Carla Meyer

An $80 Dungeness and other tales from Sacramento’s Boiling Crab

This 3.5-pound Dungeness crab at downtown Sacramento’s the Boiling Crab cost $80.50. Corn and potatoes used in the seafood boil were extra.
This 3.5-pound Dungeness crab at downtown Sacramento’s the Boiling Crab cost $80.50. Corn and potatoes used in the seafood boil were extra. cmeyer@sacbee.com

So there was this crab. We’ll call it “Aidy.” Because it cost $80, and giving it a moniker fits the nicknamin’ spirit of the place where we ate it: The Boiling Crab, a 6-month-old seafood restaurant on downtown Sacramento’s K Street that uses descriptors like “Rajun Cajun” and “The Whole Sha-Bang!” on its menu.

Aidy, the price of which we were unaware until the bill came, arrived in a plastic bag, with two half-cobs of corn and three red potatoes, that our server placed upon the sheet of waxed paper covering our table. Also inside the bag was the oil-heavy seasoning that accompanies most of the restaurant’s seafood boils. We had chosen the “Whole Sha-Bang” mix that combines the restaurant’s standard “Rajun Cajun,” lemon-pepper and garlic seasoning options.

One can pour all the bag’s contents directly onto the waxed paper – the Boiling Crab eschews plates – but we hesitated to pour much beyond Aidy, fearing the bag’s heavy oil content would spread out too far on the table.

The crab meat was sweet and succulent, and the seasoned oil, which we mopped up within the bag via an order of white rice – lived up to its name, delivering a salt punch, garlic pungency, chili heat and enough citrus tanginess to offset the power of the other elements.

Until it didn’t, and a shot of heat hit and then lingered in the back of my throat. Water and plain rice did not help, and our already cramped booth began to feel even tighter. I had to get up to try to walk things off in the dining room and lobby, first remembering to remove my silly plastic bib. I am only shameless regarding puns in this review; on my walk, I was still working under the delusion I had maintained a shred of dignity, despite the watering eyes and oily, chili-stained hands.

The episode passed quickly enough, but then I faced the pincher shock of the bill. The tab was $80.50 for the crab and $7.25 more for the corn, potatoes and rice, which must be ordered separately.

The crab’s cost and the spice-in-throat incident both brought up interesting questions about diner vs. server responsibility. And although I ultimately took full or partial responsibility in both instances, the crab’s price stuck in my craw.

I had signed up for the spiciness. The menu makes it clear there is a no-heat option for its boils. But we chose “mild” – a step above heat-free and two below the hottest, or “XXX” option – so we knew there would be some kick involved. And the seasoning might have been less concentrated had we poured it on to the table rather than eating it with rice inside the bag.

Undaunted, we chose “mild” levels again on a subsequent visit, for a boil of supple, head-on shrimp with garlic seasoning and one with tiny but tasty crayfish with “Rajun Cajun” seasoning. Our only complaint on this visit was that the Cajun seasoning, which tasted mostly of Old Bay, could have used more misplaced cayenne anger.

My first response, upon seeing the bill, was that the server should have warned us of the cost.

The Aidy pricing issue is murkier. My first response, upon seeing the bill, was that the server should have warned us of the cost, just as someone on staff should have instructed us, yet did not, on how to get the most out of not just the legs but the body of a whole, $80 crab (good thing my companion was a pro at pitching unwanted innards). But also, I should have asked what the cost was before ordering the crab. Same with any other menu item listed as “market price.”

I knew it would be expensive, because I had visited this Boiling Crab, part of a Southern California-based chain that already had a spot in south Sacramento, just after it opened in December 2016 in a large space that once held the Assembly Music Hall. The crab I ordered in December cost around $50, and I knew this one likely would be costlier, since Dungeness is harder to get in May than December. I did not expect $80 worth of hard-to-get.

The difference was more in weight than price. At $23, the price per pound was just $1 more than it had been in December. But Aidy was 3.5 pounds rather than 2.2, the size of my December crab (who we’ll call Santa). Had I been asked if I wanted a 3.5-pound crab, I would have said no.

