Marylanders love their soft-shells, while Mainers tout the peekytoe; Floridians insist on stone crabs, Alaskans flaunt their long-legged kings. But ask any native of California, Oregon, or Washington State, and we'll tell you the truth: Dungeness rules. Legions of us on the West Coast adore the sweet, abundant meat of our indigenous crab as much as Northeasterners love lobster.
Even we fans of Dungeness are divided. Pacific Northwesterners prefer specimens trapped in their cold northerly waters—and they're quick to point out that the town of Dungeness, for which the crabs are named, is, after all, in the state of Washington. We Californians, on the other hand, insist on crustaceans from our own warmer waters. Although the crabs are fished from Santa Barbara all the way up the coast, aficionados consider those caught around the San Francisco Bay Area to have the best flavor and texture.
There is nothing more delicious than a cracked fresh Dungeness, served with lemon and drawn butter, maybe a little cocktail sauce, some crusty San Francisco sourdough, and a glass of Chardonnay. (I don't even particularly like Chardonnay, but its apple and pear flavors complement the crab's natural sweetness.) So, at the height of Dungeness season, which runs from November through June (with the best available early in the season), I got into my car and zigzagged across northern California, from Half Moon Bay to northern Sonoma County, in search of the most delicious preparations of Dungeness. Here's what I found.
KETCH JOANNE & HARBOR BAR A large proportion of the Bay Area's Dungeness crabs come out of Pillar Point Harbor, five miles north of Half Moon Bay, past hillsides blanketed with yellow wildflowers. There, hand-painted signs flutter over small crab boats, announcing their catch and the price—four bucks a pound. As savvy locals traverse the rickety docks to buy live crabs directly off the boats, and a row of fish shanties boil them up on the spot. The most inviting of these is Ketch Joanne, a salty-dog kind of place, decorated with captain's wheels and old photos of seafarers. I tried the cioppino, a fish soup believed to have been invented in the 19th century by the Bay Area's Italian and Portuguese fishermen to make use of their bounty; old-timers swear that cioppino is the only way to eat Dungeness. The steaming bowl of tomatoey fish broth flavored with carrots and celery had plenty of crab and was tasty and warming on the chilly February day. Yet if truth be told, when crab is cooked in broth, the texture suffers; the meat becomes a little hard and loses its flavor. The search continued. Pillar Point Harbor, Princeton-by-the-Sea; 650/728-3747; lunch for two $50.
NAVIO Peter Rudolph, chef de cuisine of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, so reveres Dungeness crab that he makes it the basis of his signature dish: Dungeness crab salad with artichoke "carpaccio," pickled chanterelles, and baby celery. Rudolph explained the reason Bay Area crabs are the best: "They need forty- to fifty-degree water," he said. "The temperature affects the mouth-feel. The ones from here have lighter texture and sweeter meat." For his Dungeness dish, he commissioned a local farmer to come up with a combination of microgreens—baby clover, chervil, young celery lettuce, red Swiss chard—that would best complement the crab. It's terrific: the mixture is moist, with the right touch of lemon to highlight the crab's sweetness, topped with succulent Dungeness leg meat and a delicate tangle of greens. The "carpaccio," tender, very thin slices of lightly marinated artichoke heart, offsets the other ingredients perfectly, and the pickled chanterelles act as flavorful exclamation points. 1 Miramontes Point Rd., Half Moon Bay; 650/712-7040; dinner for two $130.
MERENDA Dramatic views of the Pacific revealed themselves around every mountainous curve as I drove north to San Francisco on Highway 1. I settled on dinner at Merenda, a tiny, tomato-soup-red trattoria in the city's up-and-coming Cow Hollow district. Though the restaurant is better known for hand-cut spaghetti, here I discovered an unexpected rendition of Dungeness crab. Chef Keith Luce folds crabmeat into a mousse of petrale sole (another California favorite); a creamy slice of the resulting terrine tasted like an elegant version of gefilte fish, dressed up with a hint of tarragon. The dish was served with baby mâche, cucumbers, and a drizzle of vinaigrette made with a fragrant, fruity olive oil. 1809 Union St., San Francisco; 415/346-7373; dinner for two $80.
SWAN OYSTER DEPOT Plunk down onto one of the 17 rickety wooden stools at the counter of this San Francisco institution for a taste of the greatest crab Louis in town. This no-nonsense version of the California classic is a hundred times greater than the sum of its parts: shredded iceberg lettuce and mounds of plump, just-cooked Dungeness crab, all coated with a by-the-book Louis dressing—good mayo spiked with ketchup, chopped olives, eggs, and relish—and garnished with lemon wedges. Though I was tempted to pair it with a glass of white wine, something told me a pint of Anchor Steam would be just the thing (perhaps it was the neon beer signs?). I could have stayed all afternoon, munching crusty slices of San Francisco sourdough, watching the countermen (five brothers) shuck oysters and flop fish onto the old-fashioned scales, but I felt it was my gastronomo-civic duty to cede my seat to one of the folks patiently waiting in the line that snaked out the door. 1517 Polk St., San Francisco; 415/673-1101; lunch for two $50.