Like the water in an oversized vat pushed to a searing front burner, the seafood boil scene continues to heat up in Madison.
The latest entry in this messy/spicy oeuvre is Ragin Cajun Seafood, which is no relation to the famed Houston-based operation. This new place joins Mad Seafood Boiler off State Street and Szechuan Garden on Madison’s West Side as places where your dinner can literally be dumped on the table in an enormous, chaotic pile.
OK, that’s maybe not the most appetizing image to evoke. But this is a seafood boil we’re talking about, and those who have experienced the joys of pawing through a solidly spiced mountain of seafood (plus extras) know it’s worth the price of the fifty-plus napkins you’ll likely burn through.
Open since July, Ragin Cajun has revived the location that once housed the late and lamented East-side Ginza Japanese restaurant off East Washington Avenue near the Interstate. The pandemic prevents us from fully experiencing what the new owners have done with the building’s interior—the fish nets hanging from the ceiling sure seem like an appropriate touch—but smooth online ordering and curbside pickup make that only a mild disappointment.
As you would expect, the largest part of the menu is dubbed “Get Your Hands Dirty,” and hey, we certainly can’t fault the truth in advertising. Spans of boiled crab legs (snow or Alaskan King, depending on how much you’re willing to spend) or head-on/head-off shrimp come drenched in a butter-based sauce and spices just waiting for you to get your hands coated and slippery breaking into and peeling them.
You’ll find all the seafood staples you might expect at a seafood boil here—things such as crawfish, mussels and the aforementioned crab legs and shrimp. But Ragin Cajun also drifts into deeper waters with more “betcha-haven’t-tried-that” options such as squid, blue crab and baby cuttlefish. Each is available in pound or half-pound options and naturally arrives in a tightly-tied plastic bag to keep the sauce and seafood from obliterating the paper bag.
Bigger groups—or those willing to invest in truly massive amounts of leftovers—can opt for one of four combo boil options that scale up in price from $46 to nearly $150, depending on size and what’s included. The former is supposed to serve four while the latter serves five, but those numbers can obviously vary depending on the appetites of your crew. (Plus, the most expensive one includes lobster tail in the mix, and this is the only place on the menu where you can get it.)
Each one mixes up different types of seafood with traditional boil ingredients such as sausage, corn on the cob and red potato—items that don’t accompany the seafood if its ordered a la carte. No matter which combo you choose, you will be getting a lot of food. And not just in terms of sheer item numbers: The size of the seafood at Ragin Cajun also is satisfying. No diminutive crab legs, claws or shrimp in this mix.
Seafood boils are always about the spicing and sauce, and you’ll find an eight-pack of butter-based options in which to soak your seafood.
The garlic butter sauce arrives with chunks of garlic clove visibly hovering in its amber depths, but the house special sauce doesn’t taste distinctively different from the four Cajun-spiced options other than it sports a slightly smoother consistency than others on the list. And if you’re looking for some heat with your seafood meat, you’ll need to embrace the hot or extra-hot Cajun options. Medium is likely plenty of spice for the typical Wisconsinite’s palate.
The only head-scratching element of Ragin Cajun’s formula is its appetizer menu. There is a host of fried seafood options, including a 10-pack of fried scallops that, at $7.95, is mid-sized, pillowy and tasty enough you might not even need to dip them in the accompanying sweet and sour sauce.
But there’s also a surfeit of items you would more likely find at a Chinese takeout joint—things such as pot stickers ($5.95), egg rolls ($2.95 for pork or vegetarian) and fried Chinese doughnuts ($5.95). It’s a fine use of an on-site fryer, but egg rolls seem a decidedly odd pairing for a sloppy Cajun feast.
In a way, having to enjoy a tasty and expansive seafood boil curbside is a blessing in disguise. At least your family members, friends and significant others are the only ones who will see you make a total slob of yourself.
Embrace the mess—you’ll be glad you did.