Vietnamese Garlic Roasted Crab, the San Francisco Treat
When I travel I always seek out local specialties, be it sopapillas in Santa Fe or shrimp and grits in Charleston. Often these are traditional dishes that have been associated with a city or region for ages. My favorite San Francisco specialty, however, has only been a local phenomenon since the '70s. Garlic roasted Dungeness crab was introduced by the An family, first at their Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Long, then at their more upscale fusion seafood venue Crustacean. I haven't been to any of the Ans' restaurants, but I've had roasted crab at several other Vietnamese eateries.
I was introduced to this dish by my friends Don Skiles and Marian Schell (one should always eat crabs with someone named Schell). We went several times to the excellent but now defunct Jasmine House. On my recent visit we dined at PPQ Dungeness Island, on the busy Chinese New Year's Eve. The Dungeness crab is certainly a contender for the king of crustaceans. I'm not sure I'd agree with Marian that "lobster is overrated" (a statement I chalk up to the lapsed Pennsylvanian's zealous west coast chauvinism), but Dungeness crab gives lobster a run for the money at the very least.
Roast crab as prepared at Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco is cooked with butter, garlic, black pepper and spices. The crabs are traditionally eaten with garlic noodles, a simple bowl of noodles and minced garlic upon which one spoons the garlic butter that has married with the crab juices. Armed with a nutcracker and shielded by a bib, one goes to work on the crabs. This is my kind of work. The flavor of the garlic butter and seafood juices over noodles is somewhat reminiscent of several Italian dishes: "shrimp scampi" (I use that horrid American redundancy for simplicity's sake) and lingine alle vongole, or linguine with clams, or linguine with white clam sauce if you prefer.
In addition to the garlic roasted crab, PPQ offers crab cooked several other ways, including peppercorn crab, drunken crab and curry crab. I'd like to give some of these a try, though it would be hard to pass up the garlic and butter version.
The three of us ordered the special dinner for two, which includes a roasted crab, garlic noodles, imperial rolls (cha gio, known as spring rolls on New York Vietnamese menus), chicken salad, and fried banana with ice cream. We augmented this with a second crab and a green papaya and shrimp salad. I'd have to say that one is probably better off sticking with just the crabs and noodles, as the other items were unexciting. The imperial rolls were OK, but I've had many better ones. The salads were quite ho hum.
Yes, stick with the crabs. Just thinking about them gives me goose bumps. I can't contain myself. I WANT SOME NOW!