THE BOILING CRAB: BOIL IN THE BAG IN ALHAMBRA
As I worked on EATING FOR BRITAIN, the impact of trade and immigration on the cuisine of our nation became more and more apparent. Without Phoenician traders Cornwall would not have clotted cream or saffron. Without Portuguese Jews and Belgian Huguenots being tossed from their respective lands we would have no fish and chips, and without the British Empire, we would have nowhere to go to after half a dozen pints on a Friday night.
America too has its own legacy and in the late 1970’s the US extended their hospitality to over 800,000 Vietnamese Boat People. Many of these refugees were settled in the Southern states where, over the last thirty years, they have begun to assimilate with the local communities with some interesting culinary consequences.
There is a point to all of this, in case you were wondering, and that point is The Boiling Crab, where Sybil and I along with our friend Amanda had lunch on Sunday. The Boiling Crab is a small chain of eight restaurants, which originated in Seadrift, Texas and now also has four locations in California.
The owners are originally from Vietnam (ah, there’s the link) and have combined their own traditional take on seafood with the “crab boils” which are so popular throughout the coastal towns of the South. In the short time they have been open, the restaurants have become incredibly popular and, with their no reservation policy, tales of the waiting time to get a table, are legion on local food blogs.
We headed East to Alhambra, an area that like its neighbours, Arcadia and Monterey Park is home to large communities from across South East Asia and consequently to some of the best restaurants representing their cuisines in the city. We arrived early enough to be first in line, but soon found ourselves heading up a queue of little short of a hundred people.
It wasn’t the orderly sort of line we are used to back in Britain, and I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable as people milled around not following the norms of good queuing that have been inculcated into Brits over generations. However, it all seemed to work in its own chaotic way and, after taking our names a short while before opening, we were the first to be shown to a table as soon as the doors were pushed back.
The Boiling Crab is no fine dining establishment. The tables are covered with paper, rolls of Costco’s finest kitchen towel are the only adornment and, as soon as I took a seat, a waiter arrived with a plastic bib for each of us. The menu too is short and, Amanda being Amanda and Sybil Being Sybil, they already knew what we were going to order by the time I returned from a visit to the bathroom.
The restaurant, as its name suggests is all about seafood and ordering is simple. You choose your variety (from Shrimps, Crayfish, Lobster, Blue Crabs etc etc), which are boiled in a bag along with a range of sauces and at different levels of spiciness. We ordered ours in a medium hot sauce and also added a couple of side dishes and a portion of catfish. We then sat back to sip on our drinks as we waited for our food and watched the floorshow as the rest of the small restaurant began to fill up.
The first part of our order arrived about ten minutes later. A plastic bag filled with a lurid orange sauce was opened to release a waft of savoury, spicy seafood steam. The sauce was coating 1lb of shrimps and we immediately fell on them sucking the heads to remove all the fat. Sybil and Amanda peeled their shrimp carefully, I on the other hand ate them shell and all. It is something I have always done and so do most of my family. I think it is a texture thing.
By the time we had finished half the shrimp leaving a mound of shells and heads on the table, our next orders arrived. The catfish was freshly fried in a breading crust and piping hot as it nestled on top of some spiced up fries (there is a theme here) and we tossed chunks between our hands until they were cool enough for us to break apart releasing the white flakes of fish underneath. We dipped them in the bag mopping up the remaining sauce from the shrimps.
Then came the next bag, this time containing two blue crabs. I was less taken with these and not just because I have barely been able to look at a crab since I spent seven hours projectile vomiting on a crab boat off the coast of Cromer last year. The truth is that crabs are often found wanting when it comes to the “effort:reward” ratio. These were no different and, while Sybil and Amanda seemed to enjoy the effort of smashing the claws to release tiny, sweet shreds of flesh, it all seemed like too much of a faff for me and I picked at a pile of sweet potato fries while finishing off the last few remaining shrimps.
Regular readers of the blog will know that there does not appear to be a word for “ample” in Tagalog or, if there is, Sybil has never bothered to learn it. So, no sooner was she wiping her mouth clean of crab juices, she and Amanda were waving over the waiter to place orders for more seafood, in this case an extra pound of shrimps and pound of the most expensive items on the menu, King Crab Legs.
Like the Blue Crab, the $17.99 a lb limbs of the King variety left me cold. However, as the pictures show, they were greeted with considerable glee by Amanda who was happy to leave the new bag of spicy shrimp to me to polish off and then use as a dip for the remaining fries.
Less than an hour after we arrived, we had laid waste to over four lbs of seafood and the waiter came to clear our table with an approving nod and a shout of “Good Job”. Bear in mind however that while our efforts were laudable, he also informed us that single diners have been known to polish off 5lbs of shrimp or crayfish in one sitting. No doubt this induces some form of seafood coma similar to the one we felt as we waddled out to the parking lot.
The line seemed to have doubled while we were in there and I can certainly understand why. The Boiling Crab serves up tasty food and a fun experience for a ludicrously cheap price. Our whole meal was less than $30 a head including drinks and tip, representing excellent value for some wonderfully messy silliness.
I am not normally a fan of fusion cuisine, but after one visit to The Boiling Crab, Vietnamese Cajun is marked down as one of the more unlikely successes.