We looked all over the DMV for great takes on soft-shell crab, and here’s what we found.
“I love crabs, but they’re a lot of work,” Ria Montes says.
“I always tell people to think of it as a crunchy crab with all the flavor and zero effort,” she says.
For the uninitiated, a soft shell is a blue crab that molted its shells, temporarily leaving it with a new, tender shell underneath. For a brief window, that parchment paper-thin carapace is completely edible. Chefs love to deep fry or sauté them, bolstering their crackly texture while preserving the sweet, sea-kissed meat hiding inside.
For Montes, the arrival of soft shells in late April or the beginning of May means spring is in full swing. In keeping with the restaurant’s regionally focused ethos, she waits until she can source them from the Chesapeake, even though soft shells harvested in Southern states and elsewhere are available earlier in the year. The crabs show up at the restaurant still alive, packed in glistening wet seaweed. Then comes the hard part.
“I feel really bad for all the cooks who have little to no experience, because I have to show them how to clean the soft shells,” she says. “I tell them to say a little prayer and then just get it over with. Basically, you cut the face off first with kitchen scissors and that kills them. Then you lift the top shell and remove the gills.”
She’s always thinking of new ways to prepare the beloved crustaceans. For this season, she’s envisioning a play on Chinese salt and pepper shrimp. The crabs get a quick brine in salt, sugar and Shaoxing rice wine before they’re dusted with cornmeal, flash fried, seasoned with more salt and pepper and served with crab fried rice. She calls it a “crab extravaganza.”
No matter what you call it, the dish is a jubilant celebration of spring in the Mid-Atlantic and the beauty of the Bay.
Learn more about Montes and some of her featured dishes on Instagram @ria_paz.
8 Crabby Spots to Visit
With soft shell season hitting hard, make a point to stop by these eight clawesome spots.
1310 Kitchen & Bar
Chef Jenn Crovato lets ingredients speak for themselves in her local-centric, seasonally minded dishes, like her simply sautéed soft shell paired with summery corn and tomato salad. 1310 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC; 1310kitchendc.com // @1310kitchenandbar
All Set Restaurant & Bar
Meet the BLTSS: a brioche bun packed with pecan-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, tempura fried soft shell and a slathering of Old Bay tartar sauce, plus a side of Old Bay dusted fries. 8630 Fenton St. Silver Spring, MD; allsetrestaurant.com // @allsetdtss
Available in limited numbers daily, their habit-forming, chicken-fried soft-shell crab sandwich on a sesame seed bun comes topped with brown butter tartar sauce, shredded lettuce, tomato and pickles. 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, DC; fightclubdc.com // @fightclubdc
Stop by for Señor Fukushima — the fun-vibes-only wafu Mexican pop-up running daily through the summer — to indulge in golden fried soft shell nestled in Veracruz sauce crafted from stewed tomatoes, olives and capers. 805 V St. NW, DC; haikandc.com // @haikandc
Singapore’s iconic chili crab dish is reimagined as deep fried soft shell with spicy-sweet-sour tomato-centric sauce and puffy mantou buns. 1702 Galleria at Tysons, McLean, VA; jiwasingapura.com // @jiwasingapura
Cornmeal crusted soft shell from executive chef Benjamin Lambert is surrounded by umami galore: fire-roasted cherry tomatoes, slips of pancetta, black olive tapenade and unctuous, crab-boosted tonnato sauce. 1199 H St. NW, DC; modenadc.com // @modenadc
Soaked in seasoned buttermilk, dredged in cornmeal and flour and fried golden, soft-shell crab prepared by executive chef Colin McClimans arrives with a lemony, caper punctuated celeriac slaw and a drizzling of smokey, spicy chili oil. 1337 11th St. NW, DC; ninamaydc.com // @ninamay_dc
Tempura battered and flash fried, this delicately crispy soft shell gets a lift from charred scallions, cilantro and tongue-tingling chili sauce. 2100 2nd St. SW, DC; thepointdc.com // @thepointdc
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