Down N Dirty Seafood Boil – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Down N Dirty Seafood Boil on Fourth Street in Albuquerque

Seafood boil in the Duke City!  If the notion conjures visions of heading to Tingley Beach and embarking on an unappetizing repast of catfish, trout and silvery minnows boiled together in a large pot of green chile seasoned water, you’re in for a treat.  As of September, 2013, it’s possible for expatriates from any of America’s coastal regions to indulge in authentic seafood boil…and it’s very good.  

If you hadn’t heard about Down N Dirty Seafood Boil, it’s because Albuquerque’s very first seafood boil restaurant launched to very little fanfare.  The event should have been celebrated with ceremonial splendor and rejoicing.  Think about it.  Among the dozens of  restaurant openings in the Duke City every year, very few actually serve an untapped market.  Even fewer fill a real niche and offer a product unique to the marketplace, something that can’t be found anywhere else in the area.

The homey interior of Down N’ Dirty Seafood Boil

Expats who’ve lived along coastal waters know of what I speak.  As they read this, they may even be experiencing involuntary salivation at their memories of seafood boils in their past and the prospect of recreating that experience within easy driving distance.   Others not fortunate enough to  have ever experienced an authentic seafood boil may be scratching their heads and wondering just what a seafood boil is and why the launch of the Down N Dirty (no double-entendre intended) Seafood Boil is such a milestone event.

A seafood boil is, first and foremost, a social event, a gathering of friends and family to celebrate and luxuriate in succulent shellfish.  In coastal areas, seafood boils are held on Memorial day to herald the start of summer and they’re held on Labor Day to wish summer a fond farewell.  Optimally, they’re held on the beach where the heady aroma of briny seawater mingles with the smoke from the fire surrounding a large cauldron or stockpot of boiling water (or beer) in which the bounty of the sea is prepared. 

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Lobsters and crabs in tanks

Regional variations not only dictate what shellfish is prepared, but the spices and nuances that give that region its culinary personality. The seafood of choices in New England are clams and oysters served with Portuguese sausage.  In Georgia and in the “Low Country” of South Carolina, it’s shrimp and smoked sausage while Louisiana seafood lovers prefer the triumvirate of crabs, crawfish and andouille sausage.  Blue crab, Chincoteague oysters and clams are all the rage along the estuaries of Chesapeake Bay.

There is no one standard “recipe” for a seafood boil.  Chefs and cooks have freelanced for generations, tweaking local variations with a pinch of this or a dash of that but never deviating too far from tradition.  At its basics, a seafood boil is little more than seafood, water (or beer) and spices.  The seafood is typically boiled whole and if you’re fortunate enough to experience it along the coast, extricated from the net or trap and tossed directly into a boiling pot.  There is nothing like the just-caught flavors and brininess of fresh seafood!

Scallops, Potatoes, Corn and Andouille Sausage

Obviously, the Duke City and landlocked New Mexico are at a disadvantage when it comes to just-caught, fresh-off-the-boat seafood, but modern transportation has made next day delivery of fresh seafood a reality.  The other elements–foamy waves crashing along the beach, pristine sands as fine as talcum, marine layers of soupy fog in the morning–we’ll just have to imagine.  Though it does sport a thematic seaside decor, stepping into the Down N Dirty Seafood Boil restaurant on Fourth Street won’t transport you back to the coast.  The seafood boil just might!

The menu invites you to “get dirty by the pound” offering at market price all the seafood it takes to sate expats from coast to coast.  Blue crab, clams, mussels, crawfish, scallops, shrimp, rock shrimp, Dungeness crab, snow crab legs, Alaskan king crab legs, crab claws and even lobster are available.  While you’re free to mix and match to your heart’s content, it’s got to be in full pound increments.  You can’t, for example, order a quarter pound of rock shrimp, a half pound of crab claws and three-quarter pounds of mussels.

Rock Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn on the Cob

Rock Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn on the Cob

After you’ve selected your seafood of choice, you’ll be asked to pick a spice flavor and degree of spiciness.  The spice accents include garlic butter, lemon pepper, Cajun and “Down N Dirty” if you want it all.  Spice levels range from none (garlic butter) to mild, medium and hot.  Your server will explain the process in as much detail as you need.  After your inaugural visit you’ll have the routine down pat. 

It wouldn’t be a seafood boil without the accompaniments which luxuriate in the fragrant stew of spices and herbs along with the seafood.  Popular favorites include potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage and Andouille sausage.  Down N Dirty will also fry up some of your favorites: chicken tenders, fish and chips, shrimp, catfish, calamari, soft shell crab and oysters, but let’s face it, you can get fried foods just about anywhere. 

Alaskan King Crab Legs, potatoes and corn

Alaskan King Crab Legs, potatoes and corn

There are a couple of cautionary statements you should heed when partaking in a seafood boil: (1) it can get pretty messy as in buttery liquids running down your chin onto your shirt; and (2) you’ll want to use the bib provided by your server to protect that shirt.  Better yet would be cutting a hole in a trash bag and putting your head through it.  That would be fitting because the seafood itself is served in a clear trash bag (which really should be called “treasure bags” considering what they hold).  Make that two trash bags (double-bagging).  The inner bag is tied at the top.  You’ll have to untie it then fashion it into a makeshift bowl before you can indulge in your seafood fantasy. 

2 November 2013: While the seafood options with a carapace (an exoskeleton) are tempting, if your hunger won’t wait or, like me, you lack the manual dexterity to safely extricate the tender seafood from its craggy shell, you’ll opt for seafood sans shell.  Scallops, the pearlescent beauties with a sweet flavor are a perfect choice.  Because scallops are so delicate in flavor, you won’t want to overwhelm them with an assertive spice.  The Down N Dirty spice, which can be made “mild” is perfect for scallops.  The reddish, stewy liquid in which the scallops are served is rich and buttery with minced garlic and spices swimming around. 

Two-pound lobster with potatoes and corn-on-the-cob

Two-pound lobster with potatoes and corn-on-the-cob

8 November 2013: Conventional thought is that most seafood boil seasoning mixtures come from a can, box, packet or decanter of some sort.  There’s absolutely no shame in using Old Bay, Tony Chachere’s or Paul Prudhomme’s seasonings, all of which are good.  It’s quite likely the good folks at Down N Dirty start with one of these pre-packaged mixes then “doctor” them to their liking, but they won’t reveal their “secret recipes’ to anyone.  Who needs to know what’s in the seasoning as long as they enhance the flavor of the seafood.  These seasonings do.  The Cajun seasonings on a pound of rock shrimp, for example, brought me back to seafood boils of yore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

The accompaniment options are worthy of sharing trash bag space with the seafood. The thin-skinned new potatoes are boiled to perfection and soak up the buttery-garlicky mix.  The corn-on-the-cob is sweet and succulent, perhaps the messiest component of the boil because it’s hand-held.  At the opposite spectrum of the sweet, briny seafood is the Andouille sausage, a coarse, smoky and nicely spiced sausage.  The only thing missing is a baguette which would be perfect for sopping up any remaining liquid.  Alas, the owners don’t want diners to fill up on bread.  The menu also offers about a dozen and a half drinks by the can as well as bottled drinks.  If you’ve ever looked inside the tubing of a fountain drink machine, you’ll be grateful. 

