Carla Meyer

Cracking into California’s newly opened crab season

The crab Louis salad at 33rd Street Bistro includes crisp cucumber chunks and a chili sauce. The restaurant’s executive chef, Fred Haines, who also is a co-owner, obtains the crab from Coos Bay, Ore.
The crab Louis salad at 33rd Street Bistro includes crisp cucumber chunks and a chili sauce. The restaurant’s executive chef, Fred Haines, who also is a co-owner, obtains the crab from Coos Bay, Ore.

Fall and winter left a crustacean-shaped hole in Sacramento food lovers’ hearts.

The four-month postponement of California’s commercial Dungeness-crab season – prompted by toxic algae bloom associated with El Niño and warmer Pacific waters – dashed many a dream of newspaper-covered holiday tables laden with sweet, juicy Dungeness legs, or of nuanced takes on crab and corn chowder at high-end restaurants.

Granted, such dreams still were achievable during parts of winter. Though elevated domoic-acid levels in crabs (linked to the algae bloom) also delayed Oregon’s and Washington’s commercial seasons, crabbers in those states were cleared for business in early January – or about three months before their California counterparts, whose season began March 26. Local fishmongers and restaurants brought in crab from those states and from Canada.

So Dungeness – sourced from not that far away, when one considers most lobster comes from Maine – remained on offer locally. But like a lot of consumers, I was armed with just enough information, gleaned from seeing “toxic” and “Dungeness” together in headlines, to form a prejudice and act accordingly, by avoiding the crab altogether.

Food – and especially food subject to a health scare – is too elemental and intimate a topic to engender entirely rational thought. So I shut the door on Dungeness as I had Chipotle, after E. coli and norovirus outbreaks were tied to that fast-casual chain.

Then common sense prevailed. As I walked by a Chipotle in early March, I figured: If food inspectors are allowing this place to be open, who am I, as a devotee of Sofritas burritos, to argue? I ate a burrito, and was fine.

Emboldened, I then ate a bunch of Dungeness crab at Sacramento restaurants, and was fine. Happy, even, since any dining activity involving a bib feels like a party.

My regional Dungeness tour preceded the California commercial season’s opening. But that aspect of it might not have mattered anyway. Nguyen Pham, owner of Sacramento’s Sunh Fish, which supplies seafood to many of Sacramento’s top restaurants, said much of the crab caught off Northern California’s coast never gets past San Francisco. “You always need the other states to supplement the supply,” he said.

Sunh Fish has carried Dungeness, mostly from Canada or Washington, throughout winter, though at times at the sky-high price of $13.99 a pound because of limited supply (last week, the price was $5.99). Pham said late last week, when the first hauls of California crab were being brought into the Bay Area, that he would stick with product from farther north for a bit, “just because those areas were deemed safe a while back,” he said. “If everything checks out, I will bring them in next week,” he said of California crabs. In general, he prefers seafood from colder waters, he said, because it’s often more “pristine.”

He’s on to something, since our crab tour, which featured crustaceans from parts north of California, yielded nary a fishy tasting nor tough morsel. Here are the spots we visited:

33rd Street Bistro

This East Sacramento restaurant’s crab and artichoke dip ($14.95) is a local classic. Served warm, its texture alternates between chunky and smooth and its taste between creamily soothing and slightly tangy, thanks to its mayonnaise, onion and Parmesan components. Co-owner and executive chef Fred Haines gets his crab from Coos Bay, Ore., which makes sense, given his restaurant’s Northwest theme.

Dungeness also is abundant in 33rd Street’s crab Louis salad ($17.95), which is lent literal bite by crisp cucumber chunks that perform a crouton-like function, and figurative bite by the dressing’s chili sauce.

3301 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento., 916-455-2233

Crab City

This is one of those Asian-Cajun seafood places, on or near Stockton Boulevard, that have grown so popular in the past few years, although this airy restaurant sits so far down Stockton – near Mack Road – that it’s edging toward Elk Grove.

We tried its medium-size “house special” crab dish ($46.99), which serves two people and consists of a 2-pound crab that’s chopped up, deep-fried and, finally, stir-fried in a secret house sauce and served over garlic noodles.

The crab meat is tender and succulent, but the shell sections holding it can get sticky (we detected plenty of sugar in the secret sauce). Crab City solves the stickiness issue by handing out wet wipes, and offsets the sauce’s sweetness with the noodles, which offer enough enough garlic to register strongly without overpowering.

(Note: We never threw caution entirely to the wind. We ordered our Crab City crab “cleaned out” of butter, or viscera, because though the crab came from parts north of California, we had skimmed enough stories about California crab to know state health officials still warn against eating viscera).

7837 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento., 916-647-3172

Joe’s Crab Shack

This enormous, nautically and rustically themed chain restaurant in Old Sacramento offers spectacular views – of the Sacramento River, Tower Bridge and groups of grown men in bibs competing to see who can build the biggest piles of shells, in the buckets Joe supplies, on all-you-can-eat Wednesdays.

We visited on a Wednesday, but the “endless” crab was snow, not Dungeness. So the two of us made do with a Dungeness “bucket” (1 1/4 pounds of crab, plus potatoes and corn, for $34.49) and a “Ragin’ Cajun Steampot” ($27.99), which came with Dungeness and Queen crab, shrimp and andouille sausage.

Though the crab was nice and sweet, I’ve had livelier cobs of corn at KFC. Ultimately, though, Joe’s delivered what we desired for that evening: a staycation tourist experience featuring fresh-tasting seafood, a convivial atmosphere and fruity drinks in Mason jars.

Our favorite was the sweet-tart “Strawberry Comfort” ($10.39), made with strawberries and Southern Comfort, the latter of which was Janis Joplin’s liquor of choice. Two more tidbits about Joplin: 1) She was born in Port Arthur, Texas, near the seafood-rich Gulf of Mexico and not far from Joe’s Houston headquarters; 2) She never would have set foot in a Joe’s Crab Shack.

1210 Front St., Sacramento., 916-553-4249

Thunder Valley Crab Feed Fridays

On Friday nights, Thunder Valley’s buffet ($31.99 adults, $16.99 children ages 5-12) holds shrimp cocktail and plentiful Asian, Italian and Mexican offerings. But you would not know it from many diners’ plates, which are stacked so high with Dungeness or snow crab that there’s no room for anything else.

This crab season’s edition of the seafood buffet did not include Dungeness until February, chef Seamus Collins said, because costs were prohibitive before then. Since Collins broke out the Dungeness, attendance is up 15 to 20 percent. On Good Friday, the buffet served 1,900 people, he said.

Thunder Valley’s steamed Dungeness is plenty flavorful, especially if one uses the drawn butter or spicy garlic vinegar available for dipping. Moreover, it’s all you can eat, which fulfills the “feed” quotient so closely tied to Dungeness, which Californians historically have viewed the same way Mainers view lobster – as less a delicacy than God-given right.

3:30-11 p.m. Fridays. Thunder Valley Casino Resort, 1200 Athens Ave., Lincoln., 916-408-7777.