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A Shack With a Knack

The location was a tough spot to crack until Joe's started shelling out crabs.

September 04, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — What a difference a concept makes. When the old Sand Dancer Grill became Landry's Seafood House, diners stayed away in droves. Now it has been remodeled and renamed Joe's Crab Shack, to become the kind of boffo success story found in business journals. Joe's is one of the toughest tables to get on PCH.

Don't ask me to explain it. The same Texas-based owners have done little except switch the place to another of their chain restaurant concepts. Perhaps we've just gone dizzy for crab around here. All the most famous varieties--stone, Dungeness, king, blue and soft-shell--are available in a variety of preparations.

Joe's is geared to a young crowd, so forget about a quiet dinner. Whenever they celebrate someone's birthday, the young and hyper staff lets out whoops that can penetrate the relentless high-decibel conversation level and even the cranked-up rock soundtrack.

Your best chance to be heard is at the tables adjacent to Newport Harbor. On mild nights the windows are removed, making these virtually open-air tables. The windows aren't replaced until nearly closing time.

In keeping with the desire for a young clientele, the decor is what I'd call annoyingly festive. The ceiling is cluttered with fishnets, surfboards, buoys, plastic sharks and colored lights, the walls littered with beachy articles of clothing. The main floor, which divides the blond-wood booth area from the window tables, is brightly colored linoleum.

For more fun, a waiter will tie a plastic bib around your neck if you order one of the messier crab dishes. When you need to wipe your hands, you tear off brown paper towels from a roll on the table.

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This is all fine, I suppose, but the only thing that really counts in a crab house is freshness. The esters that give crab its distinctive flavors oxidize quickly; you've probably noticed that better Chinese restaurants pride themselves on pulling squiggling crabs live from the tank for cooking.

This is why Joe's recently took stone-crab claws off its menu. The claws, flown in from Florida, tasted like expensive cardboard at $23.95. This could be why the waiters seem hesitant to recommend the blue crabs, available daily. Blue crab would be a good value at $9.99 a pound, but when I tried an order, they were skimpy on meat and a hassle to eat, and you could scarcely taste anything but the seasoning.

Happily, the other three crab choices are fine. The king crab is a delight and reasonably priced at $23.95. You get four huge, 18-inch legs full of sweet, lightly flavored meat, which you pull from the shell in long clumps. The Dungeness crab is also delicious. It's particularly good if you order it steamed with garlic, always one of the best options at Joe's.

Soft-shells, in season now, are blue crabs that have molted so recently that their new shells have yet to harden. Joe's serves them fried, the traditional treatment, and does a good job too. The crabs are juicy, crunchy and not at all oily. You eat this delicacy shell and all. Joe's Crab Shack offers creamy tartar sauce and a mild red cocktail sauce, but you'll have to bring your own ponzu sauce if you like soft-shell sushi-bar-style.

By the way, don't overlook the crab cake, which is excellent. It must be close to 90% back fin meat.

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The menu isn't as eclectic as the decor, but it does offer more than crab. The peel-your-own boiled shrimp are especially good if you order them boiled with Old Bay seasoning, and they're a good deal at $3.99 a quarter pound. However, I would avoid the New England clam chowder. It's made with a generous heap of chopped clams but way too much flour. This has to be the gluiest bowl of food I have encountered in a restaurant.

If you don't have to have crab, you can dine relatively inexpensively. The menu lists several good seafood choices under $10, among them Joe's etoufee, red beans and rice and fried oysters. The last is a whopping dozen oysters in crusty cornmeal breading for $9.99. My waiter insisted that the kitchen staff shucks the oysters to order, and they do taste impressively fresh.

The red beans and rice is a hearty plate of stewed kidney beans, Texas rice, spicy grilled andouille sausage and two pieces of fried catfish. Joe's etoufee is made with crayfish or shrimp; I recommend the crayfish. Imagine a casserole of sweet, tender crustaceans smothered in a rich salmon-colored roux that tastes faintly of cream and crushed red pepper.

To wash everything down, there are good beers on tap such as Samuel Adams and various brain-freezing alcoholic slushes, such as the Dreamsicle, a syrupy, adult version of the orange and cream popsicle of youth. Among the ultra-rich desserts made for Joe's are a super sweet Key lime pie; a rich, foot-tall slice of chocolate peanut butter mousse cake, and something called chocolate overdose, a dessert that ain't just whistling Dixie.

Here's my slogan: Eat at Joe's, fountain of youthful energy, corporate savvy and calories.

Joe's Crab Shack is moderate to expensive. Appetizers are $3.99 to $7.99. Grilled dinners are $8.50 to $16.99. Crab specialties are $9.99 to $23.95.

BE THERE

* Joe's Crab Shack, 2607 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach. (714) 650-1818. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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