We hurried down a dark and empty Newton street on a dark and empty Sunday night, expecting a dark and empty restaurant. We passed one establishment — Newton Soccer Club Members Only — then another, Order Sons of Italy in America, a private lodge with two small, forbidding windows. Even the blustery weather didn’t seem to want us.
Then we stepped into Shaking Crab. In an instant, we found ourselves in something like a New Orleans house party, bantering with our bartender, our servers, our fellow diners, and soon drinking rum punch swimming with Swedish fish and feasting on piles of fabulously fiery crabs to the thump of electro-jazz-disco. The group next to us, visiting for the fifth time, had never heard of “Viet Cajun”-style shellfish before the place opened in December. Now they were coming every week.
And lucky for them, lucky for all, another crab shack opened in Packard’s Corner in January. Called Holly Crab, it’s equally thronged. You have every right to suddenly fear for the staid lobster houses of New England.
Or, as a diner at Shaking Crab put it: “Try this once and you never go back.”
Both crab shack owners identify the Boiling Crab, a popular chain started in 2004 in San Jose, Calif., as the source of their inspiration and business model. Viet-Cajun restaurants — where shellfish is sauced with a blistering combination of butter, cayenne, and aromatics — trace back to Vietnamese resettlement along the Gulf Coast after 1975 and the fall of Saigon, first surfaced in the strip malls of Houston in the early 2000s, and have spawned imitators throughout the West, Southwest, and beyond. (Brother’s Crawfish, which opened in Dorchester in 2010, was probably the first local entrant.)
Ryan Kim, owner of Holly Crab, originally from Korea, is not surprised that both of Boston’s new crab establishments have been overrun in the first weeks. “People were ready for it,” he says, adding: “When Asian friends would go to California, they always stopped for boil.” Now those friends say there’s no reason to return to California for boil. It’s in their backyard.
Look through the window of Holly Crab and you see primal pleasure in action. Seafood, sold by the pound, arrives table-center, jumbled in plastic bags and submerged in a deep red wash of garlic, butter, cayenne, lemon, secret Cajun seasoning. Diners wear plastic gloves. Some brandish stainless steel instruments as if a congress of surgeons were passing through. Others rely exclusively on fingers and fists. Built into the communal act of eating crabs is slow, ultra-focused, fine-motor labor — a primordial combination of cracking, picking, sucking, slurping, digging, and finally devouring. In short, making one unholy mess.
Not to be underestimated: how a crab shack effectively disables your cellphone, considering your hands are smeared with addictive sauce and seafood. A vibe of engaged concentration, of undistracted liberation, hangs in the air, swelling the sensation you’re participating not only in dinner but in some kind of high mass conducted by cavemen.
Kim’s restaurant, occupying the space of a former Turkish restaurant, has no awning, no liquor license, and on a recent Saturday, not many crabs. Each of these problems, he says, will soon be fixed: On Monday, a cast of crabs was scheduled to land, including Dungeness. I made note.
The mere smell of a crab shack is enough to weaken one’s knees. Upon entry, Holly Crab’s air was palpably dense with garlic, butter, cayenne, and ocean. Clear, single-filament bulbs, which also surfaced at Shaking Crab, dangled across the otherwise spare space, an apparent reference to the low light of Louisiana crab dives.
The wait for a table ran more than an hour. Before my party left to bide time over a drink, we spied a group of young men immersed in the act of crab picking. They wore Sox T-shirts, spectacular neck and arm tattoos, and baseball caps that sat high and askew. Returning more than an hour later, we found these same men at their same table working on their same crabs in a state of continued intense deliberation.
One has a choice of spice level at either place, and it’s important to select shellfish carefully. High cost does not always translate to highest quality. The difference between live and frozen can be dramatic. For example, the King crab from Alaska, though meaty enough, is no match for live Dungeness or lobster, even if they’re equally pricey. The small clams and large shrimp — head on at Shaking, head off at Holly — are half the price and perfectly cooked, and command via their individual personalities. Crawfish, not yet in season, should be avoided until they’re arriving “live” rather than “refreshed.”
The lobster at Holly Crab is a revelation. Especially when shared by a group, running counter to old Yankee etiquette, where what’s yours is yours. We submitted our 2-pounder to the kibbutz treatment and everyone felt lifted by the collective experience and taste. Lush, sweet lobster meat married to Cajun/Vietnamese firepower feels like tradition in the making.
In a nod to his native country, Kim offers Korean-style rice balls. They’re made of a sticky, short-grain variety, laced with sesame and nori. Back home they’re eaten with spicy chicken feet — a delicacy — and here the balls fulfill a similar craving for both a carb and a sop for the peppery broth left behind.
If Holly Crab projects a modern urban aesthetic, Shaking Crab captures a bit of jangly Southern funk on that quiet Newton street. The location, formerly an Italian restaurant, has barely been touched. This includes velvety seagull wallpaper in the bathroom and brick arches through which pizza must have once been passed.
Owner Kevin Duong, American by way of China and Vietnam, fell hard for crab boil growing up in San Jose. As students at University of California, Riverside, he and his friends couldn’t afford crab, so they settled on shrimp. In that spirit he’s not only made Shaking Crab’s shrimp low-priced at $11 a pound — “So you don’t have to spend $40 for dinner,” he says — but thoroughly tasty. The Spaniard at our table, wielding deep shellfish know-how, concluded these shrimp were as fine as any he’d eaten anywhere.
Their house sauce, called Shakin’, may not have the blow-your-head-off heat of Holly Crab’s mystery Holly X sauce, yet still manages a luscious balance of fire, fat, and acid. When we found Shaking Crab was also out of the elusive Dungeness, we turned to blue and snow crabs and were happy for it.
It was the owner, we found out later, who worked the bar, mixing those crazy sweet drinks. One arrived in a fish bowl containing liquid the color of antifreeze and more Swedish fish. Even if you stick with beer, which you should, these giddy concoctions served in a repurposed Italian restaurant to a remarkably diverse clientele eating food that is truly “New American” only ratchets up the sense you’re encountering a fresh kind of Boston.
Of course I returned to Holly Crab on Monday for the Dungeness. I got so caught up eating it, I lost track of time and earned myself a parking ticket. With crab that fine, you don’t care.
1098 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-487-5957, www.thehollycrab.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $6-$10. Clams and shrimp $13 per pound. Crabs and lobster $19-$32 per pound (market price).
Hours 5-11 p.m.
Noise level Festive and devotional
What to order Rice balls, shrimp, clams, any live shellfish: especially Dungeness and lobster, all in house Holly Crab sauce.
203 Adams St., Newton, 617-795-1630, www.shakingcrabnewton.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $5-$8. Clams $10 per pound. Shrimp $11 per pound. Crabs $10-$33 per pound (market price).
Hours Mon-Fri 5-11 p.m., Sat-Sun noon-11 p.m.
Noise level Spirited and funky
What to order Shrimp, clams, blue and Dungeness crabs, all in house Shakin’ sauce.
Ted Weesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.