I heard a snapping noise and looked up to see my friend Joseph cracking a big crab leg with his teeth. Meanwhile, I was fighting to keep my nutcracker steady in fingers dripping with melted butter. We were both wearing plastic bibs.
"Definitely not a first-date place," Joseph said.
Yeah, but in crab season, anything goes. To make the most of California's Dungeness season during its peak -- mid-November to late January -- I set out to eat crab. Two days, two ways.
Day one brought Joseph and me to Art's Crab Shak. Art's, on Broadway and 40th, is one of those famous Oakland landmarks whose reputation doesn't do it justice. Despite its shiny new neon sign, whose glittering martini glass always turns drivers' heads, its lack of windows doesn't give off the greatest first impression. And once you make it indoors, you're greeted with a sign warning that, for a $35-a-person meal, you have to pay before you receive your food.
Owner Milouda Kelley took over the old Art's steakhouse in 1992 and switched to seafood, adding "Crab Shak" to the old sign. Kelley also kept the 1970s-era chocolate-brown cork walls and beige Naugahyde booths. In fact, the Oakland Raiders flags draped from the ceiling are the only sign of the times. Dim but not dingy, Art's has a couple of bright spots -- a glowing aquarium over the bar and TVs placed so every seat faces a football game. Men talking smack over whoever's on-screen line the bar. Weekdays the booths are sparsely populated, but on weekends tables are packed. Slow or busy, you can't always find enough waiters on duty, which can result in some long waits.
But then again, no one is there for the service. They're there for the crab. A "small bucket" of it costs $25.95, and is designed for one person, provided that person is blessed with a superhuman appetite. Sizes go up to $115 for a bucket for "four" people, otherwise known as your entire extended family. Joseph and I shared a small bucket and a regular entrée -- fried fish costing half the price -- and ate all the crab we could want. Well, for one day.
After looking forward all week to rooting around the insides of a tin bucket for the last bits of claw meat, I was sad to see the crab actually arrive on a platter. But only slightly: The plate was mounded high with eight to ten big Dungeness legs -- more than two pounds of meat -- floating on a sea of melted garlic butter. And it was cooked right. Whether you use your teeth or your tools to delve inside the legs, you'll find pearl-white meat with a satiny texture. Dredge it in the butter with your fingers or heap it on the oddly soggy grilled buns with piles of the button mushrooms, which have been cooked along with the crab and have soaked up all the melted butter, garlic, and lemon they can absorb. The other seafood entrées rival Jesso's, S&S Seafood, or other top fried-fish joints in Oakland for quality: You may know the fish is fatty, but you can't necessarily taste the grease. Same with the french fries. Truly a meal with which to break your first New Year's resolutions.
Dungeness crab season starts in the Bay Area on November 15, and, after December 1, quickly moves up and down the coast from Monterey to Alaska. Although the season runs for another eight months, both demand and supply for live crab drop off after January 1. After the New Year, the crab catch starts thinning out. More significantly, in January folks stop shopping for luxury foods to serve for the holidays and start trying to tighten their purse strings -- and belts -- again.
But in Chinatown, where the taste for ultra-fresh seafood never goes out of season, Dungeness crab is still readily available -- and cheap. Actually, all the live seafood at Gourmet Delight Seafood Restaurant on Webster and 7th Street is reasonably priced for Chinatown -- a whole crab for $12.99, steamed catfish for about $15. The catch swims around vigorously in clean tanks, a good sign that it won't stay there for long. Sitting next to the show the night on night two of the crab fest, I felt a splash, and whipped around to see open-mouthed diners pointing at a fish that had just tried to leap to freedom.
Gourmet Delight took over the old Tin's Tea House space about six weeks ago after Tin's moved to Walnut Creek. Chinatown diners never hesitate to scout out a new place, and when my friends and I walked through the door, every table in the spacious restaurant was crammed with families. The buzz of bodies moving and people talking warmed up the white-tile-and-white-walled room, designed to look clean rather than welcoming.
In such a new restaurant, however, the rush of curiosity set off an avalanche of disorganization. Though our server made a lovely effort to translate specials on the wall, she was a little overwhelmed by the crowds. So was the kitchen -- our food took 45 minutes to arrive. We finished off the tea and the roasted peanuts on our table by the half-hour mark, and leaned over to the just-abandoned table next to us to snatch their peanuts, too.
Meanwhile, I saw lots of typical Cantonese food waft by: claypots, clams and black bean sauce, platters of bright-green vegetables, yang chow fried rice. Over and over I watched nets swoop through the tanks, and five minutes later platters of steamed fish, spot prawns, lobster, or crab would pass us by.
When our own food arrived, we found much to like but little to love. A deep fryer had crisped the skin on our oil-lacquered squab into a thin shell, but it also overcooked the meat, bringing out the pigeon's livery tendencies. We weren't sure where the greens were in our "Chinese-style braised tofu with tender greens," but wallowed in the minced shrimp-garlic-chile sauce the bean curd was cooked in. And I've had better Chinese broccoli -- a little more stock would have toned down the richness of the oyster sauce poured overtop -- but alongside all the meat, it was a welcome hit of green. Only the filet of sole with salt and pepper caught my attention. This time the fryer got it right, producing a crust ready to disintegrate at the slightest touch, the fish inside as ephemeral as snow.
Gourmet Delight's crab, too, didn't inspire awe the way some of the East Bay's other Hong Kong style seafood houses do. Chopped into big chunks, then sautéed with ginger strips and scallion greens in a rich soy-tinged sauce that tended to overshadow the subtle flavor of the meat, this crab was no delicacy. You were meant to eat it quick, with your fingers and chopsticks, sucking all the meat out of the legs and daintily spitting any fragments of shell that came along with it.
Both Gourmet Delight and Art's Crab Shak prove that Dungeness crab doesn't warrant its sterling-silver reputation. To enjoy California's favorite luxury food, in fact, all you need is a bib, some butter, and your teeth.
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