Friday, April 18, 2014     Volume: 28, Issue: 38
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New Times / Cuisine

Red king crab rules


If you love crab as much as I do, you’ll be eager to tackle the delicious big boy pictured above. And don’t let those sharp-spiked thick red shells scare you off. With the right kitchen pliers and sharp picks in hand, the shell easily breaks away to reveal its sweet and succulent meat. While many people love the richness of drawn butter and horseradish-tinged cocktail sauce, I think there’s nothing better than the subtle scent of a freshly cut lime squeezed over the crab meat. Ah, but there is one catch—there’s only one place on the Central Coast that features this unusual specialty: the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach. 

Chef Mike McGourty expertly cracks the huge red king crab like it’s child’s play.

Restaurateurs Mike and Kathy Lee have been offering this one-of-a kind treat for several years now. Mike discovered the popular red king crab while touring the Dutch Harbor in the Bering Sea. In fact, he still tries to go back annually because of his love for fishing and to stay connected with the fishermen who work a dangerous job. Dutch Harbor was featured on Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel.

Admittedly, I’m a California native who believes nothing beats a fresh Dungeness crab during the peak of the season. For your information, their season is during the months without an “r,” May through August. I prefer Dungeness crab because its meat is so delicate and exquisitely sweet, it doesn’t require any kind of sauce to improve it. Sauces only mask the flavor of the Dungeness crab meat. In all honesty, I’ve never been impressed by the bland flavors of snow or king crabs in any form or manner. I wasn’t, that is, until I tasted the Alaskan red king crab at the Cracked Crab.

During a promotional tasting of the red king crab, Cracked Crab chef Michael McGourty prepared an epic meal to prove just how good it does taste. We began with a delicious appetizer of Morro Bay oysters with mignonette sauce that was nicely complemented by a zingy Tolosa 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Edna Valley. His creamy crab bisque laced with sherry and cayenne pepper was delicious with Tolosa’s 2012 no-oak chardonnay. The wine’s crisp fruit characters were a lovely contrast to the rich soup. The next course was king crab tails, which I’d never heard of before. On a Dungeness crab the tail-looking part is strictly shell, but the king’s tail is meaty and chewy like a clam, also tasty with the no-oak chard.

The grand finale was the introduction of the monster-sized red king crab at its full size. The chef said each leg weighs a pound. It was so succulent, and it tasted great with just a squeeze of the freshly cut lime. I was sold.

The red king crab is a native of the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. According to Wikipedia its species is Paralithodes camtschaticus, which has a carapace (body shell) that can reach a width of 11 inches and a leg span of 6 feet. It’s named after the color it turns when cooked, bright scarlet red. It is the most prized of the three commercial king crab species, which naturally makes it one of the more difficult ones to catch. Despite U.S. fishing controls there has been a constant decline in their growth as they were being fished out. And that’s why the fishing season is quite short. However, the population is growing again and jumped 9 percent last year.

The Alaskan red king crab, prized for its sweet crab meat, weighs an impressive 8 to 10 pounds each.

I was happy to hear Mike explain they only buy from an American fishing company in the Bering Sea that goes above the usual standard of quality. “We toured the entire plant to see their standards. They only take the male crabs, never the females. That’s because one male can fertilize 100 females, and most crabs are over 25 years old,” Lee explained. “We are their only domestic customer, and I’ve developed a relationship with the fishermen. Red king crab legs are filled with meat, unlike most other crabs. We pay extra to have them cooked and cooled in an icy bath before they are shipped to us. They are shipped with an icy coating to keep them fresh when they arrive here.”

Currently, the Cracked Crab is offering a great event, “Get Crabby in Pismo Beach.” It features a package deal from March through June, offering a mid-week, one night stay at the Cliffs for $189 (plus tax and resort fee), wine tasting at Tolosa’s tasting room, and a bucket of crab dinner with sausage, potatoes, and corn-on-the-cob at the restaurant. For reservations call 800-826-7827, while they still have space.

Get crabby
The Cracked Crab is at 751 Price St. in Pismo Beach. For more information, call 773-2722.

Chef McGourty, who often accompanies the Lees to Dutch Harbor, explained this is his ninth summer at the Cracked Crab. A native of Nantucket, he grew up cooking many kinds of fish fresh from the Atlantic Ocean. He’s making some exceptional dishes with the red king crab among other dishes, like Dungeness crab. It’s no wonder this seafood temple serves so many tourists and locals daily.

“Sustainability is a big issue here. We support domestically raised abalone, bakeries, wines, and brews. We are spoiled on the quality of ingredients we have around the county,” McGourty noted. “Fish isn’t salty from the ocean; it’s all about how you treat it. When you can taste the freshness, you know you have good quality.” 

Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at