Dungeness crab in the city, by the bay

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Dungeness crab season is on. It was delayed twice in the Pacific Northwest because the crabs there weren’t big enough, but not here in the Bay Area. What my companions and I got a few weeks ago were two-pound crabs, roughly one-fourth of which were meat, tossed in garlic and butter to perfection. More on that in a second.

First, what defines good crab? It has to be fresh. Its flesh should be tender and sweet, qualities that are also defining characteristics of Dungeness crab. You also want the flesh to be firm, somewhat springy, and easily pulled off from the shell. If the meat sticks to the shell and if the shell is too hard, the crab is old. Dungeness crab is best enjoyed steamed, then tossed in garlic, butter, salt and pepper, to maximally preserve the sweetness of its meat. It’s not hard to turn a good fresh crab into a good cooked crab, but it can be messy to cook, eat and clean up afterward. So if you dislike cleaning as much as I do, the place to satisfy your Dungeness craving is Thanh Long in San Francisco.

The restaurant is three blocks away from the waterfront in the Sunset District. Be sure to make a reservation because the line gets long, and waiting outside in a cold foggy evening while entranced by the smell of butter and garlic is torture. Even with a reservation, it still takes roughly 30 minutes to be seated. And forget about sending half of your party to the restaurant first to place an order. The restaurant is so packed that it refuses to seat you unless the whole party is there.

The wait is the best time to study the menu. Once you’re seated, you should know immediately what to order, given that Thanh Long is known for its crab: the roast crab (one whole Dungeness “roasted with An’s garlic sauce and secret spices”) and the garlic noodle (noodle tossed in, you guessed it, An’s “garlic sauce and secret spices”). The garlic noodle is a good starch base to give you the pretense of a healthful, balanced meal. There are other crab options on the menu for the same price, such as drunken crab (whole Dungeness simmered in Chardonnay, sake and brandy, seasoned with scallions, chives and black pepper) and tamarind crab (whole Dungeness simmered in a tomato and tamarind melange, seasoned with dill and green onions and flambeed with cognac), but fresh crab is best when it’s simple. Garlic, butter, salt and pepper bring out the crab’s flavors more than any other combination. In fact, I found the Drunken Crab lackluster.IMG_0046-1-225x300

Fried calamari and the broiled New Zealand green-lipped mussels are sensible choices to start off the meal before cracking crabs. The former is served with superb grilled green onion bulbs while the latter, drowned in a sweet Asian pesto, is already cut so that it can easily slide off the shell onto a baguette crostini.

After we ooh-ed and ah-ed and wiped the appetizer plates clean, the waiter arrived with big plastic bibs and carefully put them on everyone — one of those moments that justifies eating crab at a restaurant instead of eating crabs at home. The conversation stalled when the crabs came, as everyone became focused on taking every last piece of meat out of those legs. These crabs were so young that some of the leg shells could be broken by hand. Several bowls were placed and replaced for the crab shells.

Once we were done, we were also given hot wet towels to clean our hands. This is not the ideal first-date dinner because you just have to get downright messy. But who knows, that might be the perfect first date for some.

Thanh Long is located at 4101 Judah St. in San Francisco. For reservations, call (415) 665-1146.