Go Fish

Poker Players Learn the Restaurant Trade

By Stefanie Gans / Photography by Kate Bohler

A bag of joy: crawfish, corn, potatoes and sausage.

A bag of joy: crawfish, corn, potatoes and sausage.

Within the first six weeks, Chasin’ Tails lost its executive chef and general manager. It let go of two servers. It also sells up to 280 pounds of crawfish a day. The owners think it’s doing well.

Restaurant management is a game of numbers. A lusty mix of risk, luck—and sometimes—reward. It’s kind of like a card game, which is probably the reason why brothers Di and Au Dang entered into the hospitality trade after the feds shut down the country’s biggest poker websites.

Di, along with his brother Hac (an investor in the restaurant) played high-stakes online card games as “Urindanger” (Di) and “trex313” (Hac) and did so well that it became their full-time job. In about 5 years playing, the brothers pooled more than $15 million.

Clean papered tables before a messy bag of crawfish descends.

As soon as the games were deemed illegal, Di quit and told PokerNews’ Kristy Arnett that he was planning to venture into “bigger and better things.”

What Di should have said was smaller.

Chasin’ Tails offers some of the sea’s tinier creatures—shrimp, clams, oysters—but mostly crawfish. Sitting on the border of Arlington and Falls Church, it doesn’t feel like a minute’s drive from I-66. It feels like you’re in a friend’s backyard. A friend with a New Orleans sensibility.

Bags plop down on white-papered tables for a family-style party of boiled crawfish flown in from the Gulf daily. About 14 little guys find their way into a one-pound order. Sauces are customizable—Cajun, lemon pepper, garlic butter and a combination of the three: whole shebang—and again by heat, ranging from mild to N’awlins hot.

Unlike what made the brothers fall for Louisiana’s fiery fare, the spice level at Chasin’ Tails won’t impress those with fossilized taste buds. The young owners already converse in PR-speak, “We didn’t want to alienate any people,” with aggressive heat. After a few complaints, however, the kitchen switched out cayenne, and introduced haberano to create a more enjoyable fire ride. (For serious heat freaks, ask for the off-the-menu flavor: double N’awlins hot.)

The Dang brothers grew up in Fairfax, but visited extended family in Baton Rouge a couple times every year, imprinting on them the food ways of the Deep South. Their uncle Brian Nguyen, owner of an Asian fusion restaurant in Baton Rouge, transitioned the food of family gatherings to restaurant offerings and spent a month with his nephews teaching them his boiling technique and providing them with recipes.

Alligator bites bundled with spiced French fries

Alligator bites bundled with spiced French fries

Di brags about his uncle’s boil bag, “Everyone puts in cayenne pepper,” he admits, but ticks off the wide variety of contents also imparting flavor: artichokes, garlic, onion, oranges, limes and lemons. The result is bright red crawfish ready for a twisting and tugging to extract the meat from within its tight shell (see page 96 for a step-by-step guide).

Jumbo shrimp also receive the bag treatment and are much easier to eat by snatching the tail and skin off and then re-dunking in the sauce of choice. The shebang plays off the home turf with an Old Bay-like kick; chunks of garlic enhance the bright lemon-pepper sauce. A softened whole potato, corn kernels still clinging to the cob, and a few Andouille sausage slices accompany the boiled shellfish bag-o-meal.

For less messy eating, the menu offers the bayou’s signature dishes: a seafood gumbo and jambalaya, and a special of etouffée, heavy on crawfish, light on heat, and chunky with celery.

While a deep fry isn’t the best application for delicate soft shells, alligator meat performs well in the fryer: encased in a thick and still crunchy batter and dunked in hot oil. It’s seasoned enough to bring out the other, other white meat. Even though the fries come to Chasin’ Tails frozen and pre-cut, the kitchen crusts them with plenty of heat and turns them into a potato to be proud of. But the fries aren’t too noble as to not need a dip: Uncle Brian comes in again, this time with his version of a voodoo sauce.

Fresh beignets with strawberry jam.

Fresh beignets with strawberry jam.

“There’s a whole bunch of colors when I see them make it,” a server says, explaining the well-rounded, peach-colored sauce. The mayo-cocktail sauce reads creamy, tangy and salty, and the best part, says Di, is that it reveals “a bunch of different flavors that hit you at the same time.”

Just like the reality of restaurants.

Although Di worked as a server at a few big chain restaurants, he never learned management practices. He relies on the Internet as a teaching tool, just as he relied on the Internet to find the cash to enter the NoVA dining scene.

Di left poker because of its daily stresses, which is ironic, considering he entered into one of the most strenuous trades, especially in our perennial down economy.

He remembers losing half of a million dollars in one day (“That’ll ruin your day”) and then spending 40 hours straight replenishing his undulating bank account.

Restaurants swing on a much more minute level.

“You have to cut costs by a couple pennies here and there for each order of fries. And it all adds up in the end,” says the card-shark-turned-restaurant-owner of the math it takes to run a successful business.

“I kind of miss poker, where you can make 500 thousand in one month. That’s how much a good restaurant makes in a year,” he says.

“It’s two different games.”

 

Chasin’ Tails
2200 N. Westmoreland St., Suite 103, Arlington; 703-538-2565; chasintailscrawfish.com

Hours: Open for dinner daily.
Average entree: $12 and under ($)

 


 

Twist, Pull & Eat

how to find the meat in your crawfish

Being born in this area, you knew how to break down a crab straight from the womb. Crawfish, however, may be a bit more troublesome. Here’s our cheat sheet.

 

   
Hold the crawfish on both sides of the tail joint.   Twist to snap apart. Suck the head for savory fat and juices.   Peel away the widest (first) layer of the shell.
 
   
Make sure to get all the way around the entire crawfish.   Hold the tip of the tail.   Squeeze the bottom.
 
   
Imagine it’s a toothpaste tub and you need to get the last bit out.   Gently tug the meat free.   Devein the intestinal track (optional) and enjoy.

 

(July 2012)

 

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One Response

Mike Mackert Says:


Enjoyed the article and would like to try the restaurant but why didn’t you include the address? I know I can look it up but, why?

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