Soft-Shell Crabs at Poor Phil's: Culinary Rite of Spring

The whole creature. On a bun.

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By David Hammond

Some of us welcome the coming of warm weather chow to our tables with locally grown radishes, asparagus or pea shoots. My personal culinary rite of spring is all about soft-shell crabs, which usually begin to be harvested after the first full moon in May.

Spotting the Wednesday Journal advert for Poor Phil's soft-shell crabs, I went over for lunch. These once-a-year crustaceans are served three ways: one crab appetizer ($14.95); one crab on a bun with a side ($17.95); or two crabs with a side ($27.95). I went with one on a bun.

Crab is probably one of my favorite kinds of seafood. I usually prefer snow or king crab to some other varieties, because you get a fair amount of meat relative to shell, and it's easy to extract the luscious white meat. Though I know some people adore Dungeness crab, I just don't get it; it makes no sense to me: you labor for a long time to gain a little sliver of meat from a Dungeness crab that might be tasty, but it's so small it's actually hard to discern the flavor. Life is too short.

Soft shell crabs, however, are probably the easiest of all crabs to eat: the exoskeletons are soft enough so that you can eat just about the whole animal (except for the mouth, gills and abdomen, which are removed prior to cooking). The shell is soft because the crabs are harvested at the moment of molting. There are several types of soft shell crabs, but in the United States, it's mostly blue crabs that get the honor of being eaten by me.

Poor Phil's did a good rendition of this soft-shell crab, with light breading and just a smear of honey mustard sauce so that the flavor of the crab came through clearly, and the crunch contrasted nicely with the soft ciabatta bread (which can sometimes be maddeningly chewy, but not at Poor Phil's). Friend of mine -- chef at a private dining club in Chicago who grew up on the East Coast, where crabs are commonplace – saw my picture of the Poor Phil's soft-shell on ciabatta (above) and commented "Bread is wrong type...Ciabatta, Baguette, etc...are all wrong. Classic Chesapeake Bay area rendition in made on a cheap, squishy burger bun or white bread. Crab flavor will never come through on a full flavored/textured bread." I pretty much agree with this sentiment, but the ciabatta at Poor Phil's was so plush and pliable that it didn't really block the taste of the crab much at all.

Although this crustacean is fried, it's not greasy because very little fat is absorbed by the tasty creature: the soft shell is relatively impermeable. With a side of Cole slaw, this sandwich was a good, light lunch, if a little pricey at about $25 (which includes tax and 20% tip).

I had recently tried to order soft-shell crabs at several places, including the wonderful and iconic Heaven on Seven in the Loop, but the order was apparently forgotten so I went without. Then last week at hip and cool Homestead on the Roof, the server clearly tried to dissuade me from ordering them. I started to wonder if maybe the restaurants were actually not serving soft-shell because their wholesale price was too high. I called my friends at Supreme Lobster, and they told me the retail price for them is $5.99/each, raw, which seems reasonable and in line with soft-shell crabs I've purchased in the past.

Having lunch outside on sidewalk tables is another excellent way to inaugurate the warmer weather, and Poor Phil's is one of those neighborhood Oak Park places that have helped define our community. I don't mind – if perhaps only once every year – paying a bit of a premium for soft-shell crabs at this local institution.


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