Capitalizing on Lowry’s Escape Claws
by Warren Rojas, Photography by Kate Bohler
Donald and Leslie Lowry aren’t ones to allow mere geographic boundaries to pigeonhole their diets or curtail their joie de vivre.
The duo, both born and bred in western Loudoun County, started down the road to restaurateuring via the humble farm stand/seafood market they put together over a decade ago. That pop-up pursuit helped them build a cult following that, in turn, made it possible for them to sweep into the ramshackle Planet Wayside (closed in 2006) and transform it into their spiffy little crab shack.
The spacious patio does its best impression of a seaside repose, featuring rows of umbrella covered picnic tables sprinkled across a pebble covered “beach.” The interior is divided between a carry-out counter and full-service restaurant, the latter being plastered in “I Love Lucy” memorabilia and tongue-in-cheek musings—“Prices subject to change according to customer’s attitude”; “Suppose we refund your money, send you another one without charge, close the store and have the manager shot … WOULD THAT BE SATISFACTORY?”—about the service industry. Meanwhile, each table is outfitted for optimum pickin’, the condiment caddies presciently preloaded with cocktail sauce, ketchup, hot sauce, malt vinegar, cider vinegar and hand sanitizer (great call).
The restaurant seems fairly popular with all age groups, but extended families, in particular, seem to appreciate having a place to kick back with their brood—though, often to mixed effect.
I watched one little girl bolt upright in her high chair, her eyes wide as pie plates and mouth agape, her gaze locked on the server as she rounded the corner from the modest kitchen to the L-shaped main dining room, a tray of freshly steamed and spiced blue crabs jutting out in front of her. As the server deposited them at the table, the elated tot burst into applause, chanting, “Yay! Our food!” much to her parents delight.
Another night, the arrival of the mountain of rust-colored crustaceans prompted an obviously annoyed pater familias to pawn of a skittish kid on his in-laws. “James, could you drag her over to your table? She’s afraid of the crabs,” the quick-thinking dad, a freshly cracked crab leg locked firmly in his grip, petitioned some family members after his little one burst into tears after coming face to face with the ocean crawlers.
In case you were wondering, all the blue crabs paraded about the premises—sold by the dozen or half-dozen to on-site eaters, by the bushel and half-bushel for carry-out customers—are plucked directly from the Chesapeake Bay. The remainder of the carte comes from all over, ranging from the Northern Neck (oysters, flounder) to Texas (gulf shrimp) to as far away as Alaska (king and snow crab legs). The seafood counter keeps customers in fresh fish, including wild-caught salmon, tuna, tilapia and cod.
According to Leslie the steamed and spiced blue crabs—medium to jumbo—remain the clear favorite, but seasonal specials (oyster stew, sautéed sea scallops) do manage to pull ahead from time to time.
And even if you don’t opt for the full-on, mallet-swinging, meat-extracting, lung-tossing experience, the kitchen boasts plenty of alternative crab delivery vehicles.
Some, quite naturally, are better than others.
The signature crab balls were a big hit, delivering a quartet of half dollar-sized, deep-fried fritters sporting savory shredded crabmeat shielded by a crunchy crust. Served still steamy warm inside, these tasty treats were quickly cooled off with a squirt of tangy tartar sauce.
The house-made crab dip, on the other hand, seemed to lack confidence in the main attraction. While there’s clearly pulled crabmeat swimming around in the extra chunky white mass, all you really taste is cream cheese, horseradish and Old Bay.
An overly ambitious burger-crab cake combo, a.k.a. Tyler’s Twosome, unfortunately drops the ball on both counts. The quarter-pound crab cake, light on seasoning but generous with the jumbo lump meat, is overwhelmed by the much heartier burger (nicely grilled beef) and overly onioned dressing. A supporting cast of crisp lettuce, lush tomato and raw red onions sync up perfectly with the burger but provide little support for the pushed-to-the-sidelines crab.
Would that I had tried the house-made crab chips with the tragic twosome. The thick-cut spuds are fried to a bubbly, crinkly finish and liberally seasoned with zesty crab seasoning, producing mouthwatering snacks ideal for retrieving milder seafood spreads or salvaging tragically bland sammies.
“There. Now he belongs to the clean plate club,” a helpful uncle declared after Hoovering up the last remaining crab chips off his carbo-loaded nephew’s plate.
An order of steamed oysters truly hit the spot. The platter presented to us featured over a dozen craggy critters—some of the bulkier shells actually turned out to be clusters of interdependent bivalves—begging to be pried open with a quick twist of a shucking knife. The oysters were fairly meaty and perfectly tender, with liquor-drenched specimens speaking plainly of the sea (salty, tangy rush) while those relegated to a soak in drawn butter drank up their fate with gusto.
My miniature crock of New England clam chowder was delicious but far too fleeting. The seafood staple, though heavy on the cream, is well populated by tender potatoes, smoky bacon and chewy minced clams.
Wild-caught salmon shines in all its good-fat, omega-3-rich glory, the tremendously tender fish brought to bear in a bath of butter, lemon and liberal dusting of cracked black pepper.
Need some turf to balance out all this surf?
Look no further than the fabulous Southern fried chicken, which is spot-breaded and fried to order for each patron. The resulting bird is just plain great—no secret brines or intricate seasonings required—revealing hot, juicy, lightly breaded bird at its finest. The golden crust relayed an audible crunch while the meat spilled forth dribble-down-your-chin juices.
Those used to having their local crab house call it quits toward the end of summer will be pleased to know that Lowry’s usually lingers on till well into the winter. Leslie, in fact, looks forward to the end of each season because she knows that’s when the chubbiest, scrappiest crabs that enjoyed their pick of the bottom-of-the-bay nutrient buffet all summer long finally roll in.
“The fat fall crab season is approaching, and crabs will be at their peak through November,” she assures us.
Sounds like Christmas might come early this year.
Lowry’s Crab Shack
420 W. Colonial Highway, Hamilton; 703-338-2348; (www.lowrysfarmmarket.com)
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday.
Prices: Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).