St. Paul’s Grand Catch will burn you up, cool you off, and get you drunk

Set your palate on fire, then cool it off, then do it all again.

Set your palate on fire, then cool it off, then do it all again. Alma Guzman

The classic seafood boil stays rigidly within its flavor bounds: golden melted butter, the mild sweetness of sea meat, and Old Bay seasoning (Zatarain’s if you’re in the South).

For the menu at Grand Catch in St. Paul, former Saffron chef Sameh Wadi has bypassed that tradition. Instead, at this industrial-chic nook in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood, where a winky neon crab on the wall signals good vibes, Wadi has tapped into an emerging trend of Viet Cajun fusion cuisine, slinging big platters of garlic butter-slicked crustaceans and certifiably tongue-singeing spices.

It’s been a big year for Viet Cajun food, a fusion of Vietnamese and Cajun culinary traditions that has bubbled up from the Houston, Texas melting pot. Though the cuisine has been growing in popularity there for some years, it abruptly entered the foodie lexicon in early 2018, after getting a signal boost from David Chang’s Ugly Delicious series on Netflix.

(Fair warning: One of Chang’s guests in the Viet Cajun episode quips that crawfish aren’t likely to catch on in Minnesota. Ahem. Never mind that we already enjoy crawfish here—er, crayfish—we also now have two restaurants that serve Viet Cajun-style food: Viet Cajun and Noodles in Woodbury and Grand Catch. Seems like the trend caught on just fine, thank you.)

At Grand Catch, the seafood boil is the focus of the menu, pitting your urge to splurge for a pound of Alaskan King Crab ($50) against your pocketbook’s chirp that “The $17.95 head-on shrimp would be more prudent!” You can’t go wrong either way; everything is fresh and juicy and doused in a sauce of your choosing (garlic butter, Louisiana sauce, something called “awesome sauce,” or Isaan, a spicy Thai dipping sauce) at your preferred heat level (mild, medium, hot, extra hot, or insane ghost).

Alma Guzman

Alma Guzman

This is where we tell you that the spice levels here are not a trifle. Even the medium packs more heat than the average crab-leg-cracker might expect. Mild melted butter it is not.

Nor is everything at Grand Catch strictly Viet Cajun, as Wadi takes a broader approach to the blend of Southern, Creole, and East Asian flavors. The Chinese shrimp toast, for instance, is a standout: buttery squares of toast with a smear of shrimp puree fried into the top, a tangy and spicy pimento aioli, and a sprig of cilantro to cool it all off. At brunch, the fried chicken and sweet corn pancakes are more Southern than fusion, but they’re pure indulgence. The chicken is tender, its batter crackling, and the sweet corn cakes are sturdy enough to hold up to the combination—even with a generous drizzle of brown butter syrup and jalapeño butter on top.

Indeed, for a place where boiling seems to be the marquee cooking method, we were impressed with the kitchen’s deep-frying bona fides. The fried chicken was hot and juicy, the cornmeal fried shrimp appetizer was spicy and plump, and the French fries get battered before they take their hot oil dip. It may not seem like a necessary step, but when your potatoes are the base layer of Grand Catch cheesy fries—a mound of garlic butter, cheese sauce, and lobster or crab if you’re feeling wild—you’re counting on them to bear the weight. From start to finish (admittedly, a brief amount of time), these fries stayed crisp and intact. So rarely do we recommend the loaded fries at any establishment, but this is expertly executed bar food.

Alma Guzman

Alma Guzman

And the bar is a great place to install yourself, especially if you’re forgoing the seafood boil and don’t need the elbow room for discarded napkins and cast-off shells. Remember that winky neon crab we mentioned? We have a feeling he’s the playful brains behind the festive and delightfully odd cocktail names. There’s “I Love Your Microwave,” and “Such a Handsome Boy,” and “Can I Borrow Your Chapstick,” and “Naked Horseback Ride (or whatever you’re into).” Don’t you want to try them all and then drunk-eat those cheesy fries? You do! Especially when you discover that the drinks are stiff and well-mixed, and two of them—the Hurricane and the Sweet Corn n Oil—arrive on fire.

Grand Catch’s secret weapon is its perfect dessert, a prime way of cooling off after you’ve terrorized your taste buds with capsaicin: Milkjam Creamery soft serve. Wadi, of course, is part owner of the popular Minneapolis ice cream shops, and has forded the river with a soft serve machine. There are only two flavors on offer (three if you count the twist), but you don’t really need any others: the creamy three milks soft serve, and a smooth, juicy raspberry-lychee sorbet. Do not skip this, even if you think soft serve is reserved for toothless babies and late-night trips to the fast-food drive-thru. (You’re wrong.)

Only a few items left us mildly disappointed. The adult slushie was too strong; the non-alcoholic apple cider ginger lemon slushie was too thick and icy to make it up the straw. While a nice touch for the vegetarian set, the fried green tomato po’boy was dry and spicy, with no acid for brightening and no fat to cut the heat. We found the crab dip, a favorite among many, was fairly one-note, a bit salty, and no more special than what you might find at your next holiday gathering. Aside from some small service snags at brunch (leaving off the delightful strawberry lemongrass jam for our beignets; forgetting to refill the coffee), the staff was bright and friendly on every visit—eager to please and attentive.

A framed illustration hangs in the Grand Catch dining room: It’s the instantly recognizable canister of Old Bay Seasoning, but the label reads, “New Bae.” It’s true, this isn’t your standard seafood boil. You’ve got a new bae—and what a catch.

Click here to see a photo slideshow of Grand Catch

1672 Grand Ave., St. Paul
drinks: $8-$10
entrees: $10-$50