Hunting Bay crabs, Bayou crawfish and other briny treasures
By Warren Rojas / Photography by Hana Jung and James Kim
Blue crabs and summer have been synonymous around these parts since time immemorial.
But with the local crab population in decline even as consumer demand climbs higher, a growing number of area seafood vendors have started looking beyond the Chesapeake Bay for alternative crustaceans to serve the mallet-wielding masses.
We uncovered crabs from as far away as Texas and as close as our very own coastline (though about 2,000 feet deeper than you’d expect) during our sweep of local crab houses. Not to mention a whole host of other marine goodies—including delicacies like grilled conch (bottom right), crab-stuffed jumbo prawns and mouthwatering fried oysters, just to name a few—that should fulfill any seafood wishes without further taxing our dwindling, sideways-walking neighbors.
Arlington has its share of booming dance clubs, raucous beer halls and even late-night wine bars. Still, it’s tough to find a more rollicking bunch than the crab-pickin’, beer-drinking masses that seem to invade the Quarterdeck on a nightly basis.
First-time guests might think owner Lou Gatti’s rickety, inland hideaway looks somewhat lost amidst the sea of luxury apartments and refurbished condos that have flooded the Rosslyn housing market in recent years. But established patrons know that while the scenery may change, the Quarterdeck always remains.
The two-story shack boasts porthole-style windows, a well-lived-in bar, a communal dining area and inviting outdoor patio (offering both covered and open-air seating) on the main level. Restrooms, a pair of coin-operated pool tables and some dart boards are found down below.
Open tables are a prized commodity at this cherished community hangout, as evidenced by the fact that you are just as likely to encounter crowds on a random Tuesday as you are during the near-constant weekend rush. Chairs remain full from open to close thanks to a steady stream of birthday revelers (“Three cheers for Jen!”), unwinding co-workers, extended families and even suburban sophisticates—they tend to arrive in meticulously pressed shirts and ties, then retire from the tables with full bellies and Old Bay-stained elbows—who’ve come to enjoy each other’s company as much as the well-seasoned crustaceans.
Veteran servers know their customers and their product very well, and can quote the variety and quantity of crabs they’ve got on hand, down to the last dozen. When an overly ambitious caller attempts to monopolize their crab supply for the night, one server counseled, “No one can sit down and eat three dozen donuts. Crabs are about the same way.” The server went on to explain that staff typically asks patrons how many crabs they expect to eat when they call to make a reservation, and the kitchen then sets apart at least that many of the largest animals available to ensure maximum satisfaction.
That’s one way to keep folks coming back. Another is to serve great crabs.
During one early season visit, crew members were busy offloading a fresh shipment of crabs trucked in straight from North Carolina. Subsequent visits, I was merely told that the crabs were all “local.”
This season, dozens are running about $44 for mediums, $54 for larges, $64 for extra-larges and $76 for jumbos, while the all-you-eat option is $34.95 per person. The remainder of the menu bounces from traditional seafood (red crab soup, crab cakes) to wide-reaching daily specials (Dungeness crab, 16-ounce porterhouse, “fiesta” catfish platter).
An order of stuffed shrimp produces cheddar cheese- and pepper-filled poppers flanked by a cooling salsa. Grilled shrimp taste like they’ve seen some fire and are accompanied by melted butter—which comes in handy around crab time, since they charge extra for drawn butter.
Curiously enough, one batch of supposedly spiced shrimp arrived: 1) cold (not raw, but definitely somewhere south of lukewarm), and 2) devoid of any Old Bay.
All crabs are cooked-to-order, so there’s about a 20 to 30 minute lag between ordering and eating that’s well worth the wait. On average, crabs emerge caked with just the right amount of Old Bay and bear ample clumps of hot, sweet flesh to sate even the most ravenous dining companions. There were no missing claws and no puny specimens mixed in to complete the count—you definitely get what you pay for.
Some of my guests found the happy-hour bar specials ($1.50 off select beers, from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday) to be the perfect complement to our dining regimen.
I preferred to consume my sugars in pie form, gobbling up homemade blueberry cobbler folding jammy filling and tart blueberry chunks into a spice-dusted shell (summer, by the slice).
Though the “captain” has since set sail, Pell family members continue preparing piping-hot crabs for the masses at their come-as-you-are, crab-eating facility.
William Pell, the titular captain in question, founded his original ramshackle crab depot in Merrifield over two decades ago, later relocating his family and the now-wildly popular restaurant to its much larger Fairfax home in order to accommodate the burgeoning ranks of their seafood-loving followers.
