Crawfish and seafood in the Bootheel
Crawdads, mudbugs, crawfish — call them what you want, but just know you will find the best at The Clarktonian in the Bootheel town of Clarkton. Repeat customers prove owner Tyler Miller’s claim that you won’t find anything better north of the Gulf.
“We don’t put a lot of emphasis on what we put in the boil,” Tyler says, explaining the allure of his crawfish. “Our steaming process is what really makes our tail meat tender and allows the seasoning and flavor to get in. In my opinion that’s what makes ours different from anybody else’s.”
There’s plenty of options on the menu. However, diners typically head to The Clarktonian for one thing: “Most of the people that come here, they are coming to eat crawfish. I mean we have crab legs, we have shrimp dishes, we have fried food. We have just about anything for anybody. But if they are coming more times than none, they are going to eat the crawfish.”
On any given Friday and Saturday night during crawfish season you will find locals sitting side by side with people from as far away as St. Louis, Memphis and Paducah. They’ve even had diners from Louisiana stop by and claim the food is as good as anything down on the bayou.
The Clarktonian’s opening in late January or early February is a much-anticipated event in Southeast Missouri. So popular is the restaurant when it reopens that the owner lets the date spread by word of mouth alone. The season typically runs through June when things start to get busy on area farms and the restaurant closes. It’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays so fans of the little delicacies seldom miss an opportunity to indulge.
On Fridays Tyler heads to Paragould, Arkansas to pick up hundreds of pounds of fresh crawfish. Soon the pungent aroma of spices carried by the steaming process wafts through the town of 1,000. As quick as a batch is done, it is dumped into coolers, combined with a blend of seasonings and quickly sealed to keep as much of the steam as possible inside.
Customers order by telling the staff how many pounds of crawfish they want. It’s delivered in a tray along with sides of boiled potatoes and corn on the cob that literally melts in your mouth. The starter platter for one person is 3 1/2 pounds of bugs.
“It’s called a starting point for a reason because most of the time people are raising their hand going, ‘give me 3 more pounds, give me 5 more pounds, give me 2 more pounds.’ We’ve seen people who have eaten 10 or 15 pounds easily just themselves. We’ve had four or five gentlemen come in here and eat 150, 200 pounds before,” Tyler says.
It all depends on how hungry you are. He adds that it’s not the crawfish that fill you up, it’s the potatoes and corn on the cob, along with appetizers such as their world-class hush puppies.
“It’s funny because we will see young kids come in here on a date or whatever and these girls will be dressed up thinking they are going to some fancy place,” Tyler says with a grin. “Once they come in here and pull themselves up to the table it’s no-holds-barred. They are slinging crawfish and the juice is running everywhere.”
The juice is a key part of The Clarktonian experience. There’s an art to eating a crawfish that doesn’t take long to learn. Some start by peeling back the shell and popping the tail out with their fingers. Others grab the tail with their teeth. However you do it, Tyler recommends getting all of the juice.
“You definitely want to suck the body and squeeze it,” he says, demonstrating. “That’s where all the flavor is at. You crush the body and suck it in. It’s full of juice and flavor. When you turn our crawfish bodies upside down the juice will run out and they are never dry.”
Those who are squeamish about eating crawfish for the first time might want to consider a plate of The Clarktonian’s fried catfish. There’s nothing fancy about this popular treat: “Just your good old-fashioned cornmeal and salt,” Tyler says, “fried to a golden brown.”
Hush puppies are another signature dish of the restaurant. They are made from cornmeal and self-rising flour to which chopped jalapenos, whole pieces of corn and a bit of sugar are added. They make a great appetizer to munch on while waiting for the crawfish to arrive.
Other starters include fried pickles, fried okra, shrimp cocktail, sausage and cheese platters and boudin links. There’s even a 2-pound crawfish appetizer for those who just want a taste or can’t wait for their entree.
Tyler also creates Bayou Bowls using a wok to combine the ingredients. “It’s kind of like shrimp scampi but New Orleans style. It’s a little bit spicy and it has got a good butter lemon sauce to it.” The bowls include potatoes, corn on the cob, scallions and andouille sausage. They are served with a piece of French bread that is lightly charred on the grill. This lets diners soak up the juice at the bottom of the bowl.
Another specialty is the Cardi B Spicy Crab. This includes five clusters of crab legs boiled in spicy crawfish juice with fresh lemons, potatoes, hot corn and Cajun sausage. The ingredients are dumped in a bag and brought to the table ready to enjoy.
Dinners include blackened catfish, grilled shrimp, bayou chicken and fried shrimp. You can also opt for a classic New Orleans-style po’boy sandwich featuring a choice of catfish or shrimp served on a hoagie bun and topped with remoulade sauce, lettuce, tomato and onion.
The one-page menu is kept simple so the staff can focus on what they do best: provide memorable food and excellent service. However, if you are lucky you might discover that Tyler found the time to whip up a batch of jambalaya, etouffee or red beans and rice. All of his specials are made from scratch.
Whatever you order, you will enjoy relaxing with friends at this dining destination’s “Party Patio,” a large addition to what began as a tiny diner. On any given weekend live music adds to the fun. But it’s the food that keeps them coming.
“I would say there is nothing like this in Missouri,” Tyler says. “But I would go even further and saying there’s nothing else like this until you get to Louisiana, or maybe the southern part of Mississippi. If you are a lover of seafood and crawfish, Cajun food, the food is going to bring you back.”
Specialties: Steamed crawfish served with potatoes and corn on the cob; Bayou Bowls; Po’boy sandwiches; Cardi B Spicy Crab Legs; fried and blackened catfish. Cajun specials on occasion.
Price: Crawfish and seafood sold at market price. Po’boys $12, dinners $12-$16.
Details: Open only on Friday, 4 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., seasonally from late January through June. Cash and credit cards accepted. No smoking. Located at 303 S. Main St. in Clarkton. Contact at 573-276-7249 and on Facebook.