Soft-Shell Crab at Pico's Mex-Mex: The Real Deal

Soft-shell crabs are one seafood item that are largely unaffected by the Gulf oil spill. As such, this somehow makes them less and more special at the same time: The little, freshly-molted crabs are more numerous than ever in comparison to other Gulf seafood, yet because they mostly escaped the disaster unscathed, we appreciate them now more than ever.

The entire city goes into a tizzy during soft-shell crab season each year. Here in Houston, and along most of the Gulf coast, we get a longer soft-shell season than those unlucky diners on the East coast. But that doesn't mean we take any of that time for granted. As I imagine most softie connoisseurs can, I still vividly recall my first dish of soft-shell crab as a young girl, guided by the expert tutelage of my mother.

"It still looks like a crab!" I gasped as the plate arrived in front of me in the elegant seaside dining room at Gaido's.

"I know," I remember my mother giggling. "That's the best part!"

Right now, if you're looking for the best soft-shell crabs in Houston, look no further than Pico's Mex-Mex (5941 Bellaire). After my disastrous encounter with a tragically ruined soft-shell crab at Brennan's, I was looking to cleanse my palate last week. And so I headed west on Bellaire Boulevard to Pico's.

At Pico's, the soft-shell crabs don't come cheap -- $31.95 for a plate of three -- but given the size, quality and quantity, it's not a bad deal. Especially when you consider the expert treatment they've been given: They're lightly battered in flour, then pan-fried in olive oil and garlic. The juicy crabs don't need any other accessorizing, any other fuss or pomp than that. Pico's should be credited for keeping the soft-shell crabs simple and full of their innately sweet flavor.

Of course, with Pico's smoky salsa on the table and the summery vinaigrette that is delivered for your green salad (which comes on the side), there are ways to dress up your soft-shell crab if you want to. I like to eat the little legs off the crabs and then split the middle of the second or third crab and make a taco with the flour tortillas and a little salsa or vinaigrette, with a few slices of white onions on top for bite.

The best thing about Pico's softies -- and what sets them apart from many other restaurants in Houston -- is that the crabs are never frozen. Freezing the crabs is useful for transportation as well as extended storage, but you can always tell the difference. The mushy texture I encountered at Brennan's indicated the crabs had likely been frozen and then thawed improperly. If you buy frozen soft-shell crabs, you'll notice that they don't take very long at all to thaw in the refrigerator. Keep that in mind to avoid letting your softies take on the smell and taste of the other items in your fridge before frying them up.

Of course, you could just head to Pico's and eliminate the chance of that happening altogether -- and indulge in a wickedly strong margarita while you're at it. Remember to call ahead, though (713-662-8383), just to make sure the restaurant has the softies in stock.

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Katharine Shilcutt