Hot Mess

Fair warning: Don’t wear your fanciest attire when you go to Kai’s Crab Boil.

The cooks don’t spend time on tidy plating. Meals don’t even come in individual portions. Once a boil is ready—the ingredients cooked through and doused in the spiced, buttery sauce of your choice—a server dumps it in a pile in the middle of your paper-lined table. Each order is sized to serve two to three people.

But that pile of saucy seafood is only the beginning of the mess. Next, everyone at the table grabs the shrimp, crab, lobster, mussels, and crawfish by hand, and starts cracking them open. Then comes the best part: scooping and slurping out the insides.

So, yeah, in this case a menu getting a little all over the place is a good thing. If you’re averse to dunking your hands in a pile of buttery seafood—with optional potatoes, corn, and sausage—Kai’s provides plastic gloves and bibs you can use to keep yourself clean. Each table is also stocked with a plentiful supply of paper towels. The dining room even has a double sink guests can use to wash up after they’ve swallowed their last crawfish.

For owners Tiffany Cho and Kai Sheng, the sloppiness is all part of the experience of eating a great seafood boil. It’s a style of cooking they both grew to love long before opening the restaurant earlier this year.

“It started from us wanting to eat this kind of food ourselves,” Cho said. “We didn’t have anything like that in Columbus, so we had to make our own.”

The inspiration came from low-country boils common in Southern coastal states like Louisiana. “We started experimenting with different recipes and tweaking our seasonings,” Cho said. “We had family and friends over for gatherings and did boils, and people began asking when we were having our next one. It grew from there.”

It grew into a business that’s been a simmering success since it opened. Kai’s Crab Boil sits in a sizable space in Olentangy Plaza on Bethel Road. The dining room is bright and open, with detailed ink drawings of crustaceans adorning the walls.

“This restaurant is an extension of our own personal dining table,” Cho said. “We want our guests to feel like family when they’re here.”

Families eat together, but they also drink together. And if consuming a pile of seasoned seafood makes you thirsty? Kai’s Crab Boil offers a full bar, stocked with beer, wine, and cocktails. And as you might expect from a place that offers such a unique dining experience, some of their signature drinks go far beyond standards like vodka tonics and rum and Cokes.

One popular choice is the pineapple mojito. It has your standard rum, mint, and sugar, plus chunks of pineapple muddled up in the mix. Also favored is the pineapple soju slushie, which combines ice and fruit with a Korean rice wine, all blended together. “Those kinds of sweet drinks go really well with the spiciness of the boils,” Cho said.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can order up Kai’s Ultimate Bloody Mary. The salt rim incorporates their house Cajun seasoning, giving it a blast of flavor before you’ve even taken your first sip. It also comes with a strip of bacon, a snow crab leg, and a shrimp dunked right in. It’s practically an entire meal on its own.

Perhaps you (or your kids) find all of these unique dining features a little too bold. Kai’s has you covered on that front, too. If you’d rather enjoy a more traditional meal, you can choose from a list of “fried favs” that includes baskets of wings, hand-breaded shrimp, and chicken tenders served with fries.

For now, Kai’s Crab Boil is only open during dinner hours. Cho says their goal is to begin offering lunch in the future, but it will probably be with a pared-down menu. She’s thinking quicker eats like po’ boys. After all, most people on lunch break don’t have time to crack through a pile of shells to extract their food.

In the meantime, you can stop in for dinner any day except Monday, when they’re closed. The menu is simple, the food is flavorful, and most of the seafood is alive right up to the time it’s cooked. You’d be hard pressed to find fresher saltwater fare anywhere in central Ohio. Just don’t forget to wash your hands when you’re done.