With Dungeness crab season kicking off last month and people looking for places to take out-of-town holiday guests to enjoy one of our great local treasures, I decided to share five of my favorite classic preparations around the Northside. I love crab piled on a Louis salad, simmering in cioppino, Chinese fried, tossed with pasta, or, best of all, straight from the steaming pots at historic Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s no place in San Francisco where the crab is fresher and comes with views (and most places offer free two-hour validated parking), so it’s no coincidence that three of my five picks are at the Wharf.
FRESH CRAB: ALIOTO-LAZIO FISH COMPANY
440 Jefferson Street (at Hyde), 888-673-5868,
You can’t beat crab straight from the steaming pots at the Wharf served in all its sweet, naked glory or with just a squeeze of lemon (and maybe a quick dip in some melted butter). Sisters Annette Traverso and Angela Cincotta are the third generation operating the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company, a woman-owned business that has been located on Fisherman’s Wharf for over 70 years. One of the last family owned and operated fishing companies in San Francisco, Alioto-Lazio serves the freshest, most succulent Dungeness crab on the planet sold live, whole cooked, or cleaned and cracked. They also ship their crustaceans overnight almost anywhere (a great gift idea for those hard-to-buy-for relatives). If you haven’t had crab from the first ladies of the Wharf, you’re missing one of San Francisco’s greatest gastronomic pleasures, as well as a part of the history that makes this city unique.
CRAB LOUIE: FISHERMEN’S GROTTO NO. 9
Pier 45 (at Taylor), 415-673-7025,
People rave about the crab salad at Swan Oyster Depot, but for $24.50, all you get is some crab on a big pile of lettuce — that’s not a Louis. When I want a truly classic crab Louie, I always head to the Grotto, the only restaurant I’ve found where you have to dig through the crab to find the lettuce. Over half a pound of fresh-picked Dungeness is piled on a bed of crisp iceberg lettuce and garnished with hard-boiled egg, tomato, black olives, and beets cut into little stars. My ritual begins with a squeeze of fresh lemon over the crabmeat followed by a generous drizzle of the rich and thick, sweet and tangy housemade dressing.
CRAB CIOPPINO:SOTTO MARE
552 Green Street (near Columbus), 415-398-3181, www.sottomaresf.com
Gigi Fiorucci’s signature crab cioppino is so legendary that the highly regarded national food magazine Saveur featured the recipe on its lauded pages. Fellow Marina Times food writer Ernie Beyl said of it in his 2010 Northside San Francisco magazine review: “It was exceptional, a brilliant rendition of an old San Francisco standby, served in a large silver bowl with a lid. In a pungent, tomatoey broth were Dungeness crab legs and body meat lurking in their gelatinous shells, calamari, shrimp, clams, mussels, and even a few penne pasta. It’s the hottest item on the menu and perhaps the most satisfying.” I couldn’t have said it better — in fact, I believe Sotto Mare has the best rendition of cioppino in town (and yes, it’s better than Tadich Grill’s).
CRAB ALFREDO: THE FRANCISCAN CRAB RESTAURANT
Pier 43½ (at The Embarcadero), 415-362-7733, www.franciscanrestaurant.com
There are myriad ways to enjoy Dungeness at the Franciscan Crab Restaurant (hence the name), from whole roasted in secret garlic sauce to tucked inside enchiladas, but my favorite dish is the crab Alfredo, a generous heap of crab meat (including chunky legs) tossed in a creamy, buttery sauce that’s lighter than expected, allowing the crustacean to shine. The Franciscan also offers one of the best prix-fixe menus around — $29.95 for a cup of clam chowder or a house salad, an entrée and dessert (luscious house-made “kustard” ice cream) — and crab Alfredo is one of the entrée choices. If you haven’t been to the Franciscan in a long time, the multimillion-dollar renovation provides a stunning setting to check out the multimillion-dollar views.
CRAB IN SALTED EGG YOLK BATTER: R&G LOUNGE
631 Kearney (at Commercial Alley), 415-982-7877, www.rnglounge.com
R&G has long been regarded as one of the Bay Area’s best Chinese restaurants. They’re famous for salt and pepper crab, but fellow Marina Times food writer Tony Ching says you can get that version done well at a number of places (including Thanh Long, their sister restaurant, Crustacean, and PPQ Dungeness Island). When Tony heads to R&G, it’s for salted egg yolk Dungeness crab. Salted eggs are an Asian delicacy (they’re also used to make mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival). An egg (usually duck) is brined, rendering the white intensely salty and leaving the yolk with a subtler salinity and bright orange hue. At R&G, they use the yolk to make a batter in which they dip the crab and then fry it.