By: Robey Martin
Robey Martin is a food and beverage writer in Richmond, Virginia. She is also a Marco Style accomplice: when we get together, you don’t know what will happen, but there’s a good chance bubbly will be involved.
Guys, it’s softie season! I couldn’t be happier. (Well, that’s lies because soon it’ll be softie and tomato season and I’ll have to hit food control-alt-delete for my own sanity.)
Oh, soft-shell crabs, how I love you. Definitely in my top five seasonal snack, I can’t get enough in season and I’ve been known to stare wistfully at photos of past crab conquests from other seasons.
[Sidebar: I wish Genevelyn Steele (writer for Richmond Magazine) would write a five favorites column for the crustacean. It’d be certain to include some hyper local, off-the-map, somewhere-in-Southside hole-in-the-wall that catches them one-by-one in their own secret spot on the Bay and cooks them to order for five bucks and a wink. They’d be paired with naturally-sourced wine culled together by Steele and Jason Tesauro (of Barboursville Vineyards) in the twenty minutes they had of free time in 2014, 2015 and 2016—Tesauro sporting an ascot and Steele killing it in a Fedora, of course. A girl can dream, right?]
If you are unfamiliar with the goodness of a soft shell, here’s a real quick run down. Brace yourself, the description is decidedly unappetizing. That snake skin thing you’ve seen in fields, etc? Essentially, a blue crab performs the same feat under water and around April-ish onward. Once it pops off that extra layer, it’s on. The whole crab, minus a few little parts, can be eaten—no crab cracking injuries.
Where can you get these newbie strippers in Richmond?
Here are a few of my favorite places. Of course, I am always looking for suggestions, so please share in the comments.
For the uninitiated: Acacia
Rumor has it, Dale Reitzer, chef/owner of Acacia, has a top secret “If I tell you, I have to kill you” spot to procure his soft shells. I can’t verify that gossip but I can tell you that the soft shell is dynamite. It’s lightly battered and fried to a crisp – so those squeamish about the texture can tip-toe into soft-shell waters. Look out for his soft-shell sando lunch days (Sign up for his email list or follow the restaurant’s blog. They are served out of the side door of Acacia, located on Robinson Street, on select days). They are what I call Richmond’s Big Mac of Soft-Shell Sando, complete with lettuce, tomato and secret sauce.
For the purist: Dinamo
Dinamo runs incredibly fresh softshells on special certain nights during their season. The preparation is a light flour, a brief saute, a little garlic, a lotta basil and some lemon. So simple, so sexy. Orders are either one as an appetizer or two for dinner. Save yourself and your server the repeat ordering and the running back and forth and just get four. Bring a friend. Have them also get four.
For the creative: Southbound
Craig Perkinson has to love soft shells as much as I do. Perkinson, chef de cuisine at Southbound, whimsically plates soft shells myriad ways all during the season. The latest is a tempura fry with crab mayo, a Szechuan spice and stacked sesame pickles. Last season Perkinson plopped a softie on his house brioche and added some tomato jam and a pea salad. I remember that crab like it was yesterday.
For the adventurous with a big appetite: Mekong/The Answer
Before anyone asks, YES! I’ll absolutely meet you at either restaurant for a plate of soft shells. But I want my own plate. Beware these babies (at Mekong) come three or four to one plate, battered and fried, with your choice of sauce. Don’t pass go – just get the ginger scallion. Don’t worry about the second sauce choice (I mean, it’s a delicious sweet and sour tamarind so if that’s your jam….worry). I could eat nine plates. One sitting.
**Marco Style interjection: clearly Robey and I need a Mekong soft-shell crab off because I am firmly team tamarind sauce. Sweet, sour, umami forever!
At the Answer (I may know this soft shell intimately, just check the name on the menu), the soft shell comes legs out in a Banh mi. Soft bread, a fried soft shell and pickled vegetables sounds like lunch to me.
Marco Style-Soft-Shell Crab Pick: Upper Shirley
Megan here with my favorite softie so far this season. Upper Shirley Vineyards serves two lightly fried over a salad of local lettuces, Green Goddess dressing, asparagus, radish, spring peas, chilled baby potatoes, lemon, and mint. The salad tastes so fresh you can almost pretend you’re eating something healthy. Pair with Upper Shirley’s sparkling rose and let me know if you don’t think the 45-minute drive was worth your while.