The Crab Shack

After a torrential downpour on the interstate, thunder, lightning and wind, we finally pulled in to Savannah, GA just after 4pm this afternoon.  And I felt that after a harrowing drive like that, I deserved some sort of reward – not just for making it here on time – but for surviving the drive!

The last time I came here, this old Southern town left me with a yearning to return. There simply was too much good food to try, and I did not spend nearly enough time to try it all. In fact, the only restaurant that I sampled on that trip was Paula Deen’s, Lady and Sons.

When I returned to Tampa, a good friend of mine (who is a serious foodie) was like, “You went to Savannah and you didn’t try The Crab Shack?  Oh my God, how is that even possible?  Aren’t you a chef?”

A little intimidated I said, “What’s The Crab Shack?”  Which is like asking “What is Disney World?” when visiting Orlando.  She went on to discribe a culinary paradise beside the sea, where the sun smiles upon your face, children laugh, (cats roam), and all is right with the world, even after they bring your check. Apparently, I’ve been living in a culinary cave, because I had never heard of it… In any case, it was with great anticipation that I arrived to The Crab Shack today, and I have to admit that her description was pretty literal.

If I had to describe The Crab Shack in one sentence, I would have to say that it is a laid back, no-frills, eat-with-your-hands, open-air, half-seafood-restaurant-half-redneck-zoo, nestled in a quaint marsh overlooking the brackish water that comes in from the Atlantic, where you can feed baby alligators with a fishing rod, visit a bird museum and eat a ridiculously good meal all in one sitting. The sun was shining, children were (in fact) laughing, cute fat cats did roam the outdoor eating areas, and the food… Oh, let me tell you about the food!

I was talking about movies with a fishing buddy last week, and I told him, “All a good movie has to do is entertain me. It doesn’t have to be high-budget, have a billion dollars worth of special affects, or be historically accurate or realistic. It just has to entertain me.” And so it is with food. It doesn’t have to be served on fine China, the servers don’t have to be nice to me, it doesn’t even particularly have to be served indoors, or even on a plate. All it has to do is wow me. All it has to do is taste good, really good.

We were seated outdoors on a large wooden deck. Surrounded by about thirty tables full of enthusiastic customers. Cats roaming. Children laughing (a couple crying). And a perfect breeze came off the water – not too hot, not too cold – perfect. I went straight for the jugular and ordered the specialty seafood boil, and my wife got the ribs.

My plate arrived, and I couldn’t help but smile. A big-ass platter lined with crumpled tin foil. On it, with no shame, a pile of freshly-boiled, steaming seafood – crawfish, snow crab, shrimp, sausage, corn on the cobb, lemon wedges, potatoes, and dungeness crab with a foam plate full of drawn butter in the middle. Everything was sprinkled with their own Cajun seasoning powder with the aromas of celery salt, paprika and cayenne pepper. On the side of the table some of their specialty sauces – cocktail sauce, a Jamaican jerk sauce, a mustard-based sauce, and Gold Seal ketchup.  But with seafood this fresh, I did not bother – although the mustard-based sauce was good for the ribs (my wife’s meal).

Although anyone that enjoys seafood would go bananas over this platter, it’s all in how you eat it. And I got down to business. First, you have to eat this with your hands. Forget the fork. Bring a towel, and a shirt you don’t want to wear again. I prefaced the meal by telling my wife, “You may want to look away. No pictures, please.”

Snowcrab – forget the nutcracker – take it apart with your hands, pull out the ligaments from each leg section, crack them in half, and dunk the meat in butter. You can do the same with the dungeness crab, which is sweeter than the snow crab, but works the same.

Shrimp with shells still on – the first thing you do is stick the shrimp in your mouth and suck the juices and spices from the shells. Only then, do you peel the shell off by first, scraping all the feet off with your thumb nail in one quick motion, and then pinching the tail while you pull the shell off like a jacket. Dunk the shrimp in cocktail sauce and away you go.

The sausage, fatty, soaked with the flavorful court-bouillon (the tasty liquid they boiled it in), is good enough on its own, but when no one is looking (or when you cast shame to the side, as I did) you dunk it in butter first.

The perfectly cooked red potatoes, you just pop those and you’ll be fine.

I never really even liked crawfish that much until today. I also realized that I’ve never had really fresh crawfish until today. You rip their tails out – and this is important – you take the head section and you suck out all the tasty tomaley (the yellowish stuff inside the body) and juices. After that you clip the end of the tail off with your finger nails, at that point the meat comes out of the tail really easily when you pull it. Dunk it in butter, and down the hatch! I don’t bother with the claws (effort vs. reward).

And last, but certainly not least, the crown jewel of this meal had to be the corn on the cob. It may look innocent at first, just sitting there, sprinkled with Cajun spices, looking timid, but don’t be fooled. That corn has soaked in all the flavor from the court-bouillon, and while it’s sat there watching you devour its companions, it has built up some sort of super-delicious chemical (possibly a defense mechanism – no a very good one, if you ask me) It has also soaked up the butter from the bottom of your platter. As you take your last few bites of corn, and those juicy, delicious kernels pop in your mouth, full of flavor, don’t forget that the cob itself is impregnated with the most tasty combination of all juices. So, suck it all out. To do otherwise, would be uncivilized.

And maybe you want to try some of those dipping sauces, maybe even some hot sauce. But it’s not necessary. Good seafood speaks for itself. And that’s how I took down this platter of seafood happiness. Like a champion.

I should have asked them then and there to just roll me down to the marsh and hose me off, but with my last shred of self-respect, I used the hand-washing station instead. It was truly an epic meal.

Also, the ribs weren’t half-bad.

So the next time you find yourself anywhere near Savannah (Tybee Island, to be exact) you owe it to yourself to visit The Crab Shack for one hell of an enjoyable seafood boil.