Save me, Emeril!

It’s not often I wish for Cartoon Emeril. The man is on television often enough in regular human form. Why, if I had a dime for every time I saw him when I channel-surfed past the Food Network, I’d have enough money to eat at one of his restaurants.

So, it was with perverse desire that I found myself wishing for Cartoon Emeril, a culinary superhero in chef’s whites who travels around the United States and fixes the subpar dishes of subpar restaurants—especially Cajun ones. If Cartoon Emeril did exist, one of the first places he would have to go is Crawdad’s River Cantina in Sacramento.

The Sacramento riverfront is a perplexing scene for the uninitiated. Whereas most bodies of water—be they oceans, lakes, rivers or streams—are valued for natural qualities like birds chirping and the sound of rivers rushing, motorboat showmanship dominates certain areas of Sacramento’s riverfront. Not unlike the car-cruising scene in other cities, boats have been known to strut their stuff with music blaring, chicks in the back seat drinking, gasoline fumes and the roar of engines hanging in the air.

Despite the goings-on in the river, it’s hard to ignore the siren call of the river. On the hottest days, the view of an ebbing sunset and the caress of a cool breeze will rescue even the sourest of moods. With a pint of Dos Equis from the tap, you might even begin to think the mustachioed crawdad advertising Cuervo Especial on the walls looks pretty cute.

But let’s not get carried away, at least where the food is concerned. In the arena of dining and entertainment, there are basically two types of restaurants. There’s the place you go to have fun—where the food is solid but secondary. Then there’s the place you go because the food is excellent, and the fun derives from the delight you experience when eating great food. The first type of place is dominated by alcohol, if you’re of drinking age, or a giant mouse named Chuck E. Cheese, if you’re not. Both attract large crowds of people who look like they’re enjoying themselves. Both can offer satisfying experiences, as long as you don’t confuse the two. In the case of Crawdad’s, with its mustachioed crawdad poster boy for Cuervo? Hmm. You be the judge.

“But it specializes in Cajun food!” I rationalized. I wanted to get everything in the Bayou section of the menu—the jambalaya, the gumbo, the etouffee, the catfish. The Cuervo crawdad was egging me on.

We started off safely enough with an order of the “five star” calamari, which came in breaded strips and was accompanied by a genuinely spicy remoulade. Who gave it five stars? Possibly the crawdad who walloped the squid over the head with a frying pan? Whoever it was, the dish was way good. The strips were juicy and tender, with an assertive, but not overpowering, crunchy batter. The calamari was a highly recommendable appetizer for anyone who enjoys the sink-your-teeth-in aspect of calamari steak, and not just the fry or the sauce that generally accompanies it. The generous serving of strips took the edge off much of our hunger.

The bayou was calling loud and clear. We declined to order burgers, salads and criss-cut fries as we saw others doing (and probably ought to have done ourselves). We let our Cajun desires run wild with orders of jambalaya and etouffee. Unfortunately, both cried out to be rescued by Cartoon Emeril.

The etouffee was not a success. The roux mixture fell flat. It was salty and one-dimensional in flavor, as if made with a quartet of items instead of a chorus. No bits of celery, bell pepper, garlic or green onion were visible, only crawdad bits in a brick-red sea over rice. If only Cartoon Emeril could give this etouffee a good sucker punch (Bam!), wrestle it to the ground, and add some zing, zest and zippity zedah! If only.

The jambalaya proved to be a more substantial dish with dozens of crawdad critters, large chunks of andouille sausage, bell peppers, bits of celery and onion, all served over rice. This might have been a dish Cartoon Emeril could be proud of, if the good ingredients weren’t unnecessarily drowned out by too much heat. It left the mouth pained and panting, rather than pleased.

The real hurt of the meal, however, came at the end. With both entrees priced at $13.95, plus the $9.95 calamari appetizer and the $4.50 Dos Equis drafts, we were in for a $65 dinner (including tip) that we didn’t enjoy that much. Unfortunately, Cartoon Emeril had no answers, which goes to show you that superheroes (especially cartoon ones that arise from your imagination) can only do so much. Sometimes, it’s best to use your own common sense.