In the crabtastic world of medieval eating, I am but one claw lost at sea. It’s like one day I woke up and all these new crab joints had popped up in Honolulu. I could tell by the flood of friends sporting plastic bibs in their Facebook pictures. So after my recent positive Dungeness Crab experience at The Food Company, I decided it was time to get crackin’.
The first place I literally dug into was Crab City in Kaimuki, where Le Cacao Bistro briefly made its home on the corner of 9th and Waialae Avenues. Crab City is another one of pastry chef chef J.J. Luangkhot’s creations (he owns JJ Bistro and French Pastry down the street), and hopefully this attempt to fill that corner space will work. The concept is simple: You order a bunch of shellfish, served in a piping hot plastic bag. You put on your crab gear (bib, plastic gloves) and you get your hands dirty. The tables for four are really only big enough for two, for you need some serious elbow room to declaw your meal without hitting your neighbor in the jaw.
I came for the Dungeness Crab, which you can order at a seasonal market price along with lobster, King Crab, Snow Crab, Blue Crab and crawfish. But I selected a combo instead, since those are where the real deals are. For $48, you can get either lobster or a large Dungeness Crab (which we opted for), small pieces of corn-on-the-cob, two potatoes, a few sausage slices, about six mussels, six shell-on shrimp and some crawfish and clams tossed in your choice of sauce: garlic butter, lemon garlic butter or Cajun style. You can also pick your spice level at mild, medium or “volcano.” It’s nice to try a variety of shellfish, but I got the feeling from looking around at other diners’ faces that each combo is like a grab bag–you don’t always get an equal amount of everything.
Next time, I would probably go with straight-up mussels, which are not only easier to eat, but pick up the flavor of the tasty sauce (I recommend the lemon garlic butter) better than any of the other offerings. The Dungeness Crab, sadly, was not as meaty or as flavorful as I’d expected, and the crawfish were basically just there for show, because as soon as you crack one open, you soon realize that it’s not worth the work. I’d rather substitute some extra shrimp or potatoes for the hot-doggish pieces of sausage, which were a bit of a miss for my fiancé and me. This bag-of-fun, while stuffed, isn’t extremely filling, so we were glad that we also ordered the Cajun Fries ($4.99), thick and crinkle-cut with a pretty standard seasoning, reminiscent of Lawry’s, which you can get locally at Foodland.
And speaking of local, I was hoping some of Crab City’s offerings would be locally sourced. But the story is that their lobsters are shipped from Maine to San Francisco, then to your plate. The other shellfish, like the crab, comes from the Pacific coasts of California and Washington.
When I walked into Raging Crab, I was again hoping that I would be eating something local, but the seafood at Raging Crab is from the mainland too, mostly from Washington, while the King Crab comes from Alaska. The sauces, though, are made in-house, and the gumbo ($6.99 with rice) is made with local products.
Despite the fact that both Crab City and Raging Crab are conceptually similar, with shellfish from the same coastal areas, my vote goes to Raging. Raging’s combos are cheaper ($38 will get you three different kinds of seafood with white rice, Cajun french fries, corn and sausage). Most importantly, the seafood seems fresher. Now I’m no fisherman, but the shrimp, mussels and Snow Crab at Raging Crab just tasted cleaner than the bag of seafood at Crab City, not to mention my sausage tasted like actual sausage and not Ballpark Franks. Perhaps it’s because we got their famous “The Works” sauce on the side–it is a combination of their three sauces: lemon pepper, garlic butter and raging Cajun–and ordered the seafood broiled without the sauces. This way, you can actually control flavor and gauge the quality of the food. I also liked that I could order a Coors Light, Miller Light or Heineken. There is something about the combination of beer in a bottle ($3 domestic and $5 imported) and seafood in a bag that just feels right.
What I’ve come to realize about these crab places is that it’s all about the experience. That’s what you’re really paying for–the food adventure–because if you want to spend $100 on a seafood dinner for two, there are surely more refined ways to dine. But putting on a bib and getting food all over your face is kind of an endearing way to spend an evening with someone you love. And who cares if you make a mess? Crab City and Raging Crab both have that covered.