Crab cri de coeur

Blue-crab seasons come and blue-crab seasons go, yet the One True Boiled Crab Joint I keep longing for -- and that Texas' upper Gulf Coast so richly deserves -- remains elusive. A region that boasts some of the finest crabs on the planet (as long as you don't mind a few stray toxins) ought to have at least one place where the boiled crustaceans are seasoned with something approximating genius. Louisiana can do this sort of thing. Why the hell can't we?

If I sound seriously bummed, it's because
The Crab House in Seabrook has made me that way. Here's the one local spot with the ingredients for greatness -- newspaper-covered picnic tables, wooden mallets with which to smack the crabs, rolls of paper towels to clean up the debris, the smell of saltwater in the air -- and they come up tragically short in the cooking department.

Not that the Friday-night revelers who throng The Crab House's covered porch and wonderful upper deck seem to mind. While sky and bay merge into a single shade of blue, a wild cross section of Gulf Coast humanity throws off the fetters of the workweek, hammering and thonking with abandon at great heaps of crabs.

The sound effects and visuals -- water, clouds, drawbridge, Kemah neon -- are perfect. The boiled shellfish are not. The dry, orangey spice rub to which crabs are subjected here tastes primarily of salt. Anyone who venerates the magic wrought by a multidimensional, cayenne-spiked, New Orleans crab-boil mixture will find these poor creatures unutterably dull. All that sweet, innocent meat, coaxed out of the shell with such ritualistic trouble, only to meet a sodium-laden end!

Shrimp boiled in their shells fare even worse. You know your shrimp are overcooked when they retain your thumbprint long after you have loosened your grasp in dismay. Thank goodness for those little boiled new potatoes and the terrific corn on the cob you can order on the side. As the bayscape fades into inky, midnight blue, you contemplate the brave pink facade of Maribelle's notorious nearby juke joint while pondering the mystery of it all. How could a kitchen that knows when to extract a corncob from the pot get its shrimp so terribly, terribly wrong? Why not take advantage of the no-brainer Louisiana crab boils that find their way onto Texas grocery shelves? Will the Oilers ever make it to the Super Bowl?

That way lies madness. There's always next year. Maybe by the time the 1995 crab season rolls around, some discriminating reader will have faxed me the name of the One True Boiled Crab Joint. The number is 624-1496. I'm waiting.

-- Alison Cook

The Crab House, 317 Todville Road, Seabrook, 474-5836

The Crab House:
a mess of boiled crabs, $9.95.

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