Bread, a relatively new offering at Down N’ Dirty

11 November 2013: While the boiled seafood travels well, the fried clams do not.  Instead of the plump, sweet and miraculously delicious whole bellied clams I had fallen in love with during the two years I lived in Massachusetts, the fried clams at Down N Dirty are of Howard Johnson’s quality.  That is, they’re passable (barely) in New Mexico, but wouldn’t pass muster in New England.  Experience has taught me that not even in San Diego and Las Vegas are excellent fried clams to be found.

The Down N Dirty Seafood Boil is located at the former site of several failed restaurants.  There are enough expats from coastal regions and enough adventurous seafood lovers to make it a dining destination where they can make it a celebration of the seafood boil tradition as American as New Mexico’s red and green chile.

Down N Dirty Seafood Boil
6100 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-0595
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2015
1st VISIT: 2 November 2013
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Scallops, Alaskan King Crabs, Rock Shrimp, Potatoes, Corn on the Cob, Andouille Sausage, Lobster, Cherry Pepsi

Down N Dirty Seafood Boil on Urbanspoon

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar – Monterey, California

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar in the Cannery Row area of Monterey, California

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem,
a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone,
a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
~
John Steinbeck
Cannery Row, 1945

During basic military training in the Air Force, several of us who could speak multiple languages were asked to take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), the test the military services use to measure aptitude to learn a foreign language.  Fewer than five percent of people who take (or retake) the DLAB pass it.  Somehow I managed a high score and was extended an opportunity to attend the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey.   My response, one borne of ignorance and stupidity, was “I don’t want to go to Mexico.”  It had not dawned on me that the Monterey being offered was in California. 

Over the years, I’ve revisited my decision frequently.  On one hand, the Air Force might have decided to have me learn Arabic or Iranian then stationed me on a remote mountaintop to listen to and decipher chatter.  On the other, the year or so spent in Monterey would have been glorious (other than the hours of poring over language tapes and books).  Every ten years or so, I manage to visit Monterey where I once again ponder the obtuse decisions of my youth.  It usually results in me thinking that the time spent in Monterey would have been worth the hazards and remoteness of an assignment as a cryptology linguist.

Outdoor patio at Schooners

Monterey, California in 1977 when I would have attended the Defense Language Institute is not the Monterey of 1945 when Steinbeck wrote his novel and if anything, it’s changed significantly since 1977.  The Monterey of Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row was set during the Great Depression when sardine fishing created a boom economy in the village.  Cannery Row is the living backdrop for the book, a unique neighborhood of fish packing plants, bordellos, and flophouses.  The novel made Cannery Row the most famous street in America.

Today Cannery Row is among the most popular vacation destinations on California’s magnificent central coast with many of the city’s very best attractions, hotels, dining establishments, shopping and nightlife available in the area.  Sardine fishing has made a resurgence in recent years, with sardine boats swaying on anchor next to vessels that troll for tuna and whale sighting charter boats.  Monterey has become an epicenter of the sustainable fishing movement.  Then there’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the very best of its kind in the world.

Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake: Corn and Avocado Salad, Citrus Vinaigrette

The restaurant landscape in the Cannery Row district is a popular draw, though my friend Sandy is of the opinion that most of its eateries are touristy and commercial.  Sure enough, among the several dozen restaurants in the area are such national chains as Johnny Rockets, Dippin’ Dots, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (the first one in America, by the way).  Sadly, but not surprisingly, those restaurants are packed (sardine tight, you might say).   Savvy diners visit the fine dining and seafood establishments on Cannery Row for a more authentic, more delicious dining experience.

One of the best seaside restaurants both for ocean views and the bounty of the sea is Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar,  at the only Forbes four-star-awarded Monterrey Plaza Hotel & Spa.  Schooners is perched dramatically over the Monterey Bay where diners will enjoy the gentle sounds of the undulating surf; the fresh, salty fragrance of sea air; the playfulness of sea otters drifting in kelp forests and a Mediterranean ambiance  accompanied by personalized service.  The views and the experience are unparalleled.  So,  too, is an innovative menu that showcases a variety of seafood–both raw and cooked.

Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder: Baby Clams, Sherry, Potatoes, Cream Served in Freshly Baked Sourdough Bread

All seafood served at Schooners is compliant with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch Guide” designed to raise consumer awareness about the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood.  Not only does the restaurant celebrate conscious dining and high quality, sustainable seafood, it educates the dining public by  indicating the origin and catching method on the menu.  The menu is divided into such categories  as “In the Raw,” “Chowders & Stews,” “Fish Stories,” and “Tails to Share,” when plates are portioned to be shared for two or more.

The pride of restaurants throughout the California coast is the Dungeness crab, which are fresh and abundant thanks to sustainable harvesting practices.  Californians are as proud of the Dungeness crab as Baltimore area citizenry are of their fabled Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.  One of my dreams is to participate as a judge in a crab cake throw-down between the aforementioned crustaceans.  The Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake at Schooners would make a good representative of the left coast’s best.  This is an excellent crab cake.  It’s thick and large with a preponderance of crab and a bare minimum of binder.  Complementing the smooth, delicate flavor of crab is an accompanying corn and avocado salad with a tart-sweet citrus vinaigrette.  It’s wholly unnecessary, but quite good.

Fish Tacos: Grilled Fish, cabbage, Lime, Salsa, Avocado, Fresh Corn-Flour Tortillas

When it comes to bi-coastal seafood, it’s not only crab cakes which are prepared par excellence.  Between the clam chowder at my former home in the Boston area and the clam chowder in the San Francisco area, it’s a virtual toss-up as to which is the very best.  Both are outstanding!  In the Boston area, the preferred accompaniment are oyster crackers while in the San Francisco area, clam chowder is often served in hollowed-out sourdough bowls.  The latter option is irresistible, especially if you learn how to scrape the sides of the sourdough bowl so as to have just a bit of bread with each spoonful of soup.  Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder showcases baby clams, sherry, potatoes and cream served in freshly baked sourdough.  The proportion of sherry to cream is especially delicious, providing interesting flavor notes.

While fish tacos are much more closely associated with San Diego where they’re regarded as perhaps the city’s top delicacy, you can find decent fish tacos throughout the Golden State.  Schooners’ rendition starts on a canvas of fresh corn-flour tortillas into which are nestled grilled fish, cabbage and avocados with a salsa on the side.  The cabbage is tinged with pleasantly piquant jalapeños.  The grilled fish is wonderfully fresh and flavorful, the avocados unctuous and buttery.  Squeeze a little bit of lime and spoon in a little salsa and you’ve got an excellent, dare I say, San Diego worthy fish taco.  Three per order are served and they’ll go fast.

Seafood Salad: Seared Ahi Tuna, Shrimp, Crab, Endive, Mango, Avocado, Mango Sauce

Land meets sea in a bountiful seafood salad, a delicious melange of complementary and contrasting flavors which meld into a surprisingly fresh and delicious plate.  Easily large enough for two, you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of ingredients: endive leaves stuffed with shredded crab, sliced mango, buttery avocado, heirloom cherry tomatoes (yellow and orange), red cherry tomatoes, peeled shrimp and pepper crust rimmed ahi tuna.  The salad is served with a mango sauce as thick as mayonnaise and a light citrus vinaigrette.  The contrasting flavors played the most delicious notes on our taste buds: tangy-sweet mango with sea salty ahi and especially the astringency of endive with the sweet-brininess of the crab.

Desserts seem to taste just a bit sweeter at seaside, especially if you opt for the Tropical Sabayon ((a cousin of the light, egg-based Italian dessert zabaglione, the very best of which we’ve ever had being at Il Piato in Santa Fe).  Though a bit less frothy and lighter than its Italian cousin, this honey-infused custard is quite good.  The showcase, however, is the fruits and berries–mango broiled to the point of near caramelization, pineapple and berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries).  To frosted cookies, much denser than the sugared donuts they resemble, are the proverbial topping you can’t top.

