Anyone who knows me understands two things about me: (1) I love seafood; and (2) I love spicy food. So it goes without saying that when someone suggests a spicy seafood option, I’m all about trying it out. My friend Michael commenting, “I cannot believe you are going to San Jose for this!” tells it all; ordinarily, left to me, I have no cause to go that far south if not for The Boiling Crab in San Jose.
To give you an idea of how ridiculous the wait is, my friend John got there at 5:30 and we were eventually seated at 7:15. The entire chain doesn’t take reservations and frankly, I can’t blame them. The demand was clearly there and why have any downtime waiting for late patrons when you have a line out the door?
Now let’s think about this. You have several crab options as well as lobster, clams, etc. All are prepared in your choice of sauce and spicy level, inside of a bag and thrown onto your table. I figure with the crustaceans, they cost more but the bulk of their weight is the shell–and to this day, I have not been able to find anything respectable way to eat the shell. At market price ($11/lb. yesterday for Dungeness), this is not a really cost-effective way of eating. Factor in that the shrimp, with their weightless “shell” and much more meat (not to mention less labor), sounded like the best deal.
And I love shrimp.
So why not?
Now I eat spicier than anyone in the world, excepting this one friend whom I will call SY, who just may have me beat by a notch or two. So when the server (who was also quite pleasant and accommodating) approached us, I asked just how spicy I could get my one pound serving of shrimp. To this, he replied, “We can make it 3X the XXX version if you can handle it.” Music to my ears…. 9x spicy?
What emerged was a beautiful sight for any seafood lover. The Boiling Crab in San Jose offered a plastic bag generously filled with shrimp that was nicely cooked and the optional “potatoes” option I had ordered. The starch and carbohydrates of the potatoes were necessary to balance the flavors of this dish though I had also ordered a service of rice, shown below. Mr. K ordered the king crab legs and another friend ordered the snow crab legs. All of it is cooked in the exact same way.
So here’s what I found.
First. the 9x spicy is misleading. I don’t know what the “XXX” level is, but 3X that is nothing to write home about. Any of you who can really handle spicy will take one bite and realize the majority is chili oil. There’s a subdued heat at the tail end of swallowing but it quickly dissipates. There was no delirium; there was no sweating involved in the processing of eating the whole bag of shrimp. Furthermore, I found my sauce to be blander than the sauce of others’ plastic bags, probably because mine contained so much more chili oil than theirs, essentially flattening out the heavy spices and garlic flavor. Everyone else had ordered “mild level spice” and based upon a taste of each, theirs had more flavor due to the higher salt content.
That said, when I got to the bottom of the plastic bag, I scooped around to find large chunks of peppers, garlic and other goodies, which I then scooped up and poured onto my rice to mix up. Essentially, it was a makeshift “bibim bap”. To break up some of the chili oil, I squeezed in some of the fresh lime and a dash of salt — and voila, PERFECT!
While I had hoped this would be an appetizer, everything came out out at the same time so the oysters really didn’t receive much love on this evening. I alone ate half of them, no doubt. I asked what kind they were, and the server did tell me–but I, of course, couldn’t hear him and the table was already in such disarray, I didn’t ask again. They were extremely mild in flavor–probably just right for a newbie to oysters–but then they were also quite meaty, which could present a problem to those with textural “issues”. The cocktail sauce presented was crisp and flavorful but all you really need is the Tabasco sauce and a squeeze of fresh limes.
In addition to the boiled items in plastic bags and the oysters, The Boiling Crab also has a selection of fried items. Not being one to turn down fried anything, I opted for the fried shrimp which happened to come out on top of a bed of sweet potato fries. The shrimp had a nice, crisp breading on it and was nicely seasoned on its own to not require additional sauce. Some in my dining party claimed to have enjoyed this the most! While I would disagree, it was good–and I think if you have children in your party, this and the fried catfish would be ideal choices to include as much of the plastic bag items require intensive labor to get to the food. The sweet potato fries were very good; crisp on the outside with a warm and mildly sweet softness on the inside, I’d opt to order these each time.
For regular appetites, the 1 lb order of any of the shrimp would be ideal, especially if you opt to include sausages, potatoes, corn or other goodies–all available as add-ons. For the truly hearty folks, perhaps 1 lb. is not enough–and then you can add-on by half a pound to your heart’s desire. In my case, I ordered the 1 lb of shrimp in a bag with potatoes–and even ordered a rice, and together, I can tell you I contemplated ordering a gurney to wheel me out of there. Nobody had a gun to my head to finish the rice, but as mentioned–how could I refuse spicy sauce w/ rice and lime? (I should have taken a photo of that!)
For the crab legs and Dungeness crab, etc. — I can’t imagine anyone but truly dainty appetites being filled with one order. I suppose one will need to order multiple pounds at market price for crab or lobster–but given the amount of meat in a 2 lbs lobster–I’d need to stop by McDonald’s on my way home, I think. But, you can add in a half pound order of shrimp to the mix, as Mr. K did, and opt for the rice, too.
As you can see, the end result is pretty savage. I see why they contribute to the ozone layer with so many disposable items, as how is a person to ever pick out the reusable items from this mess? (And our mess was a controlled mess compared to some other tables there!) The staff just picks up the entire white sheet off the table and disposes of everything in it. Global warming aside–it’s a fun picnic-esque type of eating.
Speaking of fun–that was the best part of the meal at The Boiling Crab. The sauce and seafood items, I found to be better at Craw Station in San Francisco. The sheer heat when you ask for it, plus the texture of the shrimp were better there; in fact, it took me hours before my mouth stopped burning and my senses came back to me after that meal. But The Boiling Crab is larger and more conducive to a large party; the noise level is high enough so that nobody is particularly noticed, and on a Sunday night, many families were clearly enjoying dinner out.
It’s also an awkward place for a first date. Spicy sauce and oils will be dripping down your chin and shrimp skin, garlic pieces and other non-apparel items will undoubtedly don your clothing. I started off well-mannered, using only two fingers on each hand, but it was a matter of minutes before my hands looked like I had maimed someone. To hell with class!
Do take note that at 9 PM, there was still a line of people waiting to get seated. If you come here hungry, you will most likely run off to one of the many food establishments in the strip mall before you actually get seated, or risk hypoglycemia to get a plastic bag of your own.
View the available locations and menu here. The location I visited was the newer one on Curtner Ave.
Addictive Factor: 8.5/10
Overall Rating: 7.85/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.