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Brunch Bets: Holly Crab

Viet-Cajun seafood spot offers a different take on brunch

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Boston is famous for its fresh seafood, especially the lobsters, clams, mussels, bluefish, oysters, and more caught just miles away. Stalwarts like Legal Sea Foods, the Daily Catch, and Kenmore Square’s Island Creek Oyster Bar offer tried-and-true selections. But in Packard’s Corner, you’ll find Holly Crab, which offers something decidedly different: authentic Cajun-style seafood infused with a Vietnamese touch, one of only a few such places in the city.

Opened in February 2016, the restaurant was inspired by popular West Coast Cajun seafood restaurants that boil and drench fish in Cajun spices and sauces. On the menu are dishes you’d expect to find at any good crab shack: fried oysters ($12.50 for a five-piece basket), live lobster ($24 a pound), shrimp ($14 a pound). The twist here is the striking flavor provided by the Cajun seasonings, garlic butter, lemon pepper, and more. Drawing on Louisiana bayou and Vietnamese fishing village culinary traditions, the restaurant comes up with its own unique, often fiery cuisine.

Holly Crab may not be your standard brunch spot (you’ll find no eggs benedict or waffles here), but it’s a delicious weekend option for hungry students who want to share a casual meal with friends. It’s also a fun place to bring visiting relatives. Its minimalist-style décor keeps the focus firmly on the food. Tables can be hard to come by at peak dining hours, so it’s best to make a reservation.

We chose to go on a Sunday afternoon and found the dining room full of happy patrons. We began our meal with a basket of Cajun fries ($6)—among the best we’ve had in Boston. Fresh out of the fryer, they were crispy and flavorful, and half the basket was gone before we ordered our main course.

Holly Crab’s Cajun fries, served hot out of the fryer, are delicious.

Holly Crab’s Cajun fries ($6), served hot out of the fryer, are delicious.

The signature dish here is the Holly Crab Boil, and patrons get to customize it. It comes with enough seafood to serve two or three people easily. First, you select the seafood, ranging from shrimp and crawfish to clams, mussels, blue crab, lobster, and more. We opted for a combo of shrimp and snow crab (a pound of each for $38). Next, you select the flavor—we elected to try the garlic butter, but had a hard time choosing from among the lemon pepper and secret Holly Crab options. Finally, you select the desired spice level: mild to medium, spicy, and “Holly X,” which packs a lot of heat.

We got a full set of utensils and tools for cracking crab and lobster shells soon after ordering. (Note: crabs and lobsters are served whole, so be prepared for some serious work.) Bibs are a necessity, and thankfully, gloves are also provided.

Our combo boil came in a plastic bag filled to the brim with some of the most appetizing seafood we’ve found in four years in Boston. Our first bite was shrimp, setting the tone for the delicious meal that followed. Like the lobster and crab, the shrimp are cooked whole, so need to be peeled. The marinade of garlic butter and Cajun spices transformed the dish, and we raced to snag the last shrimp.

We next attacked the snow crab, which allowed us to practice our amateur surgical skills. The crab was similarly divine, so flavorful we were cracking even the smallest bits of shell for more. We made sure to dip the crab back into the bag to soak up more sauce so none went to waste.

Visitors ordering the Holly Crab Boil customize their meal by choosing the seafood, sauces like garlic butter and lemon pepper, and the degree of spiciness.

Visitors ordering the Holly Crab Boil customize their meal by choosing the seafood, sauces like garlic butter and lemon pepper, and the degree of spiciness.

The main course left us stuffed, but we couldn’t help but notice the rice balls ($7), a traditional Vietnamese dish served with bits of sesame and nori. We agreed that a return visit would be necessary to sample them and to try either the fresh clam chowder ($6) or the traditional gumbo ($6), as well as the local oysters ($14 for 6, $20 for 10).

An unexpected pleasure of our meal was the absence of cell phones. Because we needed to eat with gloved hands, we didn’t (couldn’t, really) look at our phones while eating—ditto for everyone else in the restaurant. It was a welcome break from our regular world.

Our bill at the end of the meal was more than you’ll pay for a conventional brunch at most Boston restaurants, but Holly Crab meals are intended for sharing. A pound of seafood can easily feed two, and the combo boils up to four, depending on how hungry you are, making a meal here a great value. Be sure to bring a big appetite when you go.

Holly Crab, 1098 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, is open Monday to Friday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.; phone: 617-487-5957. Takeout is available, and the restaurant is wheelchair accessible and accepts all major credit cards. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Packard’s Corner.

This is part of a weekly series featuring Boston lunch and brunch spots of interest to the BU community. If you have any suggestions for places we should feature, leave them in the Comment section below.

Connor Lenahan can be reached at lenahan@bu.edu; follow him on Twitter at @ConnorLenahan.

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