Tropical Sabayon: Broiled Mango, Pineapple, Berries, Marshall’s Honey Sabayon

The impeccable service at Schooners also served to remind me of my perhaps ill-fated decision several decades ago when I opted out of spending much more time in one of California’s paradises than a vacation can afford.

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar
400 Cannery Row Map.965d171
Monterey, California
(831) 372-2628
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake, Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder, Seafood Salad, Fish Tacos, Tropical Sabayon

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab – Las Vegas, Nevada

Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas

Stone crab is probably what God eats every night of the year,
but in Florida we mortals only have it from mid-October to mid-May…”
Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter by Blaize Clement

Whether or not stone crab is really what God likes for dinner might make an interesting literary debate, but there’s no disputing that ordinary and not-so-mere mortals have loved the captivating crustaceans of citrus country for nearly a century.  In 1913 Joe Weiss discovered that stone crabs were not only edible, they were delicious–so much so that his small lunch counter in then backwater Miami Beach became an epicurean epicenter.  High society–everyone from Will Rogers, Gloria Swanson and Emelia Earhart to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and J. Edgar Hoover–flocked– to his restaurant.  So did a nemesis of Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Using the alias Al Brown, public enemy number one Al Capone and his entourage dined at Joe’s every evening.  Capone liked and respected Joe’s wife so much (and ostensibly her preparation of stone crabs) that every Mother’s Day, he sent a truck to the restaurant to deliver a horseshoe-shaped bouquet of flowers which read, “Good Luck Mother Joe’s.”  Jennie Weiss never realized who he was, but admired his gentlemanly behavior and always made him feel welcome at the restaurant.

The interior entrance to Joe's

Stone crabs are harvested in Florida every year between October 15th and May 15th.  Among the world’s most sustainable seafood, only one of the delicious decapod’s large claws may be remove thereby ensuring the continued survival of the species.  The crabs are thrown back into the water where another claw will generate in twelve to eighteen months.  Crabs are captured in baited traps, not speared or hooked and egg-bearing females are not allowed to be declawed.  The minimum legal size per claw is about two ounces with some colossal crabs weighing as much as twenty-five pounds. 

Claws make up half the weight of the entire crab.  A claw is removed by carefully grabbing it from the rear and twisting it off, a more humane treatment than say, boiling it live as is done with lobsters.  The claws are steamed on the boat then chilled and delivered to restaurants such as Joe’s which serve them to soon-to-be sated guests.  At Joe’s, they can be ordered in three sizes: medium (seven per order), select (six per order) and large (five per order).  Size–other than perhaps the size of your billfold–has no bearing on flavor; the medium crab claws taste every bit as great as the large crab claws.

Bread basket at Joe's

Joe’s legendary stone crabs are to the Miami chamber of commerce what green chile is to the New Mexico Tourism Department and as with our green chile, their popularity could not be contained by borders.  In the millennium year of 2000, Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based concept restaurant dining empire partnered with the Weiss family to bring Joe’s to Chicago, pairing Florida’s incomparable stone crab with prime bone-in chops, a Windy City staple.  Four years later, the Joe’s legacy expanded to the Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas.  Proving no mirage in the Nevada desert, Joe’s legendary stone crab quickly became a popular draw with reservations strongly recommended.

That’s a contrast to the original Joe’s which has always had a mandated no-reservations policy.  Another contrast is the service.  The Miami Beach wait staff is crabbier than the decadent decapods they deliver to their patrons’ tables, but in Las Vegas, service is friendly and attentive–particularly if your server is the lovely and ambassadorial Linda, a native of the south of England who will make you feel right at home and can be trusted to provide spot-on recommendations on what to order.

A bowl of stone crab bisque

As you contemplate the menu, a basket of bread is delivered to your table along with soft butter you can actually spread.  The artisinal assortment of breads is as beauteous to admire as it is delicious to devour.  The assortment includes a caramelized onion and cheese roll, a cracker-like lavosh and  cranberry-walnut bread, each so good you’ll want the basket replenished.  Make sure to save at least one slice or roll to sop up one of the menu’s outstanding bisques, the best of which might be the sumptuous stone crab bisque

Great restaurants recognize that visual elements–color, texture, portion size, shape–will greatly enhance the appreciation of a great dish.  The stone crab bisque arrives at your table in a steel vessel which completely obfuscates the creamy, pureed crustacean.  The wait staff will pour the contents of the steely pitcher onto a plate brimming with chopped stone crab and finely minced carrots and celery, instantly releasing a steamy, enticing aroma that precedes the rich, delicious flavor profile of sweet crab meat and sauteed vegetables.  This elixir will remedy whatever ails you.

Lobster Tail Tempura with an Asian dipping sauce

The bountiful bowl of bisque is large enough to share though you might want to keep it all for yourself.  It’s among the very best soups, chowders, stews or gumbos I’ve ever had.  It’s one of those rare items about which you could say you’d die happy if you fell into a brimming vat of this steamy deliciousness and drowned while attempting to drink your way out.  It’s the type of soup which would win any Souper Bowl!

Stone crabs aren’t the sole seafood item on the menu, not by a long shot.  The menu offers a boatload of seafood options: fried shrimp, shrimp scampi, scallops (and bacon-wrapped sea scallops), colossal lump crab cakes, lobster tail tempura, jumbo Alaskan king crab legs and a fisherman’s platter which showcases shrimp, scallops, calamari and cod. Fresh fish options include cod, salmon (au poivre), mahi mahi, halibut and ahi tuna.

An order of five medium-sized stone crabs

The lobster tail tempura is a winner–two six-ounce tails sheathed in a light tempura batter which imparts a crunchy accent without detracting from the sweet, succulent deliciousness of the lobster.  The lobster tails are served with an Asian inspired, slightly spicy apricot dipping sauce.  It’s wholly unnecessary and, if anything, you might find yourself missing drawn butter.  A grilled jumbo lobster tail is available for purists who don’t believe the flavor of lobster should be masked, even partially, by any batter.

Those purists will love the stone crabs, particularly during lunch when Joe’s Classic stone crab is available at an unbeatable prix fixe price.  One lunch special includes five stone crab claws, hashed brown potatoes, coleslaw and a sliver of key lime pie. Alternatively, you can sate your carnivorous cravings with a lunch special that showcases a six-ounce filet mignon, Jennie’s potatoes, Joe’s grilled tomatoes and banana cream pie with Foster sauce. Never mind a jackpot from the one-armed bandit; you’re a winner with either option.

Joe's famous hash browns and coleslaw

The stone crab claws arrive at your table cracked and ready to be de-shelled, similar to how you would peel a hard-boiled egg (albeit one with very sharp edges).  For someone who bashed his thumb with a wooden mallet cracking dungeness crabs in San Francisco, the pre-cracked claws were much appreciated.  Not everyone needs the authenticity of a crab-cracking experience.  The stone crab is served cold as if having been resting in a tub of ice before coming to your table.  There’s plenty of meat in each claw and it’s a sweet, succulent, delicious meat.  The crab claws are served with Joe’s trademarked mustard sauce which is as sweet as it is tangy.  No sauce is really necessary.

