By Kaitlin Steinberg
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Signaled by the first full moon of May, a culinary miracle occurs in the warming waters of the Texas Gulf Coast. Blue crabs, more formally known as Callinectes sapidus or "savory swimmers," begin to grow again after a winter of semi-hibernation. To deal with this growth, the crab must shed its shell, or molt; when the old carapace splits down the middle, the crab, now literally a "buster," wriggles its way out the back. Within two hours of leaving its old shell behind, it's a delightful delicacy called a soft- or paper-shell crab. Wait two more hours, and that soft shell hardens. The crab, Cinderella-like, reverts to its more mundane incarnation.
The beauty of this tale is that -- for a short while -- Houston crab lovers can dine without arming themselves with an arsenal of mallets, picks and claw crackers. The sweet white crab meat is accessibly encased in a thin, completely edible shell; or as a young aficionado put it, "You eat his shoes and socks and everything!"
I was initiated into the exotic pleasures of soft-shell dining many years ago by a homesick friend transplanted from the Jersey Shore. Her hometown isn't far north of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, a region known to devotees as the mecca of fried crabs. I remember watching in horrified fascination as she blissfully chomped away on a soft-shell crab poor boy, appalled at the sight of brittle fried legs bristling from between the slices of bread.
Houston, TX 77003
Region: East End
Now I'm glad she forced me to try one myself (later, I was pleased to return the favor by teaching her to suck crawfish heads), because one reluctant bite was all it took to convert me from a coward to a junkie: I've since become hopelessly hooked on soft-shell crabs in all forms.
Barefoot simplicity is key to soft-shell enjoyment. Soft-shell crabs are best served fried or sauteed in olive oil or butter and enhanced by fresh garlic or just a squirt of lemon juice; gloppy tartar or cocktail sauces only drown the sweet, fresh flavor. The best soft-shell accouterments are a green salad, hot bread and a Mexican beer.
As I'm rarely in the mood to go wading for my own, I rely on local restaurants to do the crabbing for me. I've learned to look for soft-shells following spells of good weather on the Gulf, since storms keep crabbers in port and crabs off the table. Experience has also taught me if I don't see soft-shells on the menu, to ask. (Many places that don't normally serve crabs stock them during the short summer season, if sometimes in limited and irregular supply.) Finally, I've learned that often the best places to find soft-shells aren't your standard seafood places, but Vietnamese, Thai and Mexican restaurants. So every year about this time I begin my summer soft-shell sojourn at Kim Son, then proceed to eat my way across town.
Kim Son offers soft-shell crabs on the regular menu, just below their more famous cousin, the Kim Son signature dish of black-peppered hard-shell crab. If anything could make you forsake that peppered crab, it's these soft-shelled beauties, dished out in a mouth-searing-hot steaming heap, the biggest serving I've found in town. Most other places dole their crabs out in stingy pairs; at Kim Son, there must be half a dozen, considerately broken into chunks manageable with forks, chopsticks or, I can testify, fingers.
The crabs are draped in a light tempura batter, then fried crisp in maggi sauce -- a walnut-brown sauce that tastes like a cross between soy and Worcestershire -- and garlic and served with a pungent, garlicky vinaigrette for dipping. Be sure to ask for plenty of hot white rice to go with the crabs, as this must be the only non-noodle entree Kim Son forgetfully serves without it. Stir the rice into the spicy crab drippings to make sure you get every drop.
And forget about doggy-bagging. You must consume your plateful in one glorious sitting, since the crabs won't survive re-heating. This makes Kim Son an ideal site for a crustacean lunch: no muss in the eating, no fuss afterward with doggy bags and, best of all, it leaves you free to seek out more soft-shells for dinner.
When I wax sentimental for my first experience of a soft-shell sandwich, I make a beeline for Floyd's Cajun Shack on Durham. Although Floyd bills himself as a crawfish king, he also serves soft-shells more ways than you can shake a claw at: fried, sauteed, Pontchartrain stuffed, broiled and -- need I say it? -- blackened. Some are listed on the menu, some not, so it's best to ask the waitress what's on offer.
I usually order the soft-shell poor boy for old times' sake: a satisfying seven inches of French bread, split and stuffed to the gills with floured and fried crabs, lettuce and tomatoes, then lightly moistened with a home-style version of Thousand Island dressing; too bad the sandwich comes atop limp, uninspired french fries. But lately I've been lured by the blackened crab, which is rubbed with Cajun spices, seared on a hot griddle and served with lemon butter. On indecisive days, I'll order both fried and blackened. The sympathetic staffers obligingly split plates on request.
Next stop is Pico's Mex-Mex. Although I still mourn the closing of Pico's convenient (to me, anyway) Kirby location back in '95, when crabs are at issue I'm easily willing to make a pilgrimage to the current Bellaire location. I try to get a seat in their funky little parking lot palapa, where I can kick off my shoes, lean back in a plastic chair and pretend I'm at the beach.
Prompt the waiter, if necessary, to find out if the crabs are in, since they often neglect to mention their very creditable, but off-the-menu, choice. Pico's sautees a pair of impressively-sized soft-shells in garlic-infused oil, then liberally sprinkles fresh garlic chunks over the top. Most visits are rewarded with succulent, golden perfection, though occasionally the oil isn't hot enough and the crabs get a little squishy. I eat them anyway, and swab the drips with the sleeve of my shirt.
The moment I recover from stuffing myself at Pico's, I loop back into town to Goode Company Seafood. No Houston seafood survey could be considered complete without a layover at Jim Goode's silver railroad car just off lower Kirby, festooned with fishing trophies, rods, reels and campy family fishing trip photos.
By this time, most of my dining companions have dropped by the wayside, no match for my dogged devotion. Fortunately, Goode Company is great for unselfconscious solo eating at the chummy counter. I'm happy to sit there in solitary splendor, an oasis of culinary calm engulfed in diner clatter, and meditate on the fine line between the brusque and the brisk that's trod by the waitstaff.
At Goode Company, soft-shells are on the menu under "Fried," of course. The restaurant offers its soft-shells deep fried; but unlike other entrants in the Southern fried seafood parade, these are very lightly breaded and crisped to perfection.
I try to overlook the faux pas of serving dark red cocktail sauce with the soft-shells; it's simply too heavy for the delicate flavor of the crabs. I focus instead on their lighter, tangy tartar sauce. The seafood rice is a good pick for a side dish, and I always plan on a slab of rich, dark pecan pie for dessert.
Starting at Kim Son's around Memorial Day weekend each year, it takes me until the end of June to close my ritual round of restaurants at Goode Company. By the Fourth of July, I'm ready to start again, although with a certain doleful awareness of a looming deadline. Though the soft-shell season in more northern climes extends well into the fall, this ephemeral pleasure disappears from Gulf Coast menus by the end of August. Labor Day on my calendar marks not only the last day to tastefully wear white shoes, it signals the bitter end of the soft-shell crab season. It's then that, as I put away my pale pumps, I slip into my own form of hibernation, biding my time, waiting again for that first full moon of May.
Kim Son, 2001 Jefferson, 222-2461; Floyd's Cajun Shack, 1200 Durham, 862-3326; Pico's Mex-Mex, 5941 Bellaire, 662-8383; Goode Company Seafood, 2621 Westpark, 523-7154.
Kim Son: soft-shell crabs, $10.95.
Floyd's Cajun Shack: soft-shell poor boys, $10.95; soft-shell crab dinner, $13.95.
Pico's Mex-Mex: soft-shell crab dinner, $17.95.
Goode Company Seafood: fried soft-shell crabs, $13.95.