Sunday morning gave rise to ominous clouds with a sporadic spitting of rain. This was not weather I had envisioned for dining on the patio at Crane Alley’s 5th Annual Crawfish Boil. I had it in my head that I was going to be eating outside with the sun on my cheeks. as opposed to inside on a dreary day.
Upon arrival to Crane Alley, my guest and I quickly claimed a table on the patio (we were going to try to brave the weather) close to the action and the beer truck. Staff members quickly brought us a copy of the featured beer list for the event: six Victory beers, liquor specials featuring an authentic Hurricane, prices for the event T-shirt, and the schedule for Randall the Enamel Animal, a draft attachment created by Dogfish Head Brewery used to infuse beer with additional flavors. I made an immediate decision to stay for at least one Randall demonstration.
Victory Beers on draught.
Lynn, our server, promptly watered our table and took our drink order. I began with Victory’s Summer Love beer and my guest ordered the Hop Wallop IPA. We relaxed at our comfortable table for a few minutes, taking in the scenery, the breeze, and the music that played lightly in the background, complementing the day.
I then introduced myself to Aaron Wood the general manager of Crane Alley and he proceeded to give me a tour of the cooking setup they arrange outdoors every year. Aaron showed me the spread of food they offer: chafing dishes heaped with potatoes, green peppers, onions, Andouille sausage (made at Old Time Meat & Deli), corn, and, of course, crawfish filled the basins. The crawfish are flown into Indy, fresh from Louisiana, the day prior (caught on Friday), and Aaron drives to pick them up on Saturday. Aaron explained that the first year of the boil, Crane Alley was only expecting 50–75 people, but more than 200 showed up — a good sign they were on to something! Now being the 5th year, they have streamlined much of their process and still feed more than 200 people each year.
The amount of usable space in the Crane Alley patio was quite impressive, as their cooking instruments were tucked back behind the building and Chef Brad Ledbetter, along with his small staff, worked calmly and methodically to get the crawfish ready for cooking. A few crawfish tried to make a run for it, and another decided to fight back by pinching one of the cook’s fingers and refusing to let go, but these men were not phased by the efforts of the crawfish and maintained jovial exchanges with each other throughout. Chef Ledbetter told me, "We usually find one still crawling around somewhere the next day."
While we arrived about twenty minutes prior to the event starting, it didn’t take long for the tables to fill; the Crane Alley staff were ready to serve. My guest and I retrieved our picnic-style containers and began twisting off the tails and sucking the juice from the heads. The sweet meat was tender and the juice had mild spice — enough to warm you. The Cajun seasoning gave the crawfish and the vegetables a wonderful flavor without being overpowering or too salty. Too often, people confuse "Cajun" for being very spicy. But "Cajun" is more accurately a description of where the style of cooking originated, as opposed to spice level.
After a few Victory Summer Love beers, I switched over to try the homemade Hurricanes. I was happy to discover that Crane Alley was doing a traditional Hurricane, as opposed to the trendy Southern Hurricane (made with SoCo) I’ve been seeing a lot of lately. The first sip sent me straight back to Royal Street on a hot New Orleans day — it was deceptive and delicious — everything a perfect Hurricane should be.
GM Aaron Wood mixing a Hurricane for a guest.
In fact, the entire day was perfect, as the clouds finally parted and the outdoor diners were able to enjoy the sunshine. The staff of Crane Alley were incredibly upbeat and relaxed. Chef Ledbetter even came by to drop a live crawfish on each table to entertain the guests for a short time (ours, pictured left, quickly clamored to safety under a napkin). The overall energy of the crowd was light and good natured, and no one seemed too shy to talk with their neighboring tables, as everyone was talking about the food and the experience of having something so special and rare in our Midwestern town.
Just when the lunch crowd was winding down a bit and the evening diners where arriving, Aaron began putting together Randall the Enamel Animal, the beer infuser. Aaron told us how the guys from Dogfish Head began hashing out the infuser idea using a pool pump as inspiration and how even now, it still looks a lot like one. On Dogfish’s website, they discuss how Randall first began being developed in 2002, and now more than 260 are in use world-wide. Aaron did the 5:00 p.m. demonstration using red plums and lemon-ginger tea (bought at our local Co-op) and running Victory’s Helios beer through the infusion. The plums gave the beer a rather sweet and smooth flavor, while the tea was more noticeable in the finish. Quite a delicious blend.
Randall the Enamel Animal
I really felt this event captured the pure essence of summer, extraordinary food and drink, beautiful weather we were fortunate enough to attain, people truly enjoying their day, and the relaxed and serene atmosphere provided by Crane Alley. I would be a fool to miss out on this next year. In fact, I’ve already put it in my Outlook.
115 W. Main Street #1
Urbana, IL 61801
Open 7 days a week: 11:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m.
*Keep an eye out for Crane Alley’s Founder’s Feast & Oktoberfest coming Fall 2013!