Big Hot Crab in Chico
By Kimberly Boney
By Kimberly Bonéy
Photo by Eric Leslie
A quizzical expression spread across her face as she wondered how a Cajun restaurant had managed to land itself in Chico, California. The woman with roots in Louisiana was always suspect of any menu item prefaced with the word “Cajun,” “Creole” or “Blackened,” unless, of course, she was sitting at a family member’s table – or had found her way back to Louisiana. She shot her mother a look, and her mother returned in kind – both of them wondering if it would be worth taking the chance on an unexpected surprise called Big Hot Crab. The rave online reviews gave them just the bolster they needed to give it a try. They walked in with a bit of trepidation, and it all melted away like hot butter the moment they were greeted with the warm, genuine smiles of the employees and happy customers alike. In that moment, the mom and daughter pair knew this leap of faith would pay off.
Big Hot Crab opened its doors just over two years ago in Downtown Chico and has been a refreshing addition to the Chico dining scene. Alan Bao, who moved to Chico from Los Angeles three years ago, had noticed a limited selection where seafood was concerned. He quickly set his sights on opening a restaurant that would add a bit of Southern spice to Northern California. “I wanted to share this delicious cuisine, especially since it wouldn’t usually be found up north,” says Bao.
Big Hot Crab specializes in bringing the freshest seafood to the table for its budding clientele. And when we say “bring it to the table,” we mean it quite literally. Big Hot Crab isn’t your typical stuffy seafood restaurant. In fact, the fun-filled dining experience encourages you to break all the rules when it comes to eating: Skip the plate, use your hands, and, by all means, feel free to lick your fingers.
“We all grow up learning to use utensils and ‘follow our manners’ when eating. The only time you are able to use your hands to eat is when you are very young. But when you come to Big Hot Crab, it’s the opposite of all you’ve learned. You get to have a bit of fun while having a tasty, hands-on meal,” says Bao.
The menu items are served à la carte and are brought to your table steaming hot in a clear poly bag, smothered to perfection in a sauce of your choice. It may catch you off guard when the waiter suggests that you pour the contents of the bag directly onto the waxed paper on the table, but just go with it. No one will be judging you. They’ll be just as busy as you are savoring the moment.
The house Cajun sauce with mild spice is definitely the favorite among the restaurant’s patrons. It makes for the perfect pairing with any of the seafood options, but the shrimp and crab take the cake for the most popular menu items. Side dishes include (but are by no means limited to) steamed rice, corn on the cob and bolillos – small French bread loaves – which serve as the perfect vehicle for enjoying every last drop of the buttery Cajun sauce.
In addition to the market style seafood, Big Hot Crab carries some other items you aren’t likely to find in the area. Po Boys – fried seafood sandwiches on a French bread loaf – are a pulse of New Orleans cuisine, and they may just become your new hero. The crawfish fried rice with Cajun seasoning is an exciting twist on a classic. The Cajun shrimp and sausage might just transport you to Louisiana, if in your heart alone.
Bao discovered his passion for fresh, delicious seafood while growing up in the coastal city of Saigon, Vietnam. “Seafood was a huge part of the diet back home and that’s how I developed a sense of taste for it. That’s also how I know when the quality of the seafood is good. It’s hard to say when I first fell in love with Cajun food because I’ve been cooking it for so long. For years, at parties or celebrations, I would always make seafood. I had a lot of experience cooking with a variety of Asian spices. It was easy to get used to the new ingredients and create my own kind of Cajun style dish,” he says.
When asked if there was such a thing as a “magic spice,” one that is a must-have in every dish, Bao says without a second thought, “Of course. It’s Cajun seasoning. It’s the perfect combination of savory and spicy.”
A visit to Big Hot Crab is sure to send your taste buds soaring. The fun-loving spirit of the meal itself, the family-friendly atmosphere, the wide range of offerings, the simple yet charming décor and the kindness of the staff are just a part of what makes it such an enchanting dining experience. One of Big Hot Crab’s sweetest and most “functional” touches is the washing station - because if you’ve done a meal at Big Hot Crab properly, from your fingertips to your elbows, you’ll need a good bit of soap and water afterward. It’s best not to wear your favorite shirt or dress, as it may end up decorated in Cajun sauce – but it’s not a deal breaker if you do. There are nifty little crab-emblazoned bibs for that.
Big Hot Crab • 701 Main St., Chico • (530) 879-1822
Monday – Thursday, 3-9:30pm; Friday – Sunday, noon-9:30pm
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