According to manager Danny Pell, their reputation for serving premium crabs in a family setting continues to pay dividends in terms of customer loyalty.
“We see our same, friendly faces a lot—as well as some new ones,” he said, estimating that roughly 80 percent of their clientele are repeat business.
The current, two-story locale is a monument to year-round, marine dining. On any given night, the cavernous upstairs dining room is flooded by the clack-clack-clacking of crab extremities being rendered by extended families, beer-swilling girlfriends, famished sports junkies (twin big screens broadcast all manner of seasonal contests) and whoever else has chosen to attend what very much feels like a never-ending picnic. Elsewhere, custom billboards trumpeting a who’s who of trusted local contractors, car-care specialists and realtors are plastered on the surrounding walls, while a bank of retro video games in the front vestibule helps siphon quarters from restless kiddies and nostalgic grown-ups alike.
Pell said the restaurant continues to receive a regular supply of crabs from the Chesapeake Bay, but noted that they now supplement their stock with shipments from the Gulf Coast as well. “It’s kind of a Mother Nature-supply thing,” he said of the challenge of keeping the all-you-can-eat crab machine running smoothly.
“What we’re after is trying to keep the best, finest, freshest seafood we can,” he offered. Those quiet compromises include serving both male and female crabs—a practice that some argue stymies future harvests by severing the animal’s natural reproductive cycle.
This season, their all-you-can-eat crab feast is running $35 per person. Individual dozens start at $30 for regulars (male/female), $45 for mediums (male/female), $66 for large (male-only) and $90 for jumbos (male-only).
The rest of the menu is plucked almost entirely from the sea, save for a basket of chicken fingers and generic ice-cream sandwiches for dessert.
Pell listed crabs as their top seller, but pointed to the spiced shrimp and other seafood items as perennial favorites. “People love the king crab legs,” he assured me, adding that “oysters and clams seem to go hand and hand.”
Indeed, they do.
A portion of fried oysters reveals over a dozen chubby bivalves battered just enough to bronze while remaining tender. Fried clam strips are terrifically crunchy and plenty generous (a basketful is bigger than a side of fries from most restaurants).
Steamed shrimp are plump, hot and plenty of fun, but you’ve got to add the spice yourself (served plain). Steamed clams were merely OK, but the side of melted butter came in handy for the crabs (drawn butter is 50 cents a pop).
By-the-dozen crab orders tend to pop out of the back within minutes, which would suggest the kitchen bulk steams whatever they’ve got on hand throughout the evening. The crabs consistently feature some of the greatest deposits of mouthwatering meat around, with shells and claws that seemed to split apart almost effortlessly, with only trace amounts of Old Bay sprinkled about.
You only get maybe a pair of claws and a handful of legs per pound of the monstrously huge king crab legs, but those select appendages are usually amply stuffed with luscious meat. The addictive stone crab legs are equally big and just as generous with their silky claw meat.
And while one dining companion seemed appalled at the notion of a crab house without pitcher service, the bar keeps a variety of frosty domestics and imports, ranging from Coors Light and Samuel Adams to Heineken and Corona, always at the ready. The parade of bottles that accompanies most crab orders seemed to suggest that most Pell’s devotees have made their peace with it, too.
Gainesville probably isn’t the first town that comes to mind when searching for fresh seafood. Nevertheless, Blue Ridge Seafood co-owner Donna Donovan assured me she’s managed to lure in her fair share of Prince William County commuters over the years.
“There are still so many people who come in and say, ‘I’ve driven past you for years and finally decided to stop in,’” she said of the curiosity-seekers who keep “discovering” her family-run restaurant—a local landmark celebrating its 29th year this July.
Donovan runs the homey seafood shack alongside husband Mark and a slew of downright perky waitresses who could be family, friends or just really happy to be there—no matter which, their enthusiasm shows. Inside the pale-blue structure reside rows and rows of picnic tables pre-emptively wrapped in brown paper and stocked with fresh paper-towel rolls and the preferred condiments of the crab-cracking trade (malt vinegar, bonus crab seasoning, etc.).
Due to inconsistent local harvests, Donna said they’ve taken to getting the brunt of their crabs from the Gulf of Mexico. “We haven’t been able to get big ones, locally,” she explained, adding, “If it’s not quality, we don’t buy it.” Mark stressed, however, that they only use meat from local blue crabs—to ensure the “proper sweetness”—for their homemade crab cakes (based on Donna’s mother’s recipe). Meanwhile, Donna pointed out that they get a fair amount of other types of seafood—including oysters and shrimp—from Virginia’s Northern Neck region.