No, because an $80 crab is incongruous in a place where the utensils are plastic, soft drinks come in paper cups and televisions showing sports line the walls and thus follow an apparent design rulebook for the cavernous restaurants that have popped up on or near K Street since nearby Golden 1 Center opened. The arena was dark on the nights we visited, and the jeans- and shorts-clad families and groups of friends in the third-full restaurant seemed to be celebrating non-sporting events, like birthdays.

A single item costing $80 at a restaurant brings to mind ice buckets, white table cloths, bow-tied servers and soothing music. Boiling Crab’s aural landscape, by contrast, includes too-loud top-40 pop music augmented by the loud whoosh of a hand dryer that sits next to a sink near the front of the space. Though installing a hand-washing station was a thoughtful idea, given all the mess involved in dining here, the dryer sounds just like the opening of a spaceship’s vacuum chamber in a sci-fi movie. Only the noise is greater and lasts longer.

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The $15.50 “Half-Naked” Shrimp Boil with potato, corn and sausage at The Boiling Crab in downtown Sacramento. Jose Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

This aspect of the restaurant’s ambiance was too evident to go unnoticed under any circumstances. But I might have found it less obnoxious had we foregone Aidy and stuck to much more affordable – and almost equally satisfying – options such as a $7 gumbo with an appropriately thin broth and just enough heat to register but not mask the flavors of the earthy okra and wonderfully fatty sausage therein. Or the $15.50 “half naked” shrimp boil, which comes with a pound of supple, head-on shrimp with light lemon-pepper seasoning – and with sausage, corn, potatoes, whole mushrooms and garlic cloves included in lieu of the heavy seasoned oil. (There is also a completely “naked” – unadorned by oil or spice – version available).

The Boiling Crab’s streamlined menu, consisting primarily of boils and baskets of fried seafood with fries, lacks the diversity of that at Station 16, the locally owned midtown Sacramento offshoot of another south Sacramento Cajun seafood place, Firehouse Crawfish. Station 16 and Joe’s Crab Shack in Old Sacramento also offer much more extensive drink menus, with specialty cocktails and draft beer instead of Boiling Crab’s bottled beer and tiny cocktail list (which includes a mediocre michelada).

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Gumbo at the Boiling Crab in downtown Sacramento Jose Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

Boiling Crab compensates for its limitations with near-perfect execution. The seafood in the boils was expertly cooked, and the various fried seafood items we tried featured tender flesh and crisp, light outer layers (though the fried oysters tasted overly fishy). Servers really hustle to get orders from kitchen to table, ensuring food arrives hot.

Boiling Crab offers the best food among the giant new restaurants near Golden 1 Center, beating out El Rey and Sauced. But be wary of “market prices,” always ask how big a portion is, and – to borrow advice from Sacramento traffic reporters – avoid Aidy.

The Boiling Crab

1000 K St., Sacramento, Suite 100, 916-281-0291, www.theboilingcrab.com

Hours: 3-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Beverage options: Bottled domestic and imported beers. Limited cocktails.

Vegetarian friendly: Not especially

Gluten-free options: The unbreaded seafood can be ordered without sauce.

Noise levels: Moderate to high, punctuated by the loud whoosh of an industrial hand dryer near the front of the dining room.

Ambiance: Located in the former Assembly Music Hall, the place is concrete-floored, multi-TV’d and otherwise sports-bar generic. Booths lining one wall are packed in too tightly.

Overall 1/2

The kitchen is great at cooking seafood, but the service fell down in some instances and charging $80 for a single crab, without forewarning, is ridiculous.

Food

We had no qualms with how any of the seafood – boiled, steamed or fried – was cooked. But the fried oysters tasted too fishy, and the Cajun chowder oddly sweet.

Service

Someone on staff should have warned us about the crab’s pricing, and instructed on how to dissemble the crab. But we also could have asked.

Value

I have said this before, but it has never been truer than it is here: It depends on what you order.

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