Two things go best with stone crab claws at Joe’s.  Fittingly they’re the two things first served with the claws nearly a century ago.  The first would be hashed browns which are unlike the packaged confetti strips most restaurants serve.  The exterior of the hashed browns resembles a crusty shell, likely the byproduct of the way the potatoes are prepared.  Penetrate that shell and you’ll find soft fried goodness.  The other accompaniment is Joe’s famous coleslaw which isn’t made with a mayo-based salad cream, but with a tangy-sweet vinegary sauce.  It’s an excellent coleslaw.

The very best Boston Cream Pie I've Ever Had (and I lived in Massachusetts for two years)

For years my very favorite Boston Cream Pie was the one served at the Parker House Hotel in Boston where it was first conceived in 1867.  The official dessert of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts may henceforth hold a back seat to the Boston cream pie at Joe’s.  There are several reasons this pie is so fabulous.  First, it’s a generous slab, not a sliver leaving you wanting more.  Secondly, the ganache is of adult chocolate sweetness and it’s applied generously.  Third, the inside layer of cream is neither overly thick nor too cloying.  Everything about this pie is just right.

Joe’s most famous dessert, one as popular in the Florida Keys as Boston Cream Pie is in Boston, is key lime pieIf you’ve ever had a luminescent or neon green “key lime pie” it’s not the real thing. Joe’s rendition is the real deal, made with key lime juice and a heaping helping of key lime zest.  It’s got a pale yellowish hue and it’s both creamy and just tangy-tart enough to purse your lips.  The Graham cracker crust maintains its integrity and doesn’t fall apart when you press your fork into it.  That’s partially because the pie is served cold.

Real Key Lime Pie

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab serves stone crab all year round–even off-season when frozen claws are served.  That, too, one-ups the Joe’s in Miami which is closed all summer.  Our inaugural visit was more a “been there, done that” experience than it was transformative in any way.  Some items–the stone crab bisque and Boston cream pie–were in the “to die for” category, but not everything else was.  Still, from an experiential perspective, you can’t go wrong with a restaurant offering stellar service and palate-pleasing cuisine.

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
Forum Shops @ Caesar’s
3500 Las Vegas  Blvd. South
Las Vegas, Nevada
702-792-9222
Web Site
LATEST VISIT:5 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET:  Lobster Tail Tempura, Stone Crab, Hash Browns, Coleslaw, Key Lime Pie, Boston Cream Pie, Stone Crab Bisque

Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab on Urbanspoon

Desert Fish – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Desert Fish, a seafood oasis on Central Avenue

If you were entertaining a visitor from Seattle or Portland, would you take them to Long John Silver’s, Captain D’s or even  Pelican’s to show them how the seafood in land-locked Albuquerque measures up to the seafood in those two bastions of fresh, succulent seafood?  Not likely!  You’d probably want to take them to a restaurant which showcases New Mexico’s red and green chile.  For some reason, however, during business trips to Seattle and Portland, my well-intentioned colleagues insist on taking me to Mexican restaurants.  Perhaps they assume that with my Spanish surname and place of residence, I would want to try their Mexican food.  That makes as much sense as expecting me to stay at La Quinta and drive a Ford Fiesta rental car.

As a consequence of such faulty (albeit well-meaning) assumptions, I’ve been subjected to such chains as Chevy’s and other restaurants of that ilk where instead of “red or green,” a gloppy brown “sauce” absolutely reeking of the accursed demon spice cumin is ladled on liberally over the overly cheesy entrees.  Perhaps discerning my disdain for chains, my colleagues have also entertained me at such independent, but no less offensive Americanized Mexican restaurants as Macheezmo Mouse (you read that correctly).

The swanky interior at Desert Fish

Admittedly two or three days into a business trip, I start to crave New Mexican food, but not so much that I’ll visit a pitiful pretender.  My friend and colleague Steve Caine did that and will forever rue the day.  Upon returning from Portland, he asked me to help him with his expense report. His itemized report indicated he had dined twice at Chevy’s, a middling quality Americanized Mexican restaurant which wouldn’t survive in the tough Albuquerque market. I teased him mercilessly. Worse, when our boss saw what the commotion was all about, he immediately put Steve on double-secret probation. Steve has never lived down visiting a Chevy’s in Portland where he could have had some of the country’s freshest and best seafood.

When the din died down, Steve admitted somewhat sheepishly that after two days in Portland, he was missing New Mexican food so desperately that he visited the closest facsimile he could find. It was either Chevy’s or the aforementioned Macheezmo Mouse. Most business traveler from New Mexico have probably been there, too…well, not to Chevy’s, but at a point in the trip where the craving for New Mexico’s inimitable cuisine strikes like an addict’s need for a fix.

Mojito Ceviche:  Rock cod thinly sliced and marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint. Served with fresh made blue corn chips.

Peter Martin can certainly relate to that type of craving.  The Seattle native and owner of the Desert Fish restaurant has been marooned on a land-locked desert isle of a sort, having moved to New Mexico shortly after a friend bought the Tesuque Village Market outside of Santa Fe.   Youthful in exuberance and chronology, Peter has been working in nightclubs and restaurants for more than two decades, but it wasn’t as much an entrepreneurial spirit that prompted his venturing into the restaurant ownership business as it was just how much he missed seafood.  No matter how much New Mexico’s restaurants may think they’re serving good seafood, they’re not serving the type of seafood with which Peter was raised.

That would be seafood prepared as it is throughout the Pacific Northwest by seafood houses whose idea of freshness is off-the-boat and where catch of the day means this morning.  It’s seafood the type of which you find at the world-famous Pike’s Place Market where fishmongers toss fish at one another to the delight of visitors.  It’s wild-caught fish which are healthier and are more palatable in texture, aroma and flavor than their farm-raised brethren.  It’s an oyster bar serving a variety of oysters with a sweet oceanic flavor.  It’s Dungeness crab, a delicately flavored, slightly sweet West Coast delicacy.  Peter has made all of this available in Albuquerque.

Fresh Oysters: Kumamoto, Snow Creek, Penn Cove, Kushi and Miyagi with three dipping sauces: Clover honey and Tabasco, Raspberry and Champagne

The aptly named Desert Fish was launched on December 10th, 2010 at the former site of Sonny’s Bar and Grill on Route 66 in the Nob Hill District.  Gone are the pool tables, dartboards and numerous televisions usually tuned to sporting events.  The bandstand was retained, its stage to be graced by local music acts, their tunes piped in through a sound system reputed to be one of the best in town.  The ambiance is refined, like a true Northwestern seafood emporium and not a stereotypical nautical themed template.

While rich, dark woods imbue a room with masculinity, Desert Fish’s more gender-neutral light, but no less rich, woods give it character.  The bar’s paneled wainscoting extends to the smooth hewn planks on the ceiling.  Exposed industrial-style ductwork adds a touch of modernity while a twelve-foot totem pole, reminiscent of those carved by the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest,  provides a bit of whimsy.   On the day of our inaugural visit, the topmost figure on the totem pole sported a Seattle Seahawks helmet.

Cioppino: Hearty fish stew with shrimp, Dungeness crab, salmon, clams and mussels in a savory tomato broth with our own Desert Fish spice. Served with grilled bread.

The restaurant has two main dining areas.  As you enter (through a door on the edifice’s west side, not through Central Avenue as you might think) to the right there’s an intimate dining room with about a dozen tables.  More commodious is the main dining room where your interior views are of the stage, bar and oyster bar while your exterior views through large picture windows are of Central Avenue.  You’ll want to appreciate those views later; first you’ll want to peruse the menu which is not so much a compendium of all great seafood, but a carefully selected assemblage of incomparable seafood.