In terms of general sales, Donna said they typically receive between 100 bushels and 200 bushels of crabs per week in season, while Mark projected they sell about 12,000 to 13,000 pounds of shrimp each summer.
This year, their crab selection seems to be running $29.95 per person for the all-you-can-eat crab feast (all small-to-medium, male crabs), while by-the-dozen prices range from $39.95 for small and medium specimens, $49.95 for large, $59.95 for extra large and $69.95 for jumbos.
The remainder of the menu includes cooked-to-order (broiled, blackened, grilled) fish selections (salmon, swordfish, mahi mahi, tuna, rockfish, catfish), as well as assorted daily specials (baby lobster tails, whole Maine lobsters, quail, king crab legs). Traditional dinner offerings include: frog legs, soft-shell crabs, mix-and-match combos and typical landlubber fare (chicken, steak).
Donna listed spiced shrimp and fried oysters as top sellers, whereas Mark tapped Cajun staples like fried alligator and steamed crawfish—which some regulars have taken to ordering in bulk for family crawfish boils, he said—as customer favorites. Some folks have also taken a shine to their signature “garlic crabs.”
“It’s more for the people who want to have the mess taken care of for them,” Mark said of the pre-cracked, thoroughly cleaned and garlic butter-tossed crustaceans originally added to the menu by his father-in-law.
So many options, so few clean shirts.
The aforementioned crawfish bear easily peeled shells stuffed with fluffy tail meat and mini-claws that are the perfect warm-up for seasoned pickers. Battered gator tail summons thick strips of springy reptile meat fried to a flexible crisp and served with zesty Cajun mustard (powerful spice).
Shortly after delivering a heaping tray of freshly steamed crabs to the table, one server paused to ask, “Are they light or heavy?” to ensure she hadn’t steered us wrong in billing the extra-large size as a terrific value (she hadn’t).
The average crab order revealed healthy specimens smothered in Old Bay and full of succulent meat (and savory crab “mustard,” to boot). Virtually every crab had both claws intact, and the animals were typically largish, across the board. Though the garlic crabs are minor players (they only use small-to-mediums), a genuinely heart-stopping garlic butter-herb bath ensures they’re big on flavor.
Homemade desserts include key lime pie, cheesecake and a diet-decimating peanut-butter pie featuring frozen peanut-butter filling folded into a chocolate crumb shell, drizzled with chocolate sauce and dabbed with whipped cream.
“I’m glad they don’t have this at home,” was all one companion could say after delving into the sinfully rich dessert. You and me both, brutha.
Sea Side Crab House
6799 Wilson Blvd., #5, Falls Church | 703-241-2722
Average entree: Under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily
The Falls Church mini-verse known as Little Saigon can now add bona fide crab house to its roster of curious attractions with the arrival of Sea Side Crab House—an ambitious carry-out intent on delivering a world of fresh seafood.
Career restaurateur Tom Vo helped launch the nascent seafood counter earlier this spring, describing the tiny but welcoming eatery as a very “down-to-earth, get-your-hands-dirty” type of place. One wall is almost entirely filled with congratulatory notes and words of encouragement—parting salutes of “Best crawfish ever!” and “Seafood muy sabrosa” recount treasured meals past—from those lucky few diners who have managed to stumble upon this otherwise clandestine crab haven.
The tiny shop consists of a mere handful of tables right now, but at press time, Vo had already laid the groundwork for a comfy patio section to be done later this summer. Virtually everything is served on Styrofoam plates, the cutlery is mostly plastic (save for the tiny metal forks used to coax the grilled fare from their respective shells), and drinks are poured into paper cups.
But what they lack in modernity they more than make up for in graciousness, as evidenced by individuals like manager Alex Pham—a friendly soul who is absolutely gung-ho about answering questions and strives to ensure that each facet of every meal is to your liking.
That level of attentiveness starts from the top down.
“Our policy would be, if you do not like our food, we would not dare to charge you. But if you do, please tell your friends,” Vo said of his heartfelt, word-of-mouth business plan.
Vo added that he’d be willing to prepare as few as a handful of crabs as a special request, even though he typically sells his crabs by the dozen or half-dozen. “We truly believe the customer is the boss,” he said of his desire to please.
The worldly menu reflects the same.
Entrees run the gamut from traditional Vietnamese—including various stir-fried seafood offerings and specialty items like shaking beef—to Texas blue crabs (trucked in daily), Louisiana crawfish (flown in daily), Alaskan snow crab legs and Chesapeake Bay clams.
