Monday, May 23, 2011

The Crab Cooker

It's all relative. Not really, of course, but sometimes it feels that way. My good friend has a young nephew back in Boston, a big baseball fan, obviously the Red Sox. After the Sox won the 2007 World Series, the kid declined to go to the victory parade: "The Red Sox always win," he explained. It was only their second championship in 89 years... but of course to him, it was their second championship in three years, and he was only 8.

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, have lived here almost all of my life. I love seafood but I've always been extremely disappointed in the options here. There is a national chain that once gave me the worst food poisoning of my life. There is another, even bigger chain and whenever I tell people I loathe it, they always want to talk about how good the biscuits are, as if that should forgive the lousy seafood. There is a restaurant in Pasadena that people seem a little too eager to like; I often get the feeling they could be fed a rotting fish corpse and they would say "Oh, that's good, what an interesting presentation."

I'm not saying I've never had a good seafood meal in town. I have. But, on the whole, 19 times out of 20 I would much rather get an order of fried shrimp at Popeyes than waste ten times the money on an inevitably inferior meal at one of the seafood restaurants scattered about town. (I once ate at a Sizzler on the Oregon coast - don't ask - and had a platter of fried shrimp better than any I have had in the San Gabriel Valley.)

It's become something of an annual tradition, it seems, for me to write about the Crab Cooker. And I never get tired of it. I could spend several paragraphs, several thousand words perhaps, just sharing memories of the place. But I won't. I will simply paraphrase what I wrote about the Crab Cooker one year ago: when everything comes together, there is no restaurant I have been to anywhere in the world that I love more. Would I call it the best restaurant I have ever been to? Not even close. The best seafood restaurant? Still, no. But for many reasons, it is probably my favorite restaurant. It's all relative.

My parents offered to take me and Elizabeth there over the weekend to celebrate her birthday and we jumped at the chance. Down on Newport Blvd on the Balboa peninsula, the Crab Cooker is always crowded. I try to encourage whomever I dine with to arrive there on the early side, not just to avoid the wait, but to avoid one of the too-cramped tables they sometimes stick you at when the restaurant is packed. On this occasion we arrived just before noon and it was not yet too crowded, although there were still plenty of customers already there, some even finishing up their meals.

Don't follow leaders, either.

The fish market portion of the restaurant greets you at the entrance. If you go for dinner - or even lunch after about one o'clock - you will most certainly have to wait. You can grab a shrimp cocktail or a beer from here, which makes the wait much easier. After lunch, my parents always get a big bag full of items put in ice for the drive back to the San Gabriel Valley. (On this occasion that bag included lobster, fish, cole slaw, and enough tartar sauce to fill the kitchen sink.)

The decor is quirky but it could not be any other way.

We sat in the back room and my dad was thrilled to see a street sign for Manzanita Ave, the name of the street my parents have lived on for 37 years. My mom pointed out that they have noticed that sign many times before. Old people are hilarious.

On our way to the back room we passed by the kitchen and I took a picture of the cooks grilling fish and lobster, excited about what was in store for me.

The placemats are the same as they've always been, except for the label at the top announcing how many years they have been open. It's now been 60.

The menu items are mostly the same as always. The prices are not - the lobster prices go up seemingly every year. But then again, the whole reason I love the place is the lobster is better than any I have ever had in California. That can't be cheap to make.

My usual appetizer is the "Combination Cocktail" - crab and shrimp. For years I only got the shrimp cocktail, I never tried the crab. And then one day I did and I have never looked back. The crab meat is spectacular.

"I'm just going to get the crab cocktail," Elizabeth announced. "I always get the shrimp and crab and then I end up eating the crab and giving you all the shrimp."

"I never have a problem with that," I said. "But this is for your birthday, so that's cool."

My dad always gets the smoked fish appetizer and he always loves it. This time was no exception. While my mom bought herself a lobster tail at the fish market after we finished eating, my dad simply bought himself another hunk of this smoked fish.

There are containers of bread balls on the table. When I was a kid I would eat two or three shrimp cocktails and bread sticks and bread balls dunked in cocktail sauce. That doesn't appeal to me as much anymore... but I still ate one like that. One more time for the sweet souvenir.

I always get a chuckle when people describe something as being the best in the world. You know: "Oh, this restaurant, they make the best pizza in the world." I always want to say "So, you've had the pizza at every restaurant in the world?" I understand where the passion comes from, but it just sounds silly to make such a sweeping pronouncement.

That being said, the Crab Cooker's tartar sauce is the best in the world.

The first time I ever took Elizabeth to the Crab Cooker, shortly after she moved to California, she ordered the clam chowder and was disappointed to find that it is the Manhattan version, not New England. However, she ate it and said it was probably the best Manhattan clam chowder she has ever had. My mom always gets a cup as an appetizer and this was hers.

It is almost as hard to find crab cakes I love in California as it is to find lobster. It is almost always one of two things: 1) the cakes are over-fried and all you can taste is the burnt breading, worried you might chip a tooth with each bite, or 2) the crab meat is mixed in with so much filler that you are left wondering where the crab is in most bites.

