grill Cordoba (4-10-08)
Radish (4-17-08) Alba (4-24-08)
Billy Mack's (5-01-08) Jethro’s BBQ & Sports Bar (5-15-08)
Viva los Forasteros (5-22-08) Torocco! (5-29-08)
The King and I (6-05-08) Chipotle Mexican Grill (6-12-08)
Django (6-26-08) Swine (7-03-08)
Sbrocco (7-17-08) Zuzap (8-14-08)
Le Jardin (8-21-08) Samurai Sushi & Hibachi (8-28-08)
Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano (9-4-08) Old Castle (9-11-08)
Old Mexic, New Mexico (9-18-08) Bistro at ICI (9-25-08)
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