The recipe at Dee’s Xquisite Seafood is a three-part harmony of flavor. It plays through tight clusters of Dungeness crab legs, lobster tails, local shrimp and even the potatoes and corn. The tune goes like this: First, it’s boiled to soak up the spice, then it’s chargrilled to add a whiff of smoke and fire, and then it’s splashed with a heady garlic butter sauce.
Then it flies out the door, often as fast as the Dee’s crew can pack it up.
This signature style has remained constant. What’s changed, dramatically, is the size of the operation and the prospects ahead for founder and creator Demond “Dee” Matthews.
“I’m new to this business. I never thought I’d be a chef, never thought I’d have a role in the restaurant business,” Matthews said. “But now I feel like I found my identity in the food world.”
It started with a recipe, and it was propelled by the support and urging of a tight-knit community of family and friends that still makes it happen every day.
At this time last year, Dee’s Xquisite Seafood was a street food side gig for Matthews, who was working full time as a mental health tech at University Medical Center. On the weekends, he sold plates on the sidewalk outside of bars on North Claiborne Avenue and by his brother Barry Matthews’ barbershop, Xquisite Styles, on Louisa Street.
He was steadily earning a following and had plans in the works to open his own location on St. Bernard Avenue. Then the pandemic hit. Instead of folding, Dee’s Xquisite Seafood soared.
Working off the street, Dee’s was already set up for curbside pickup, which suddenly was the only way many people were getting their seafood fix. The Dee’s crew would regularly sell out. Matthews added more people and more equipment, and he’d still sell out. There was a car line of customers stretching block after block.
In September, he opened the restaurant. It was a big step up in capacity, but a street food vibe still pervades. People order at the counter, under murals by New Orleans artist Kentrice Schexnayder. For now, everything is packed for takeout. They can dig in on the spot in the covered patio up front, though most take their plates and pans to go. As they do, they pass a line of people on the sidewalk outside waiting for their turn.
The demand was there, the brand was booming. But harnessing the potential of a street food success for the next step can be a tricky turn. One reason Matthews could do it was the people he found on his side.
“I’m the guy with his name on the door, but I have 14 other Black men working here together and we all grew up together. It’s all one team now,” Matthews said.
Matthews grew up in what was then called the Florida housing project, raised by a single mother in a big family whose care extended to many others in the community.
Friendships made there endured, even after Hurricane Katrina scattered some and interrupted school for others. The same friends now run the restaurant with him.
“Every last one of our mothers probably changed the other one’s Pampers at some point,” Matthews said. “They’re the reason this is happening the way it is. If we weren’t here, these are the same guys I’d be cooking with in the backyard.”
Dee’s is a busy, bustling place. Outside, under an awning built by the staff, multiple boiling pots fire away over roaring gas jets, bubbling up the next batch of shellfish.
Big bins of finished seafood then go to the kitchen, a cramped den of clattering shells, flaring grill flames and one squirt bottle after the next of Dee’s garlicky sauce.
The menu is stripped down and straightforward, with variously sized cartons and pans of mixed seafood, from the single carton to the family-sized “mamba package.”
Boiled seafood tossed in sauce is a trend that has been growing in recent years, with the Viet-Cajun template being perhaps the best-known style. Matthews made his own approach, adding the key chargrilling step between the boiling pot and the sauce ladle.
This gives the shellfish a flame-licked flavor, with a result that merges the appeal of chargrilled oysters and straight up boiled seafood. Open a carton and an aromatic wave of butter, garlic, herbs and cheese gushes up. The butter sauce gets into the crab and shrimp and crawfish as you pull its meat from the shells. It also mixes in with the boiled corn and potatoes and dense, dark smoked sausage links that come with it all.
Crawfish is a newer addition to the menu as its season revs up. The mudbugs don’t go over the grill — they’re boiled, bagged with sides and sluiced with sauce — but Matthews isn’t ruling out a future twist to chargrill them too, maybe in wire baskets over the flames.
As business took off, Matthews left his hospital job. He also reluctantly gave up his volunteer position helping coach football at his alma mater, George Washington Carver High School.
He hopes to get back to coaching eventually, when the restaurant simmers down a bit. But then, he also thinks a second Dee’s location could be next, perhaps as soon as this summer. And he has a product line of bottled garlic butter sauce he’s selling now.
“It’s growing so fast, going from hospital scrubs to chef’s coat,” he said.
1401 St. Bernard Ave., (504) 388-8368
1:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday