Posted On: 02/01/2018
At the shellfish-in-a-bag restaurant, The Mad Crab, you’ll make the biggest mess eating in public since you were a toddler. The good news is you won’t be alone, because the 5,000-square-foot space has been packed with diverse crowds of equally messy seafood lovers since it opened late last summer. The bad news? With plastic cups and plastic bags laden with pungent sauces and boiled shellfish you eat
with plastic-gloved hands while wearing plastic bibs, it’s also an environmentalist’s nightmare.
Mad Crab follows a West Coast trend that large cities like Dallas, Chicago and Toronto have taken to with a vengeance, most with names of agitated crustaceans like Angry Crab, Boiling Crab, Kickin’ Crab, Crazy Crab … You get the idea. The menus of these restaurants are all similar, but they offer nearly endless customizability, and diners everywhere line up to crack shells, suck heads, slurp sauce and otherwise make pigs of themselves.
Here’s how it works: Pick your seafood (whole Dungeness, king or snow crab legs, whole lobster or tail, whole or headless shrimp, crawfish, clams, green or black mussels), add some other stuff (corn cobettes, potatoes or sausage), choose a spice level (none to triple-X hot) and pick your sauce (Cajun, lemon-pepper, garlic or The Whole Sha-Bang – a mixture of all three). It’s all boiled to order and delivered to the table en plastic, a sealed clear bag that keeps everything steaming hot and the butter-rich sauce from congealing. No plates, no utensils save for picks and steel shell crackers, no decorum – just gloves, bibs and lots of napkins.
During the off-season, some seafood is frozen, like the crawfish and crab legs during my visit, but otherwise it’s all fresh – and market price, so your total can climb quickly. There are also combos offering good value. The Mad Combo ($27) comes with a pound of headless shrimp, a pound of crawfish, four pieces of sausage, two cobettes and two potatoes. The best deal is The Angry Combo ($46), which includes all of the above plus a half-pound of snow crab legs and a basket of 10 chicken wings on the side. It’s worthy of sharing.
While anticipating my Angry Combo, with The Whole Sha-Bang sauce (because I couldn’t make up my mind), I had a Styrofoam cup of gumbo, one of the several starters offered (along with oysters, wings and fried calamari). It was all right, not particularity flavorful, but it did contain a few meaty mussels and lots of okra.
Not much later, a server lifted my bag o’ food from a blue, rope-handled plastic bucket and placed it on the table, which was covered with waxed butcher paper. Frankly, it looked as appetizing as a bag of garbage to rummage through. But I strapped on my bib, ready to get primal. Here, I had a decision to make: don the ill-fitting, plastic gloves or dig in barehanded. In the end, it didn’t matter because the comical oversized gloves provided little protection from the pungent, garlic-heavy, buttery sauce, the smell of which permeated everything from hands to hair. (Two days later I was still scrubbing it away and belching up the acrid tang of garlic.)
And yet I found myself digging deeper into the bag, clumsily pawing for potatoes and sausages. It was like I was in one of those sensory awareness exercises where you wear gloves to limit fine motor skills. In a rhythm or frenzy, I tore apart crawfish, splitting their tails to squeeze out the meat before sucking the liqueur from their heads. I bit into hunks of sausage, breaking the skin with a crisp snap before quickly biting into a soft-skinned potato so I could get a mouthful of meat, potato and sauce. After cracking crab legs, I used the plastic pick to unzip the sweet, succulent meat from its spiny home. I peeled juicy shrimp easily and quickly, discarding shells on a growing mound of detritus now taking up my table. Sometimes I dipped meat in the sauce pooling in the bottom of the bag; sometimes I avoided it to focus on the delicate snow crab I had spent so much time extracting.
You know that feeling after an extravagant meal when you look down in awe at the mess before you and wonder what just happened? Then all you want is for it to go away? Thankfully, there was a hand-washing station outside the bathroom to help rinse away any guilt I may have acquired during my rapacious feast. By the time I returned to the table, all evidence had been folded into the butcher paper – beer bottles and all – and scurried away.
The Mad Crab is a fun place to eat with a bunch of friends. Really, who doesn’t like an adventure, especially if it involves getting messy together? I would not, however, suggest it as a first date, unless you’re screening for particular qualities. It’s also a concept that will either disgust or delight, depending on your views of gluttony, plastic waste, seafood sustainability and unadulterated sloppiness. But when you’re elbow-deep in it all, it’s best to just embrace the mess.
AT A GLANCE
The Mad Crab, 8080 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.801.8698, Facebook: The Mad Crab STL
Don’t Miss Dishes
Any seafood you like, but combos offer the best selection – Mad Combo ($27) or Angry Combo ($46).
Spacious with a nautical decor, 10 TVs and an atmosphere of good cheer and serious eating.
Seafood is market priced
Mon. to Fri. – 3 to 11 p.m.; Sat. – Noon to 11 p.m.; Sun. – Noon to 10 p.m.
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