Darwell's Cafe in Long Beach, Mississippi is known for its fresh crawfish etouffee, but it's not the only dish bringing faithful fans back for more. VPC

Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY

8:34 a.m. EST March 10, 2016

The scene: It doesn’t get much more laid back than Darwell’s Café, a true roadside joint that is literally on the other side of the tracks. Oceanfront Beach Boulevard is the main drag in these parts, running along America’s longest manmade beach, but Darwell’s sits off Railroad Street, which runs parallel several blocks inland, along the tracks. Long Beach, a small neighbor of Biloxi, is home to the University of Southern Mississippi, and was once known as the Radish Capital of the World. The area is now a major tourism destination, with Biloxi and Gulfport full of marinas, museums, golf courses and casinos. But while Darwell’s is very close to these, you would never drive by or find it if you were not looking for it. Nonetheless, lots and lots of people come looking for it, and Darwell’s, though much bigger than it looks, is routinely jammed with a long line out the door, especially on weekends.

The main building has several inside dining rooms, and there is a vast outdoor dining area full of large tables. At maximum capacity it can hold a couple of hundred folks and often does, with live music nightly, indoor or out. As soon as you walk in you are at the counter, where the normal greeting is to ask whether it’s your first time, and if you say yes, a sample of their signature crawfish etouffee is handed to you. You order at the counter, which has handwritten specials and menu items hanging over it and on the walls on either side. Then you are handed a number, make your way to the iced tea stand to grab a beverage (it’s BYOB for adult beverages), then find a table. Food is delivered to you with the same ultra-friendly service that pervades the place.

Darwell’s is funky, and the walls are covered with whimsical art, caricatures, song lyrics and cartoon-like drawings, mostly by the owner’s father “Papa D,” who is known to wander around and spontaneously draw caricatures of customers on Styrofoam cups for instant keepsakes, or pull out a harmonica and start jamming with the band. Colorfully painted guitars hang on the walls, endless strings of Christmas lights dangle from the ceilings, and it is a place of wonder at every turn. Even the otherwise barren concrete floors are whimsically painted with colorful designs.  The exception is the front dining room, by the counter, which is covered with more conventional framed article clippings and awards, and a signed poster-sized photo of TV personality Guy Fieri. He brought his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives here specifically for the crawfish etouffee, which he loved so much he included the recipe in his DDD Cookbook.

Reason to visit: Crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, crab melt sandwich

The most popular order is the Darwell’s Sampler with

The most popular order is the Darwell’s Sampler with (left to right) crawfish etouffee topped with blackened spiced shrimp, shrimp creole and gumbo, plus lots of warm French bread.  Larry Olmsted

The food: If the food at Darwell’s was merely okay it would still be a great spot, because the place is so colorful and the staff so friendly. Bu the food is better than okay, it is fantastic, made to order all the time, with a focus on the fresh wild caught seafood of the Gulf of Mexico, the source of  some of the world’s best shrimp, along with excellent oysters and blue crab. While most seafood, especially shrimp, sold in U.S. restaurants is imported, often from foreign fish farms that use drugs and chemicals, these are the real deal, wild, natural and sweet, and it shows. But it is not just the ingredients, it’s the cooking that makes the food here amazing,

The menu is broad and ranges from barbecue to po’ boys, but by far the two most popular dishes are the Darwell’s Sampler and the crab melt sandwich, followed by larger portions of the individual components of the sampler. This consists of three bowls, crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole and gumbo, with a healthy side of toasted buttered French bread. The crab melt is a layer of fresh blue crab meat stacked on ham and Swiss, served warm on thick grilled Texas toast with a side of au jus for dipping and a bottle of thick yellow Vidalia onion vinaigrette, or “house sauce,” which is highly recommended as a sandwich garnish by staff. They are right, it is delicious. There are a variety of typical Southern sides, but portions are already large and as the woman at the counter said, “Skip the slaw — no one comes to Darwell’s for veggies.”

What they come for in droves is the etoufee, and it is awesome. This part of the Mississippi coast is close to New Orleans and heavily influenced by the same kind of Cajun and creole dishes, but in most places etouffee is reddish, while here it is a creamy mustard color, and comes topped with a healthy pile of blackened, spiced Gulf shrimp just for deliciousness sake. Owner Darwell Yeager III makes it entirely from scratch, going so far as to make his own crawfish stock, then adds healthy portions of butter and cream (the color) along with the so called “Holy Trinity” of Cajun and creole cuisine, celery, onion and bell pepper. There is also Old Bay crab seasoning, Cajun spice blend, garlic, flour and parsley, plus lots of local crawfish meat, a layer of white rice and the blackened shrimp, with a from-scratch house seasoning. The etouffee sauce is thick, creamy, rich and delicious, the seafood just makes it more so, and it is impossible to stop eating. The French bread served alongside is for mopping up every last drop. But as good as it is, the shrimp creole is even better, and just as to-the-very-last-drop addictive. For this dish the trinity gets sautéed in lots of butter with the same spice duo, plus healthy slices of andouille sausage, homemade shrimp stock, and tomato sauce, which is slow cooked into a delicious thick red mess. Some regulars order it as an entree over spaghetti, and Darwell’s is the kind of place where they will put together pretty much anything you ask for. The gumbo is also thick, from scratch, and very good, but the other two dishes on the sampler are so superlative it seems a little average in comparison.

Lots of people share the sampler and crab melt — we were the fifth couple that night to place this exact order, and it was still early. The sandwich is uniquely rich, creamy and meaty, crab and ham making an unlikely but successful combo. While already messy, it is worth slathering it with both the house sauce and au jus for a drippy, juicy taste fest.

The friendly staff, from the free samples to the smiles to the drink refills, add to a great experience. One of our waitresses told us she met her future husband here, got married here, had her reception here, and continues to love working at Darwell’s.

This is one of those places where it is truly hard to go wrong — if not impossible. Everything is bursting with flavor and freshness, and is spicy in a good way, not a hot way, with layer upon layer of complimentary tastes, as with the spicy blackened shrimp providing great contrast to the creamy, buttery etouffee, or the ham offsetting the crabmeat. Even the desserts, baked specifically for Darwell’s by a local pastry whiz, are great. Prices are very reasonable, portions big, smiles bigger, food delicious, and with the BYOB, it is a great spot to eat outside as a group with a couple of bottles of wine or beer, while enjoying music. Of the hundreds of Great American Bites eateries I have visited in the past five years, Darwell’s is among my very favorites.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes — this is Southern Gulf cuisine at its very best, in a wonderful setting

Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 127 East First Street, Long Beach; 228-868-8946; darwellscafe.com