Although mere miles from two of the area’s most prominent waterways—the mighty Potomac and scenic Lake Anna—Capt. Jack’s actually resides at the end of a dusty, gravel-filled lot (you were expecting, perhaps, sand?).
Not that proximity to water is an issue for the seasoned seafood wranglers within.
“If it’s swimming in the water somewhere … I can usually get it,” pledged co-owner Alexandra Van Cleve, stressing that her family-run business aims for 24-hour turnaround on special orders. And that’s assuming they don’t already have what you’re looking for at this very customer-friendly, seafood shop.
Alexandra runs the combination seafood counter/retail store/carry-out alongside co-owners Shelly Van Cleve (her mother) and Valerie Boyer (her aunt). The retail side features a freezer full of seafood goodies ranging from New Zealand mussels to crawfish or shrimp boudin (seafood sausage) to marinated alligator meat and counters full of assorted Cajun spices, specialty marinades and fish-fry starters.
A quartet of picnic tables parked beneath a big blue awning constitutes the main seating area, but there never seems to be much of a wait since most folks seem content to pick up orders and continue on their merry way.
Alexandra said the majority of their crabs come from the Chesapeake Bay, though she acknowledged that they do bring in crabs from the Gulf of Mexico in winter or by request. Like most other establishments, they tend to sell blue crabs by the dozen, half-bushel and bushel. But Alexandra noted that they’ve been known to steam singles for longtime customers desperate for a quick crab fix.
“Some of our regulars are actually allergic,” she explained. “But they’ll pop a Benadryl, pick a few crabs and have a beer.”
In season, Alexandra said they tend to run through about 10,000 crabs per week—a figure that leaps to roughly 150 to 200 bushels during holiday weekends. This season, hard-shell dozens appear to be going $24 for smalls, $34 for mediums and $44 for larges.
Though they do crabs year-round, these folks are perhaps best known for their 2/4 count (named so because you only get two to four pieces per pound) jumbo prawns—pseudo-shrimp doing a very convincing imitation of full-grown lobsters. These mammoth shellfish—which Alexandra touted as their “most decadent menu item”—are de-veined, cleaned and stuffed with pre-cooked crab meat for expedited home cooking.
Meanwhile, Shelly was quick to point out their latest seafood find, the so-called “Virginia red crabs,” a native species plucked from the icy depths of the continental shelf (about 2,400 feet underwater) and sold by weight (individual animals tend to range from 1 to 3 pounds) rather than volume.
“If you’ve eaten at Red Lobster over the past 10 years, this is the crab they served you,” Shelly said of the commercially popular crabs which are only now being made available to the public. She described the red crab meat as mildly sweet (akin to snow crab legs). Alas, yours truly was never able to crack a red crab for himself (they’re only delivered once per week, and our paths never crossed), but the rest of the menu provided plenty of solace.
The crab-cake sandwich reveals a hefty patty of seasoned crab that eschews extraneous binders in favor of moist, meaty crab parked between a soft roll.
Their signature crab pie—a Virginia’s Finest product, as any on-duty family member will proudly point out—is a seafood lover’s dream of jumbo-lump blue crab meat mixed with sharp cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, then baked into a flaky crust (a crabby-cheesy triumph).
“It’s kind of like crab cake taken to a whole other level,” Alexandra said of their hearty baked good.
Traditional blue crabs arrive with a minimal amount of Old Bay, but plenty of drawn butter (score!). Aside from some missing claws and a few puny specimens, the local crabs delivered on the taste front with their abundant pockets of pearl white flesh, particularly at these budget-friendly prices.
During one visit, staff passed out samples of a crab spice-laced dark chocolate (familiar bitterness, followed by a nice spice hit) the Van Cleve clan is hoping to develop into a brand-name sweet.
Can’t wait to see what they cook up next.
“We put a little bit of the Asian flavor to the Cajun-style,” Vo said of his intercontinental carte. He labeled the Cajun crawfish—which he gleefully billed as “head-sucking, tail-pinching, finger-licking good”—as their main commodity, followed by their signature crab fried rice and wok-tossed shrimp and calamari creations.
Their crawfish are boiled in a blend of Cajun spices (fueled by Old Bay and cayenne pepper) that permeates the jolly red critters and transforms the tender white meat within into veins of zesty flesh. Even more exciting are savory coils of conch (imagine escargot on steroids) grilled-to-order and expertly seasoned beneath a hail of diced scallions, garlic and crushed peanuts. Plunge them into a homemade fish sauce anchored by their mesmerizing ginger-red chile blend for added Asian spice.