There are seven appetizers on the menu including a couple (French fries and kabobs) which are decidedly not seafood.  A soup of the day and clam chowder as well as a number of salads provide delicious alternatives to starters to be  sampled during future visits (and there will be many), but it’s the “bar menu” which will command most of your attention.  Price points are surprisingly comparable to what you might pay at a restaurant in Portland or Seattle and there’s no compromise in quality here.  Seafood is flown in fresh every two or three days.  A grilled rib eye steak au poivre is the only landlubber’s entree on the menu, but then you didn’t come here for meat, did you?

Whole Dungeness Crab: Succulent steamed crab served with corn on the cob and choice of fries.

You came to Desert Fish for the seafood, the quality of which my foodie friend Larry McGoldrick describes as “superior.”  On his Urbanspoon page, Larry assures readers that “Desert Fish has become a polished eatery and imbibery in the three short weeks that it has been open.”  You can trust the good professor of oceanography.  He lived on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay before moving to New Mexico.  Larry’s recommendations in mind, we wanted to try everything he had but opted instead to try a few different items so readers can get two perspectives on the menu’s delicious offerings.

As we do at most mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants, we had to have ceviche.  At Desert Fish that means Mojito Ceviche, thinly-sliced rock cod marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint.  The ceviche is served with fresh made blue corn chips and in the fashion of tostadas de ceviche, the combination of light, delicate fish and crispy corn is hard to beat, not that the chips were necessary in the least.  This is ceviche reminiscent of ceviche you might find at a Peruvian restaurant meaning it’s incomparably fresh and wholly imbued with flavors which are both complementary and contrasting.  The infusion of fresh citrus juices and rum, in particular, impart an almost Tropical feel.

 

Truffle Fries, Sweet Potato Fries and House Fries

Seafood connoisseurs recognize that no other seafood offering tastes as much like the sea as oysters, renown nearly as much for their aphrodisiac properties as for their flavor.  It’s a flavor attributable to terroir, the specific environment in which they grow.  Desert Fish offers a variety of oysters from a variety of locales.  Order at least one from each and discern the nuanced flavors.  The Kumamoto, considered by many as the perfect oyster, is sweet and “fruity” in an oceanic way.  Snow Creek oysters, raised in the deep waters of the Puget Sound, have a hint of iron in a sweet-salty flavor profile.  Penn Cove, perhaps the most “beautiful” of all oysters, are about medium in brininess while retaining a sea-saltiness.  Kushi (Japanese for “precious”) oysters have a clean flavor and are small in size.  Miyagi oysters are full-flavored and robust.

Though I prefer the unfettered flavor of oysters in all their native deliciousness, Desert Fish serves their oysters with three dipping sauces: clover honey and Tabasco, raspberry and champagne.  Each imparts its own complementary flavor ameliorating qualities to the oysters.  Unlike most oyster “shooters” which are tangy and piquant, these sauces are sophisticated and delicious.  The champagne resonated most with me with its characteristically dry and sweet flavors.  Neither the raspberry or clover honey and Tabasco sauces are as sweet as their names might suggest.

Milk and cookies

During all my visits to San Francisco, one of America’s truly great culinary hotbeds, the one dish I absolutely have to partake of is cioppino, a fish stew whose genesis is indeed the City by the Bay.  No one does this Portuguese-Italian dish better than the seafood houses by the piers.  Traditionally made from the catch of the day–usually Dungeness crab, shrimp, mussels, fish and clams–in a savory broth of fresh tomatoes and a dry white wine sauce, it is a hearty, delicious comfort soup.  Though several restaurants in Albuquerque have tried their hand at cioppino, they all fall woefully short.  Cioppino is a very nuanced dish with distinct seasonings which bring out the flavor of their seafood constituents.  Desert Fish’s rendition includes a beautifully pink grilled salmon, Dungeness crab, clams and mussels and is served with grilled bread.  It’s a San Francisco-worthy cioppino.

Another San Francisco treat popular throughout the Pacific Northwest is Dungeness crab, sweeter and more tender than lobster with more meat than the vaunted blue crabs of Larry McGoldrick’s former stomping grounds.  The legs  and body are engorged with sweet, succulent meat that’s easier to extricate than the meat of Alaskan king crab.  At Desert Fish, a whole Dungeness crab is served with sweet corn-on-the-cob and your choice of fries.  Ask the accommodating wait staff to bring you a sampler of all three fries: sweet potato, truffle fries and house fries, all of which are so reminiscent of the fries served at seaside stands.  The corn-on-the-cob is grilled and unseasonably sweet.  Best of all, it’s a whole ear of corn, not a half-sized piece that will have you longing for more.

The totem pole at Desert Fish. Check out the Seattle Seahawks helmet on top

The dessert menu includes several surprises including milk and fresh-baked cookies.  While milk and cookies may sound a bit quaint outside the child’s menu, these cookies are very good–two chocolate cookies with chocolate chips and pecans.  Milk, of course, is the perfect accompaniment to cookies of any kind.  This is a combination that might take you back to your childhood.

Desert Fish is the real deal–a Pacific Northwest seafood house in the desert southwest.  From its look and feel to the fantastic flavors of the fish and more, it is a welcome respite for expatriates from either coast.  It’s the type of seafood restaurant to which I wish my colleagues would have taken me all those times I suffered through Mexican food as mediocre as any you’d get on a frozen dinner.

Desert Fish
4214 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2011
CLOSED: May 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Fresh Oysters, Chioppino, Dungeness Crab, Mojito Ceviche, Fries, Milk and Cookies

Desert Fish on Urbanspoon

Pelican’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

The remonstrance from a group of my foodie friends was vocal and animated when I contended that good seafood in the Duke City dining establishments not only exists, some of it borders on greatness.  One ardent detractor asserted that good seafood in our landlocked community is as rare as a good steak was on Gilligan’s Island.  Another argued that only at Pappadeaux, a national chain, could good seafood be found while a third reminisced that in the 1990s there were actually three restaurants–Cafe Oceana, the Rio Grande Yacht Club and Pelican’s–vying perennially for “best seafood” honors.

My rejoinder was to remind them of the half-dozen or so mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants in the Duke City, most of which serve very good to excellent seafood.  “Duplicity,” they cried, “when we think of seafood, we’re thinking of King crab, Ahi tuna, lobster and halibut.”  I then reminded them that Pelican’s continues to thrive in two Duke City locations–the original on the Heights (9800 Montgomery, N.E.) and a newer location on the burgeoning Northwest side (10022 Coors, N.W.).  They unanimously found merit in the case for Pelican’s, a popular seafood emporium that has served Albuquerque since 1975.

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

That’s more than three and a half decades of surviving, even thriving, in a tough restaurant market.  That means pleasing a widely divergent and persnickety range of Duke City diners–everything from the well-traveled sophisticates who have partaken of seafood fresh off the boat in a city by a shore somewhere to those who believe the end-all and be-all for seafood is Red Lobster and that Pelican’s is strictly a special occasion restaurant.

As with many seafood restaurants in landlocked areas, Pelican’s subscribes to a nautical theme designed to evoke the calming and peaceful feeling associated with the ocean.  Anyone who’s laid on the beach and watched the undulating waters can attest to the effect the salty sea air and the motion of the ocean have in stimulating the appetite–usually for seafood.

