Here’s a toast to the most festive season in this part of the world. It’s not the one you are thinking of. We’re talking about Dungeness crab season. The crab boats are in, the stores are piled high with crab, and it’s time for family, friends, wine and French bread.
Never mind anything else you heard, disregard the Olympian pronouncements of the celebrity chefs. Dungeness crab is San Francisco’s signature dish. “That’s for sure,” said Narsai David, an authority on Bay Area food. “I like it for its complexity of flavors and texture. I love the softshell crabs you get in the East, but this … you can’t beat it.”
Herb Caen always said that the quintessential San Francisco meal was fresh cracked Dungeness crab, a loaf of late-bake Larraburu French bread and a glass of dry white wine.
Caen and Larraburu are gone now, off into legend, but the crab is still here, maybe better than ever. “No matter where you go, from Miami to king crab from Alaska, there is not better crab than from the city,” said Jack McLaughlin, who has a catering business in Los Angeles. “Not even close.
“I catered a party for Steven Spielberg in L.A.,” McLaughlin said, “and he ordered stone crab shipped in from Miami. It came with a dipping sauce and it sucked. I told him, ‘You want some crab? I’ll get you some shipped down from the city. It’s so good, you won’t have to ruin it with some dipping sauce.’ ”
McLaughlin, a true native, refers to San Francisco as “the city” even in the heart of the Los Angeles metropolis.
Though Dungeness crab can be found all the way south to Morro Bay and north to Seattle, local chauvinists claim that the best Dungeness is found in the waters between Point Reyes and the San Mateo County coast. Gigi Fiorucci, who runs Sotto Mare (“under the sea” in Italian) is convinced that’s true.
Fresh crab is found in supermarkets, or even at touristy crab stands at Fisherman’s Wharf. But purists say the way to buy crab is fresh off the boat, at Alioto-Lazio Fish on Jefferson Street, where three sisters, all descendants of 19th century fishing families, sell crabs every day. Market price: $5.50 a pound live, $6 cooked. “The demand is fabulous,” said Angel Cincotta, one of the owners. “The crab is super. So good.”
Italians have a soft spot for crab – it is deep in their local culture. For years, most of the crab boats were Italian, sailing out to sea before dawn from San Francisco, Sausalito and Half Moon Bay. The old fishermen, mending their nets on the sidewalk, were among the symbols of the city.
The Italians usually prefer live crab, cooked in boiling water for 20 or 3o minutes, and then put in ice to stop the cooking, cracked and served with special sauce on the side. Every old family had their own sauce handed down from some old country ancestor.
David, who is Assyrian, likes Dungeness crab at Christmas, served with his own sauce, including mayonnaise, a teaspoon of steak sauce and a secret ingredient: a teaspoon of single malt whisky.
Crab is multicultural. The Chinese, also a famous fishing people, prepare it a little differently, cooking it, cleaning it, taking it apart and serving it fried with special spices. There is a place in Sausalito that serves a delicious dish they call crispy crab.
There are also Vietnamese and Japanese crab dishes, each different. Crab – mostly soft shell – is used in Southern cooking as well.
There are crab legends: Old settlers tell you that San Francisco bars used to serve free crab cioppino every Friday night. Even older settlers claim that crab Louis was invented in San Francisco just over a century ago.
They say the bravest human in history was the one who ate the first crab, and it is still daunting to confront a live, angry, snapping crab, fresh out of the ocean. “I tried to cook a live crab once,” wrote Jennifer Duhon on a Facebook post. “I made the mistake of looking into its eyes.”