Jumbo crabs are as big as advertised, but their meat seems less sweet—could my taste buds be regionally biased?—than their Chesapeake Bay counterparts. Not that I notice much difference after decorating the impressive clumps of meat (yep, these guys are definitely bigger) with squirts of lime-infused vinegar (a welcome change from the plain malt variety) and more of the zippy ginger-chile-fish sauce (so tasty).
An order of crab fried rice—Vo said they pluck inferior-looking specimens from each delivery and harvest the meat themselves for use in this clever stir-fry—yields forkful after forkful of pulled crab meat rolling around with egg, spring onions, garlic and oil-infused grains of rice. Another brilliant sauce of chile-infused soy (the multicolored pods bob like warning buoys in the otherwise murky sauce) turns up the heat as desired.
Something tells me Vo’s not going to have to worry about footing the bill for a free meal anytime soon.
1510 Cherry Hill Road, Dumfries | 703-441-1375 | www.timsrivershore.com
Average Entree $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily
Seconds after sliding a batch of skimpy-looking crabs onto our table, the raven-haired beauty before us pre-emptively apologized for the slim pickings, stating, “It’s been a bad crab season.”
Well played, Mr. Bauckman: dispatching the eye candy to soften the blow.
Perhaps the most visually appealing of all the local crab houses, Tim’s delivers the goods in terms of atmosphere and enjoyment—even if its own suppliers drop the ball more often than not.
The sprawling waterfront complex includes a spacious deck and mini-beach (prime real estate for the bikini-clad sun-worshippers among us), torch-lit tiki bar (boasting nearly four dozen frozen drinks in its cocktail arsenal), well-weathered crab shack (ancient wooden water skis recycled as door frames: check; tables covered in near-faded photos of family, co-workers and regulars: check) and fully operational docks (for those who choose to drop anchor rather than park).
With drink in hand and bracing sun overhead, it’s actually quite easy to imagine you’re just a few sandy steps from the ocean—that is, until a train barrels past and rattles you back to reality.
The restaurant serves all manner of marine life, including assorted seasonal (rockfish, blue crabs) and evergreen (catfish, shrimp) selections. The rest of the menu is rounded out by typical grill fare (steaks), myriad sandwiches (including burgers, pulled pork and chicken) and deep-fried or broiled seafood combos.
One staffer said they purchase crabs both locally and from “down South,” but complained that the crab suppliers were “a little hard to get a hold of” when pressed for additional information. Repeated calls to the restaurant reflected as much, with many workers grousing about irregular deliveries and heightened demand (phone inquires yielded everything from promises of forthcoming shipments to recommendations to call back later in the week).
When they do roll in, Tim’s serves up crabs—“males only,” as one server dutifully pointed out—by the dozen, half-dozen or as part of an all-you-can-eat feast (depending on supply). This season, dozens are running about $28 for smalls, $38 for mediums, $46 for larges and $29.95 per person for the AYCE, which one server said is only available Monday through Thursday (I’ve been quoted as high as $34.95 and heard nothing of any weekend restrictions during previous visits).
At least the kitchen seemed consistent.
A basket of fried pickles summoned chewy coins of briny cucumber just begging to be dipped in the zesty house remoulade. Popcorn shrimp were tasty (crispy coating, fluffy meat) and plentiful. Battered cod bites were even better, revealing nuggets of seasoned fish accompanied by a lemony tartar sauce.
A crab-cake sandwich seemed mostly ordinary (pinkish meat, brown crust; you’ve seen it a million times before). The crab-salad version fared much better, delivering a pleasant mix of chilled meat, crunchy celery and sweet red peppers in every bite.
The crabs we did sample were, on average, smallish but still relatively satisfying. Uneven sizes and absentee claws were probably the biggest cause of concern, but most of my companions dropped the complaints once a fresh drink arrived and they started pulling that familiar blue crab meat from the shells before them. The crabs were always cooked-to-order, but with two functioning kitchens, the wait seemed negligible. Ample stocks of drawn butter, malt vinegar and bonus crab seasoning were also much appreciated.
A homemade mud pie helped quiet any further dissention, tempting even the most diehard dieters with a hot mess of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, crumbled Snickers and streaks of caramel.
“Drive safe,” one server cautioned on our way out the door, a serious caveat considering the treacherous, two-lane road that snakes down from Route 1 (watch the blind turns, hairpin twists and railroad crossing) to the restaurant below. Maybe the suppliers are scared to drive their rigs on in?