Efficient Staff, updated décor
By Michael Bauer
CHRONICLE FOOD EDITOR
Friday, February 12, 1999
For the best crab in the city, there’s one place to go: Thanh Long. Since 1971 this Vietnamese restaurant has served thousands of crabs to happy hordes that willingly wait for their turn to dig into roast, drunken or tamarind crab.
Developed by the An family, the crab empire has expanded to Crustacean on Polk and California streets and to no another critically popular branch in Beverly Hills. Last year the family turned its attention to the original venue – at 46th Avenue and Judah Street, just about as far as you can go before you drop into the ocean – by redecorating and expanding the interior from 49 to 99 seats.
The bare look has been transformed with track lighting, white tablecloths and a pastoral scene of flowering branches and mountains on two walls. The thick carpet, upholstered banquettes and wood bar have done a lot to elevate the ambience, along with the pastel vests worn by the well-trained staff.
The food is not cheap – a crab on a recent evening cost $28.95 – but it was among the sweetest meat I’ve tasted. And that’s the primary reason people travel from all over the Bay Area to go there.
At every table you’ll see diners armed with nutcrackers and outfitted with plastic bibs and a half dozen large paper napkins as backup to the cloth one. The mood is light as they break off the first leg. But it always happens: A hush quickly falls over the table as everyone begins to crack, dig and eat. You may hear only grunts and sighs of pleasure, but his is a noisy crowd with tables packed in tight.
The restaurant draws an ethnically diverse crowd, which is brought together for the cultlike ritual of cracking, picking and eating crab.
It’s also practically a ritual to order Helene An’s garlic noodles ($6.95), which are so prized that they are prepared in a separate kitchen; only the family knows the recipe. The spaghetti is thick with chunks of garlic, making a pleasant foil to the crab.
While you may wait a few minutes even with a reservation, the staff eases the tension by its efficiency and pleasant attitude. Servers are quick bringing water and removing the bowls for the shells.
Most people are so intent on the crab ritual that they overlook other items on the long menu. A great alternative is the sea bass with citrus ($16.95), a huge chunk of flaky white grilled fish that’s topped with white and red pickled onions and surrounded by a sweet and sour sauce. Other main courses include the Royal tiger prawns (market price) served with garlic noodles; spicy ginger calamari ($9.75), with pineapple and tomatoes; and Saigon beef ($14.50), a roulade of filet mignon with pancetta and onions.
One of the most delicious starters is the lemongrass beef ($6.25), thin slices of tender charbroiled beef that is full of flavor.
For dessert, skip the bread pudding ($6.50), which looked like a slice of Wonder bread with off-tasting bananas, although the hazelnut ice cream alongside it was delicious. The most refreshing option is the cream sorbet ($4.50) made from orange or lemon.
If you go the full route – wine, appetizers, crab and dessert – you’ll spend more than $50 a person, but a look at the animated crowd and you’ll see that the crab alone is worth the price of admission.