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of butter

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of garlic

The nautical theme is most pronounced in the original Pelican’s which includes a woody interior reminiscent of the creaky underbelly of an old fishing boat.  Ornamental bronze finished pendant lamps hang from the ceiling; it’s easy to imagine them swinging to and fro from the rocking of the waves.  Heavy ropes are lashed on beams, the symbol of strength and security.  Decorative life rings, the type of which are tossed overboard to rescue seafarers who fall overboard, are used throughout the restaurant as are other oceanic ornaments such as oars, fishing nets, and even a surfboard.  Sure it’s stereotypical, but a stucco New Mexico motif wouldn’t cut it.

The West side Pelican’s supplanted a failing Carraba’s Italian Grill restaurant in the Cottonwood Crossings development on the northeast corner of the Coors and Seven Bar Loop intersection and thematically is more like a woody fisherman’s wharf.  It is situated next door to the Outback Steakhouse, offering an excellent alternative to the popular Australian themed meatery.  A small fishing boat hangs from the ceiling while bubbling aquariums teem with colorful sea life.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

Perhaps by default (especially with the 2005 closure of the Rio Grande Yacht Club), Pelican’s has been the very best seafood (non-mariscos) restaurant in Albuquerque by a nautical mile or more (although the December, 2010 launch of Desert Fish may change that landscape). Best of all, it’s locally owned and operated although there are two other Pelicans in El Paso. From the moment you’re seated, the friendly wait staff dotes on you.  It’s not the saccharine service you’ll get at the chains which dot restaurant row along the Coors Bypass; the wait staff at Pelican’s works to earn your business, the way it should be.

While you contemplate the menu, the wait staff will start you off with a basket of out-of-the-oven bread with whipped butter and roasted garlic, both of which are faithfully replenished when you finish them (and you undoubtedly will, they’re so good).   The bread has a hard-crusted exterior and a soft interior in which both butter and the roasted garlic spread easily.  This is true garlic bread!

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

One of the most inviting appetizers on the menu and one at which Pelican’s excels is Oysters Rockafeller, a dish first created in 1899 at the famous Antoine’s in New Orleans.  Because of the richness of the sauce (liberally interpreted at restaurants throughout the world), the dish was named for John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in America at the time.  Pelican’s rendition is five plump oysters on the half shell topped with Pernod-spiked spinach and melted cheese.  It’s a rich and indelicate starter that will win over even the most onerous oyster hater.

Another appetizer sure to please are the Sizzling Mussels sautéed in white wine and garlic served with two slices of toasted bread.  The white wine and garlic broth are tailor-made for the bread which you’ll use to sop up and lustily consume as much of that savory broth as you can.  Characteristic of good mussels, they don’t really need the broth, but the sizzling metal plate on which they’re delivered is a nice touch because it keeps the mussels and broth warm.

New York Strip

New York Strip

Pelican’s menu showcases fresh fish, thick slabs of Angus beef steaks, shrimp and surf-and-turf.  The “Fresh Fish Report” includes tilapia, halibut, salmon, ahi tuna and rainbow trout.  Daily specials range from Alaskan King Crab Legs to Australian Lobster Tail and “All you can eat peel n’ eat shrimp.”  A Sunday brunch menu includes some of the most popular dinner menu items as well as traditional breakfast items such as French toast.  Entrees come with your choice of baked potato, wild rice pilaf, or French fries and Pelican’s famous bottomless bowl of salad.

A common element among the seafood is uncommon freshness.  The menu boasts of fresh and fresh-frozen seafood (and I’m not talking about Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks here).  Modern trawlers are equipped to process and freeze the fresh catch immediately.  Some fish is best shipped fresh-frozen while other fish is best shipped fresh, albeit at low temperatures.  The result–fish at Pelican’s have a fresh and mild smell not that “fishy” smell that turns people off seafood.

If there are any complaints about Pelican’s, it’s that the restaurant’s menu is a bit anachronistic–a throwback to the 80s.  That’s especially true of the appetizer menu which includes such “yesterday” starters as mozzarella sticks and fried zucchini and mushrooms, both battered to order.  Old-fashioned surf and turf entrees are also a bit dated.  Then again, if something works, why change?

Shrimp Pelican with Sweet Potato Fries

One entree which really works is the Shrimp Pelican which may well be the restaurant’s most popular dish–even though there’s nothing radical or avant-garde about it. Butterflied and golden brown in beer batter, the shrimp are humongous (forgive the oxymoron) and gloriously sweet.  Even though my preference is generally for peel-and-eat shrimp with incendiary cocktail sauce, Pelican’s shrimp flood my memories with reminiscences of the first really great battered shrimp I ever had.

With some menu items, Pelican’s subscribes to the adage that “when in New Mexico, do as New Mexicans do” and in the Land of Enchantment, we serve our food–almost all of it–with chile.  Pelican’s menu tends to have at least entree with either green or red chile, including a piñon crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter.  Because of its clean, mild flavor and because it tends to inherit the flavor of seasonings very well, tilapia is sometimes described as fish for people who don’t like the taste of fish.  Alas, while the tilapia is delicious, flaky and tender, the chile is hardly of the caliber of New Mexico chile served at a New Mexican restaurant.

Pelican’s is almost as highly regarded for steaks and prime rib as it is for seafood.  Carnivorous cravings will be sated with a line-up that includes teriyaki beef kabobs, choice center-cut top sirloin, choice ribeye filet mignon, market teriyaki center-cut top sirloin, New York strip and slow roasted prime rib au jus as well as a “Ranchero” center-cut top sirloin with Cheddar and green chile.  The New York strip (pictured above) is grilled to your exacting specifications.  At medium, it is juicy and delicious.  It’s also very tender with no sinew or excess fat.

Pelican's famous ice cream mud pie, a slab of decadence

Football sized baked potatoes include your choice of toppings (butter, sour cream, bacon bits, green onions).  Wisps of steam from the aluminum foil enveloped potatoes waft upward, hinting at perfectly baked potatoes.  Alas, appearances can be deceiving as we found out during a January, 2010 visit when undercooked potatoes were the sole let-down in an otherwise good meal.  The clam chowder is rich and very thick, but it would take Sherlock Holmes to find more than two bits of clam and the clams he might find are bound to minuscule and somewhat chewy.

Desserts are large enough to feed entire families.  Offerings include large wedges of New York style cheesecake topped with a strawberry or chocolate sauce (or both), a lip-pursing key lime pie and perhaps the single largest slab of pie in the Duke City, a humongous ice cream mud pie.  This slab of waist-expanding decadence is easily four-inches tall and that’s even before the whipped cream crowns this dessert.  Two types of ice cream–chocolate and mocha–layered on top of a thick Oreo crust make this a teeth-chattering post-prandial treat.  It’s a fine dessert, but much more than one person can handle.

Pelican’s is a very solid, if unspectacular restaurant that has survived nearly four decades and several generations in the Duke City’s constantly changing dining scene.  It deserves a place in any conversation about good seafood in Albuquerque.

Pelican’s Restaurant
10022 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
899-2000
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Shrimp, Oysters Rockafeller, Cracked Pepper New Yorker, New York Strip, Sizzling Mussels, Bread with Garlic Cloves, Ice Cream Mud Pie

Pelican's on Urbanspoon

Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant – Kennebunkport, Maine

Mabel's Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine

Mabel's Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine

What comes to mind when you think of lobster?  A rare treat or special event meal?   A delicacy?  Would you believe some cultures still consider lobster “the cockroach of the sea?”  There’s a scientific basis for that.  Neither fish nor mammal, lobsters are arthropods, closely related to the lowly insect.  Like the insect, lobsters belong to the invertebrate (lacking a backbone or spinal column) family.

