Crab House at Pier 39 – San Francisco, California

The Crab House at Pier 39
The Crab House at Pier 39

Every town has them–the touristy attractions every out-of-town visitor wants to hit and locals avoid like a Lobo basketball team coached by Ritchie McKay. To visitors, these attractions represent what your town is all about and nothing you tell them will dissuade them from thinking so.  After all, your local Chamber of Commerce paints these attractions as “can’t miss” and “absolutely must see.”

Generally packaged with these touristy attractions are  dining destinations that promise to deliver authentic local flavor–the cuisine de culture so to speak.

In Albuquerque that generally means a meal at a New Mexican restaurant–usually one with the stereotypical accoutrements that more closely represent Old Mexico than New Mexico. Invariably, in the Duke City those package deal restaurants feature cuisine whose red chile has the piquancy of Chef Boyardee tomato sauce and its green chile, the heat equivalent of a bell pepper.  An authentic experience?  Hardly, but many out-of-town visitors wouldn’t have a clue.

To most first-time visitors, a San Francisco vacation or business trip would be incomplete without a trek to the storied Pier 39 and a meal at one of its seafood restaurants.  Never mind that locals will try to talk you out of it.  Most of us will disregard the fact that nearly everyone else visiting this landmark area is gawking in awe and bumping into other tourists as they photograph heretofore unseen attractions that look just like the pictures on the guide books.

During at least half of my dozen or so visits to San Francisco, I’ve played “host” to colleagues visiting the “The City” for the first time.  Being a good host, it’s meant about six visits and six meals at Pier 39. It’s meant sacrificing a fabulous meal at Michael Mina or Aqua and partaking of a nice meal at a Pier 39 restaurant.  While the former are highly regarded by locals in the know, the latter are known by tourists thanks to guide books extolling their culinary virtues.

Don’t get me wrong.  Almost every one of the seafood restaurants at Pier 39 serves seafood that’s vastly superior and infinitely more fresh (like right out of a boat) than we can possibly ever get in land-locked Albuquerque.  Similarly, a tourist visiting one of our locally eschewed New Mexican restaurants would likely consider the meal fabulous (despite the perceived “heat” of the chile.)

With three colleagues in tow (two of whom had never visited the city) during a 2008 business jaunt to San Francisco,  the de rigueur visit and meal at Pier 39 was inevitable.  Fortunately, my inaugural visit to the Crab House several years ago left enough of an impression for a repeat visit.  Michael Mina and Aqua would have to wait–again.

Crab Cocktail
Crab Cocktail

Throughout San Francisco, signs pointing the way to Fisherman’s Wharf feature the distinctive shape of Dungeness crab, the symbol of the Golden Gate fishing industry.  Dungeness crab is a meaty crustacean and the signature entree at the Crab House where it weighs in at two pounds plus.  Its minimum legal size is 6.25 inches across the carapace (upper shell).

The most popular entree at the Crab House is a sizzling iron skillet-roasted platter brimming with crab and mussels or shrimp.  All eyes follow the wait staff when they deliver this treasure trove to a nearby table where diners are practically salivating in anticipation.

The aroma of the roasted seafood intensifies when the wait staff drizzles on garlicky crab butter sauce.  If you didn’t order this entree yourself, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having done so.

It’s not that other entrees on the menu are relegated to “consolation prize” status.  It’s just that there’s nothing quite like roasted Dungeness crab with all the trimmings.

Dungeness crab, in all its manifestations, is deliciousness incarnate.  At the Crab House there are many ways in which to have it, including crab enchiladas which a friend and colleague had and enjoyed very much.  About the only thing you won’t see on the menu are crab desserts.

Zuppa di Pesce, a mixed seafood stew
Zuppa di Pesce, a mixed seafood stew

A nice way to start a meal at the Crab House  is with a steaming cup or bowl of crab chowder.  Similar to clam chowder, its East coast counterpart, crab chowder cuts through the damp air and warms the cockles of your heart.  This version of crab chowder is replete with crab, absolutely no scrimping on portions here.

Another excellent starter is the crab cocktail made with housemade cocktail sauce.  This crab cocktail is more akin to a crab salad than a traditional shrimp cocktail.  A generous bounty of crab meat is piled on top of mixed baby greens and tomatoes drizzled with a light ginger dressing.  The cocktail sauce is rather on the tepid side with barely any horseradish influence.  Still, this is an excellent way to start a meal.

If you’re famished, the Zuppa di Pesce, a mixed seafood stew will cure what ails you.  It’s served in a swimming pool sized tureen with a whole bay’s worth of seafood–fish, mussels, crab, octopus.  The tomato-based broth is lightly seasoned so as not to detract from the seafood’s natural brininess.  Zuppa di Pesce is one of my favorite meals in San Francisco and the Crab House does a good job with this entree. The Crab House may be situated in a tourist-laden destination, but I sure wish it was in my neighborhood.

Crab House at Pier 39
203C Pier 39
San Francisco, CA
(415) 434-2722

LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Zuppa di Pesce, Crab Cocktail

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