Crab Cooker's crab cakes are fantastic, probably the best I have ever had in Southern California. They are golden brown - never too dark - and crispy on the outside but filled with sweet crab meat inside. You get three to an order and I always spread tartar sauce on one of them. The cakes are so good that they need no condiments, but the tartar sauce is so good it's always nice to eat one crab cake with it.
My dad usually gets the Alaskan King Crab. And just as invariable a routine, he talks about how much smaller the portions have gotten. And normally I make fun of him for doing so. I was all set to this time, too. I was going point out that this past week has been an especially grumpy one for members of his college class (UCLA '69)

But here's the thing: I noticed it, too. Even just from the past few years, the pile of crab that he receives on his plate has gotten much smaller. It still looks cool when it's all rendered and the shells are sitting on a plate. But the portions of this are nowhere near as large as they used to be.

And here it is, my friends, the thing I love more than anything I have ever eaten: Australian lobster, "The Crab Cooker Way." Threaded onto a skewer, the meat is brushed with a touch of butter and dusted with some spices, then grilled over the mesquite fire you saw earlier. You are given a side of butter and sure it tastes good, but this needs absolutely nothing. A squirt of lemon might add a nice contrast, but I've never actually done it.

The sweet, tender lobster meat melts in the mouth. There may be something I have eaten at some point in my life that I have loved more in the moment, but I can't think of it. Feel free to zoom in on any of the pictures, and see if you do not want to lick your computer screen.

I love the Crab Cooker, obviously. I may not make it back down there for another year, and I will probably get the same items I always do. But I will probably photograph it all again next time, too. I hope you won't mind.


Michelle said...

I won't mind! I want to go here so much.

Liz said...

I love the crab cakes, and I certainly enjoy the clam chowder here (normally, I don't like Manhattan clam chowder) but the lobster is just amazing! Although, not surprisingly, I like mine with butter.

Fritos and Foie Gras said...

LOVE Manhattan clam chowder and it is SO hard to find in manhattan!!! this whole restaurant just looks up my alley-so glad that the seafood is great and that someone besides me used to make cocktail-sauce/cracker sandwiches as a kid! ;)

Justin said...

Fun anecdote about the chain with the biscuits...

We were starving on the way to Vegas and somebody said "Oh, let's go there... they have good biscuits!" Everybody agreed (except me, but begrudgingly I went). I knew it wasn't going to be a fun experience. The highlight of the meal, for me, was when my friend asked if it would be possible for cheese to be added on his sandwich. The waitress replied "I don't see why not..." Naturally, he then asked what types of cheese were available. She stared at him, as if he had three eyes, and goes "We got yellow... and white. Take your pick." This did not bode well.

Then I ordered some sort of seafood gumbo. Sounded good, I thought. The waitress came up shortly after ordering and said "We ain't go no more gumbo. We're not allowed to warm up another bag of soup after 9pm." Gross.

Funny enough, the biscuits were quite good. And we learned that we could call ahead for them to go and they'd deliver them to our car curbside. So now it's become a tradition to order a few of them freshly baked and have them brought out to our car on the way home from Vegas.

Julien said...

Oh, this is fantastic news! Apparently, I don't need to finish my schoolin' to get a job in menu writing. For proof, look at the part of the menu that says "eat lots a fish," and you will find that grammar is not necessary for a professional menu-ista. Hmmmm, "menuista"... is that a word? Oh, wait, I can probably make up words too!

JustinM said...

Justin: Someone I know quite well - I won't say who but let's just say her name has featured on this blog more than anyone else - worked at that chain while in college. And her friends stole a lobster out of the tank one night (she claims she was not involved). They named it Oscar de la Clawa.

That was my favorite anecdote about the place for years. But now it has been replaced by this:

"We're not allowed to warm up another bag of soup after 9pm."

Julien: It's all part of their charm.

Julien said...

Oh, I know. I'm not hating on the place. I just hadn't been there in a while. They just made me like them more. Now, I crave some Crab Cooker!

Anonymous said...

As a Maryland-er, I gotta tell ya NOTHING compares to our crab cakes. I know its cliche, but its true. I dont think they should even have the same name as others. They've gotta be lump crab meat, very little filler, and be broiled (this is essential). So amazingly good...if you ever get the chance, do it! And just like any seafood, avoid the chains (ahem Philips).

JustinM said...

I've been to Maryland many times, and I agree that they are the best. Although I would not go so far as to say "NOTHING" compares to them- but I certainly respect your home-state pride.

Unknown said...

One of my all time favorite restaurants ever. The smoked Albacore and Salmon are best I've had in the world. Tartar sauce is perfect. Wish I could make it. Used to live in OC, but now in Wa. Never had bad meal in the more than 40 years I went there. Never miss going when I visit.

JustinM said...

I learned a couple of years ago that the reason their coleslaw is so good is that they make it with their tartar sauce. So now every time I go, I pick up at least two containers of tartar sauce, and make cole slaw for at least couple of weeks.

Is there anyplace comparable in WA? What are your favorite seafood places near you? I like to Google these kind of things.