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*** Joe's Crab House
131 River Road
OK, let's put the cards on the table: A lot of people were torqued when the city fathers invited in a national chain rather than having a local eatery inhabit this prime riverfront spot. But in the early going, Joe's is going a long way to validate City Hall's gamble, and to make friends among our city's fish-loving and fun-loving public. The faux crab shack setting is bright, noisy and fun (you could call it "Hooter's meets Hard Rock in a Cajun bayou"), and the servers try mighty hard to keep everyone entertained, from the way they pull up a chair and sit right down at your table to their periodic song-and-dance shticks in the aisles. But the food is the bottom line, and I'm pleased to report that we've found the seafood at Joe's uniformly fresh and fine, placing it in the upper rank of our town's seafood eateries. Mark the Cajun specialties down just a notch -- etouffee and gumbo were good, not great, and a long stretch from Acadiana -- but everything fried and everything fresh seemed first-rate, and the prices won't force you into Bankruptcy Court. $$