Today you have to pay dearly for an excellent lobster meal, but that hasn’t always been the case.  Lobsters were once so abundant that Native Peoples used them as fish bait and fertilizer.  According to early Colonists in the Plymouth, Massachusetts area, lobsters sometimes washed up on the beaches in piles two feet high.  It was hard to get gustatorily excited about something so common.  It’s conceivable that lobsters of exaggerated proportions may not only have been frightening, but tough to eat considering they supposedly grew to forty pounds or more.

As such, in Colonial New England, they were considered poverty food and were served to servants, slaves, children and prisoners.  Children bringing lobster sandwiches to school were considered the poor kids (similar to the children who came to school with tortilla sandwiches instead of white bread sandwiches when I was growing up).

Pastries on the counter at Mabel's Lobster Claw

Pastries on the counter at Mabel's Lobster Claw

Lobster was so ubiquitous that benevolent Colonial legislators in Massachusetts passed a law mandating that lobster could not be fed to prisoners more than twice a week.  It just wasn’t considered humane to subject even the most scurrilous scofflaws and criminals to what has today become a precious crustacean commodity.

Archaeologists believe mankind (and not just prisoners) has been eating not only lobster, but other crustaceans such as crab and shrimp since prehistoric times.  Deposits of shells and bones left by early hunter-gatherer civilizations near water indicate they took advantage of every conceivable food source.

Culinary evidence also confirms that lobsters were known to ancient Greeks and Romans.  They were highly esteemed by the British (especially during the Victorian age) as but not by their Colonial brethren.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that lobster enjoyed a resurgence of demand, a demand that continues today.

Corn and blueberry muffins

Corn and blueberry muffins

In the 1840s, commercial fisheries specializing in crustaceans began in Maine to much commercial success, giving rise to the popularity and fame of the Maine Lobster.  Within a decade, lobster was being shipped around the world.  The first lobster shipments reached  Chicago in 1842 just as “lobster palaces,” or restaurants serving restaurants became popular in New York.

Diamond Jim Brady, perhaps the most famous gurgitator of his time often downed six or more lobsters in addition to other courses.  This feat of copious consumption and others of similar notoriety prompted the owner of Brady’s favorite restaurant to describe him as “the best 25 customers I ever had.”

By 1885 the American lobster industry was providing 130 million pounds of lobster per year, much of it from Maine.  In terms of economic impact, lobster’s contributions to the Maine economy continues to be immeasurable.  According to the Maine Lobster Council, in 2006, more than 72 million pounds of lobster were caught off the Pine Tree state’s cold, clean waters whose rocky bottoms form the ideal habitat for lobsters.  This generated almost $300 million in ex-vessel (dock value or the price set at dock for a day’s catch) and significantly more in restaurant and export revenues.  Lobster harvesting provides a livelihood for more than 5,700 Maine residents.

Large bowl of clam chowder

Large bowl of clam chowder

Lobster is not only very good to eat, it’s very good for you, too.  It contains Vitamins A, B and B6 and is a good source of calcium, zinc, iron and iodine.  It has absolutely no saturated fat and is low in calories and cholesterol.  By many accounts, it is a healthful dining option although when we visited Mabel’s Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine, we didn’t have healthy eating on our minds, nor did we consider the history of lobster harvesting in Maine.

There’s only one reason you visit Mabel’s Lobster Claw and that’s because it’s one of the very best restaurants in Maine for lobster.  When the tide is high, you can hear the water from Mabel’s which is about a mile or so from the Bush family complex.  George and Barbara Bush, who split their time between Houston and their summer residence in Kennebunkport, are frequent visitors to Mabel’s.

You might think a restaurant frequented by a dynastic presidential family would be upscale and stuffy, but it’s hardly that.  In fact, Gourmet magazine described it as “About as formal as we like to get on the seafood trail is Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a lunchroom in Kennebunkport.  Paper place mats explaining how to eat a lobster decorate tables in snug wooden booths.”  Mabel’s occupies the bottom floor of what, save for the signage, could pass for a two-story home.  A small patio facing the street is sheathed in zipped up plastic to prevent an infestation of mosquitos trolling for tasty humans.  Knotty pine tables and wood-paneled walls (replete with autographed celebrity photographs) make this restaurant about as rustic as you can get.

Shore Dinner at Mabel's Lobster Claw: Cup of Chowder, Native Steamed Clams, 2 pound lobster with two sides

Shore Dinner at Mabel's Lobster Claw: Cup of Chowder, Native Steamed Clams, 2 pound lobster with two sides

The menu is as informal as the ambience–at least informal for Maine where dilapidated seafood shacks lacking any amenities are mentioned in the same reverential tone as four-star restaurants.  One of the staples of those seafood shacks is the lobster roll, a luxurious and delicious treat Maine residents venerate with hushed tones (unless they’re arguing about where to find the best one).

In an article entitled “Sandwiches: Eating from Hand to Mouth,” Time magazine explained that “In an expanse of land as large and varied as the U.S., it is no surprise that there are many regional sandwich specialties.”  The article singled out Mabel’s Lobster Claw for its lobster roll, which it described as “heaped with fresh chunks of briny lobster lightly bound with mayonnaise (celery is considered by most a heretical addition), it is usually made on hamburger or hot dog rolls, the latter being the vehicle at the Lobster Claw Restaurant (known locally as Mabel’s) in Kennebunkport, Maine.”  As determined as we were to try Mabel’s rendition, other temptations won us over.

As at many New England Yankee cooking or seafood restaurants, our dining experience began with a plateful of breads–sweet cornbread muffins and blueberry muffins with a big and bold blueberry flavor.  Both are perfect counterpoints to the pats of butter with which they are served.  The blueberry muffins accentuate the fruitiness and natural sugars of the berry and are especially good.

Fried Clams with a baked potato and tartar sauce

Fried Clams with a baked potato and tartar sauce

Mabel’s clam chowder is some of the best we had during our 2009 visit to Maine.  It is rich, creamy and served steaming hot.  It’s also a fairly simple clam chowder highlighting the succulent clams, diced potatoes, onions and chopped green peppers.  As with many of the wonderful clam chowders in New England, an occasional gritty bite isn’t uncommon, but I’m more wary of the authenticity of clam chowder without an occasional sandy sensation.  By no means am I decrying the preparation of this chowder which we devoured lustfully.  Rather I’m expressing an observation we made of much of the clam chowder we experienced in New England.

Gourmet magazine called the magnificent seafood platter known as shore dinner “that top-of-the-line Down East banquet” and proclaimed Mabel’s as a “good place to go” for this fantastic feast.  The name shore dinner is derived from the maritime tradition of fishing all day then putting to shore to assemble dinner with the days catch.  Fortunately, many Maine restaurants will take care of both the fishing part and the preparation, too.

At Mabel’s, shore dinner is comprised of a pound-and-a-half to two-pound (the optimum size for flavor) lobster atop a pile of steamers accompanied by hot, drawn butter and the broth in which the steamers were prepared.  The waitstaff will explain that after extricating the clam from its shell, you should dip it into its broth to remove any gritty residue.  The steamers are superb!  These long-necked, soft-shelled clams have somewhat of a sinewy texture, but their flavor is deep and delicious.  There’s no mistaking the fact that these briny beauties are fresh and have a taste like the ocean.  The lobster is perfect–sweet, succulent and absolutely delicious.  Best of all, a shore dinner at Mabel’s won’t break your bankroll.

