Celebrating the Dungeness Crab
4101 Judah St. (at 46th Ave.), San Francisco
Outer Sunset neighborhood
Open for dinner from Tuesday through Sunday
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
We’re right in the peak of the Bay Area’s Dungeness crab season, when this popular crustacean is plentiful and sweet. I got my first taste of this season’s crop of crabs when I went to dinner last week with my friend Margaret from Hawaii, who was in town for business.
Margaret said she wanted to go for crab dinner at the popular restaurant Thanh Long, which has been open for nearly 40 years in the Outer Sunset District. I’ve never been to Thanh Long (apparently actors Danny Glover and Harrison Ford have made the trek out there) but Margaret has already been there once with her mother-in-law, Norma, who was traveling again with her.
The three of us caught a cab and traveled out to what seemed the end of the Golden Gate Park area, to a quiet corner on Judah Street. When we arrived for our reservations, the place was already packed with hungry diners — 90% of whom were dining on Dungeness crabs. The Vietnamese restaurant is like a sprawling apartment with new rooms added over the years as it grew in popularity.
Our waiter presented us with menus, which highlighted many traditional Vietnamese dishes like dumplings and rolls. But when the star is crab, you really don't need to look at the menu other than to decide what kind of crab to order. Thanh Long serves whole crab three ways: the classic roasted crab, drunken crab and tamarind crab.
Since there were three of us, we decided to order two crabs. So we got the roasted crab and the drunken crab. And you can’t order crab at Thanh Long without its popular garlic noodles. To round off our dinner we got an order of stir-fried vegetables, which on this night was green beans with shitake mushrooms.
It seemed like we had only ordered our dishes just five minutes ago when our waiter brought our crabs to the table. All the other dishes we ordered came with the crabs as we ate family-style.
Oh, I forgot to mention that before you eat, everyone is offered a plastic bib, which the waiter will gladly tie around your neck for you. I’m not sure why people find the need to wear a bib when eating shellfish like lobster and crab. I personally think someone in the restaurant industry a long time ago thought it would be funny to dress his diners like a 1-year-old. Margaret and Norma wore their bibs proudly. I went sans bib (and did not get a speck of crab on myself, thank you very much).
As we dived into the crabs, I started with the roasted crab, which was glistening from the garlic-butter sauce. The legs of the crab were spotted with black pepper, which added some spice to the sweet crab meat but was a little overbearing at times. For the drunken crab, the shell looked dull but the meat was far from it. Simmered in Chardonnay, sake and brandy, the crab had an interesting flavor that was also slightly spicy. It wasn't very alcoholic; it was just right.
The garlic noodles were amazingly simple but so good. It was just like its name — egg noodles with garlic flavor. There wasn’t anything else (although you could order it with tiger prawns) but it was very enjoyable. The garlic flavor was very distinct even though I didn’t see one speck of minced garlic. My only complaint about this dish (and Margaret agreed with me) was it came to the table already cold. Margaret suspected that the noodles were made earlier in the night and just sat there waiting on the crabs.
Side note: Eating crabs can be pretty messy, of course. I wished there was a dipping bowl to rinse our hands as we ate. Instead, we basically had to plow through the crabs until we were done. That's when we got warm wet towels to wipe off our butter-coated hands.
The nice thing about eating crabs is that it’s not very filling. Even though we ate two whole crabs between the three of us, we still had room for dessert. We ordered the classic banana cake, which was served with vanilla ice cream. Again, the cake would have been more enjoyable if it was served warmer. Still, it was a nice ending to our crab feast.
Thanh Long is a long way to go for fresh crab. I’ve had other whole crabs at other San Francisco restaurants that were just as good. I mean, how can you go wrong with butter and fresh Dungeness crab? But with its reputation, Thanh Long is a San Francisco tradition. You have to come here at least once if you live in San Francisco.
Single guy rating: 3 stars (Classic Crab Presentations)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Cantler’s Riverside Inn: “A Labor Day Feast of Maryland Blue Crabs”
Vanessa’s Bistro: “A Twist on Vietnamese Dining”
Turtle Tower: “A Local Favorite Serving Up Steaming Bowls of Pho”
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Celebrating the Dungeness Crab