Getting together with friends to savagely rip into crustaceans is truly fun.
I mean, ripping apart crabs on your first date is really not a dream date; stinking of crabs no matter how many times you wash your hands or soak them in lemons is problematic; and let’s face it, these bibs are far from sexy but so necessary for crab consumption as even the neatest eater will splash, poke, drip or otherwise mess up their clothes while feasting on crabs.
On Clement Street in San Francisco is one of three well-known crab places. I have been to Thanh Long, and now PPQ — but I have yet to try Crustacean, a sister restaurant to Thanh Long. So for this review, the comparison will mainly be between Thanh Long and PPQ.
First off, PPQ Dungeness Island is located in a better and more easily accessible area than Thanh Long which is in the Outer Sunset. The restaurant itself more casual than Thanh Long, the latter of which was actually much nicer than I had anticipated. PPQ Dungeness Island had large tables scattered throughout to accommodate large groups of people, and with each crab coming out on a big dish, each table needs space.
PPQ Dungeness Island has a good menu, but honestly, going to these places is always confusing to me. On the one hand, I want to try everything, but I can get Vietnamese food elsewhere without coming here; I come here to chow on crabs. On the other hand, not everyone you come with just wants crab, and these crabs are substantial.
The two things I know I will be ordering are crabs — and the essential order or orders of garlic noodles.
The dilemma is — do you order one big crab per person and garlic noodles to share, or share all the crab and garlic noodles — and order some other dishes?
On this evening, we opted for the latter. Two of my friends had been here before, so three of us just followed.
First up at PPQ Dungeness Island was a Cabbage Salad with Chicken ($8.95). Now I am normally not a big fan of cabbage in general, but this particular salad had a light dressing over fresh and thinly sliced cabbage with bits of chicken in it, and served as a really nice start to the meal.
We ordered some braised string beans, for $10.95. This dish was a good addition to the otherwise seafood and carb-enriched meal and was seasoned perfectly. While hot, it had also been cooked just enough to retain all the crunchiness. It tasted like it was oyster-sauce based.
Next up was the “Sizzling Beef” ($14.95). This tasted a lot like Korean Galbi, but neither the taste nor quality and cut of meat compared to galbi. Granted, it also costs a lot less than galbi, which normally costs about $24 per serving. It was served on a cast iron platter, and actually “sizzling” but for the same money, I’d opt for something else at PPQ Dungeness Island.
Other than these additional dishes and some steamed rice, we opted to order 3 crabs.
PPQ Dungeness Island gives you a five choices of cooking methods and/or taste when it comes to Dungeness Crab. You have the following options:
- Peppercorn Crab
- Roasted Crab
- Drunken Crab
- Curry Crab
- Spicy Crab
We chose the peppercorn, roasted, and spicy crab — and I think the choices were sound.
Of those, my favorite was the roasted crab.
While the peppercorn crab was roasted too, I felt the taste of garlic was more distinct in the roasted crab. That’s not to say this was too “peppery” but rather, the pepper didn’t add anything noticeable to this crab dish. What both this and the spicy crab had was a truly delicious chopped garlic, green onions, onions and spices mix accompanying it, as you can see close to the plate. This little concoction, mixed in with the garlic noodles or rice was phenomenal, and even better in the spicy crab version.
Between the three crab, the roasted crab was the plainest, but the flavor of crab was most pronounced in this dish. Moving forward, I would opt only for this crab at PPQ if I had a whole crab to myself. The seasoning was good with every bite needing for nothing more, and the crab remained juicy and flavorful to the last bite. I had the great fortune of digging out the innards from the shell of this particular crab and it was simply delicious. If you are eating just the legs that have been detached from the body already, and not digging out the wonders of what’s inside a crab shell (eggs, gunk, and all) — you are truly missing out. In fact, putting some rice into the shell, tossing in some of the garlic onion mix, and mixing it all to kingdom come would have probably been phenomenal!
The spicy crab was the most decorated and pleasing to the eye, and greatest in flavor, albeit added flavor. Oddly enough, I found the crab taste to be more noticeable in this one rather than the peppercorn crab. Again, the onion and garlic mixture that this dish was paired with was excellent, and this crab was noticeably deep-fried. Without a doubt, this was second choice in crabs.
For those that don’t know, the “drunken crab” option is usually a crab that has been marinated in white wine, and the aroma of wine within the meat is supposed to enhance the flavor of the crab. I can’t quite comment on it as I didn’t try it here but I did have it at Thanh Long.
So now, let’s compare.
Overall, I found the taste of the food better at Thanh Long that at PPQ Dungeness Island. My one time there, the service was exceptional and we ate an inordinate amount ordering sizzling beef, garlic noodles, three crabs, and dessert plus wine for two people. That said, perhaps due to a fancier decor and more personalized service, cost was also significantly higher for the dinner. At PPQ Dungeness Island, the service was about as much as one would expect from a Pho restaurant, though everyone was nice enough, and I believe, despite stating “market price” on the menu for each crab, that the overall cost was a lower. The atmosphere was also more conducive to big groups, and loud crowds, which — when eating crab — might be more relaxing and fun.
Nothing was wrong with the garlic noodles at PPQ Dungeness Island, but overall flavor lacked compared to Thanh Long, where the noodles had a bigger hint of garlic but the dish was also sweeter there. However, in subsequent visits, I’ve learned to appreciate the milder flavors in the garlic noodles at PPQ Dungeness Island, which give the crab flavors more room to stand out.
If you haven’t been to these Vietnamese crab places, I suggest you start with a visit to PPQ Dungeness Island first. Once you know how to enjoy this fare, then you can take a special someone to Thanh Long to enjoy a more private and even romantic meal (tearing crabs apart). No reason to pay the higher prices for what ultimately become subtle differences between the two places. Just note — like I said — this is NOT a first (or even third) date kind of place; go with someone you are comfortable with and have a feast!
PPQ Dungeness Island Vietnamese Cuisine is located at 2332 Clement Street 24th and 25th Avenues. They are opened every day except Tuesday, and dinner service lasts until 10 P.M. nightly. It appears they are open for lunch also, with basically the same menu. PPQ only serves beer and wine, and the selection of either pales in comparison to Thanh Long, but this is not really where you go to drinks heavily. Their entire menu can be found here on their website, excluding specials. One hour validated parking is complimentary in a lot on the same street, located between 23rd and 24th Avenues, and it’s wise to use it as dinnertime in this area is often madness! Always expect a line here and plan accordingly.
Addictive Factor: 8/10
Overall Rating: 7.6/10
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.