Chocolate Cake topped with ice cream and chocolate fudge

Chocolate Cake topped with ice cream and chocolate fudge

When available, it’s nearly impossible for me to ever pass up native fried clams, one of nature’s most fabulous foods–an iconic food that is to New England what green chile is to New Mexico.  Having consumed boatfuls of these lightly coated and deep-fried full-bellied gems from the cold coastal waters of New England, I’d consider moving to Maine were it not for those brutal winters.  Mabel’s fried clams exemplify the best qualities of this pearlescent, shapeless mollusk.  Each and every piece is to be cherished, savored slowly, forget the tartar sauce or lemon.  The light crust gives way easily to the distinctively delicious fried clam flavor, a flavor that will titillate your tongue and make you wonder how anything could be that good.

If you have room, Mabel’s has several desserts under glass as if enshrined for being as good as they are.  Gourmet magazine indicates “If fudge cake is available it can’t be ignored.”  That’s excellent advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.  Make sure that cake is topped with cold ice cream and warm, melting chocolate sauce.  If you visited Mabel’s solely for this dessert, it would be worth the visit.

Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant is worthy of all the accolades and praise it has earned through the years, but any review would be remiss without a mention of the wait staff, a sassy bunch with a repertoire of wise-cracks and jokes.  They’re as friendly and attentive as possible, but their light levity adds a different dimension to dining at such an esteemed establishment.

Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant
124 Ocean Avenue
Kennebunkport, Maine
967-2562
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Shore Dinner, Fried Clams, Clam Chowder, Chocolate Cake

The Clam Shack – Kennebunkport, Maine

The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine

The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine

The late George Plimpton was a pioneering journalist who garnered much of his acclaim from competing in professional sporting events then recording the experience from an amateur’s standpoint.  From pitching against the National League prior to an All-Star baseball game to quarterbacking the Detroit Lions in an intrasquad scrimmage, Plimpton momentarily lived the dream of every would-be professional athlete.

Today, it seems every network and cable channel has a competing reality show in which an unabashed combatant or group of contestants undertake unsavory jobs–such as bullfighter or oil driller–for which they are wholly unqualified.  The Discovery channel even has a show in which a poor sap “exposes the grimy underbelly of America’s dirtiest jobs.”  Participants in these reality shows run the gamut–from risking life and limb to almost certain humiliation.

It came as no surprise when the Food Network announced its 2009 launch of its own job related reality show.  On “Will Work for Food” host Adam Gertler travels across the fruited plain trying out different jobs in the food industry for a day.  The show calls for him to do literally learn every job in the world of food.  The good-natured Gertler has had jobs in which he’s had to create an edible chocolate bra, hunted for truffles, filled orders on roller skates and turned food into gore at Hollywood’s Cinema Makeup School.

Barbara Bush sings the praises of the Clam Shack

Barbara Bush sings the praises of the Clam Shack

Of all the jobs Gertler has had, the one for which I’d most have liked to switch places with him is learning all the steps in making a lobster roll at the world famous The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine.  The first step in the process was loading up bait on a lobster boat, a rigorous task that had him on the boat by the inhumane hour of 5AM.  Gertner learned how to haul traps, sell the day’s bounty to local businesses then how to cook the lobster, shell its meat, weigh portions and prepare the final product.

Gertner’s verdict, “this lobster roll is the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth” pretty much echoes the sentiment of many of The Clam Shack’s patrons, lines of which snake down the street, waiting for up to an hour for the freshest seafood they can find.  Fittingly The Clam Shack was selected by Epicurious.com as one of the top ten seafood shacks in America.  For nearly three decades, foodies have detoured many miles to dine at this famous institution.  Others, like me, will spend a couple of days in the area so we can have our fill of its bounty more than once.

The Clam Shack is the archetypal clam shack.  It is situated literally on the foot of what everyone calls “the bridge” which divides the village of Kennebunk from the famous vacation destination of Kennebunkport.  With barely more room than a taco truck, The Clam Shack has no amenities of which to speak.  Neither rainnor sleet, nor the heat of day will keep hungry patrons from their place in line. After their orders are filled,  they will either lean against the bridge rail to consume their meal or take a seat on one of the makeshift wooden benches out back by the water.  Signage warns diners to “Beware of Seagulls.  They like our food as much as you do.”  True enough, the scavenging aquatic birds lustily eye your seafood bounty from overhead.

Lobster Roll from the Clam Shack

Lobster Roll from the Clam Shack

The Clam Shack’s most famous patrons don’t have to wait in line.  About two miles away from The Clam Shack, situated on an imposing rocky promontory, is the Bush family compound.  When the Bush family has a craving for lobster rolls or seafood, they call ahead then dispatch the secret service to pick their order.  Under Presidents Bush #41 and #43, Kennebunkport held several international summits, hosting a stream of world leaders and regaling such dignitaries as Russian President Vladimir Putin with fried clams and lobster rolls from the Clam Shack.

An “I Love Me” wall includes a framed letter from former first lady Barbara Bush as well as the July, 2007 edition of Everyday with Rachael Ray in which the Food Network’s kitchen diva raves about the Clam Shack’s lobster roll.  A USA Today feature entitled “The Fifty Great Plates of America” is also posted which reads, “The lobster roll is a simply perfect creation.  One of the best versions comes from The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine (open Mothers’ Day through Columbus Day).”

In 2007, Roadfood’s Michael Stern wrote “Lobster rolls at the Clam Shack are the best.  Truly, the best.  None better.  Number one. King of all lobster rolls.”  By 2009, The Clam Shack’s lobster roll had dropped just a bit in Stern’s estimation–to number two, the difference between the top two being the roll in which the lobster is packed.

A pint of clams from the Clam Shack

A pint of clams from the Clam Shack

Instead of the more tradition split top roll, the Clam Shack’s lobster is nestled into a grilled hamburger type bun–and what lovely, luscious lobster it is.  An entire pound of perfectly pink lobster, as many as ten chunks of hand-shredded claw and tail meat are stuffed into the roll then drizzled with shimmering melted butter (or dolloped with mayonnaise if that’s your preference).  There is so much utter deliciousness in this sandwich that you’ll literally close your eyes and savor it as you might ambrosia, the food of the gods.

Of course the name on the marquee is “Clam Shack” so it stands to reason that fried clams would be a specialty of this famous roadside stand.  They are.  Fresh and delicious clams fried to a golden hue and served in a traditional clam box are almost beyond good, beyond delicious.  They are–at the risk of alienating my friend Bob Sherwood who hates the word–almost sublime.  Save for a light batter, fried clams are unadulterated and simple, the essence of purity from the sea.  A squeeze of lemon, some cocktail sauce.  Forget it!  Like green chile, fried clams should never be tampered with.

For a true New England dessert experience, many Clam Shack visitors will have a whoopie pie, a snack cake constructed by sandwiching a very sweet, creamy frosting between two round mounds of chocolate cake.  Food historians indicate this sweet treat got its name because Amish farmers finding these treats in their lunch would shout “Whoopie!”  Frankly, after consuming fried clams and lobster rolls, the whoopie pie might elicit a reaction more like “whatever.”

Whoopie Pie From The Clam Shack

Whoopie Pie From The Clam Shack

Highfalutin, well-heeled Kennebunkport loves the dowdy little roadside stand at the Kennebunk River bridge.  You will, too!

The Clam Shack
2 Western Avenue (Route 9)
Kennebunkport, Maine
207-967-3321
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pint of Whole Bellied Clams, Lobster Roll, Whoopie Pie

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