Dungeness crab is a beloved local ingredient, pulled out of the foggy bay, piled high on the wharf. Our native crustacean thrives all the way up the coast, but it has a strong presence here, in the city that surrounds the bay like a natural pot. During the gold rush, Chinese immigrants were wading into the bay, and by the 1890s, Italian immigrants were settling in North Beach, particularly Ligurian fishermen venturing further west in search of fresh waters. Compared to other types of crabs across the States, Dungeness is a wild creature with jagged edges and white-tipped claws. But unlike smaller crabs which smash under a hammer, it cracks hard and clean, releasing big gems of sweet and milky meat.
Dungeness is also a hallmark of the holidays. Typically, the season starts Nov. 15, so, while, back east, people enjoy summer lobster bakes, out west, we feast on crab for Christmas. On a chill winter’s eve, it stars in big buttery crab feeds with artichokes and sourdough, Italian American cioppino with tomatoes and garlic, Chinese American fry-ups with salt and pepper, and Vietnamese American beer boils with spicy garlic noodles.
Except it’s scuttled off the menu in recent years. Dungeness should be exceptionally sustainable because fishermen only harvest males at a certain size during a set season. But, starting in 2015, warmer waters have resulted in algae blooms that release domoic acid, a toxin that causes shellfish poisoning, which may lead to not just an upset stomach, but memory loss. That season was a disaster: Delayed by more than four months, fishermen completely missed the holidays, losing an estimated $49 million. Also, fishermen’s strikes and whales tangled in nets have cut seasons short.
Every year since, and the seasons are shorter; the prices are up. It’s unknown whether it’s a fleeting anomaly—or a result of global warming and here to stay. “My crystal ball has never been clear, and anyone who thinks he can count the number of fish in the ocean is full of it,” says Larry “Diver Duck” Collins, president of the SF Community Fishing Association, a cooperative that advocates for small fishermen. Collins has been fishing these waters for more than 35 years, and as California king salmon has dramatically declined, crab is now the bulk of his business. “Come Nov. 15, we’ll be ready to throw pots into the water,” Collins shrugs. “We want to get you crab for Christmas, and we’re working with the lightest touch we can.”
The chefs are ready and waiting. Of the classic seafood houses, Patricia Unterman at Hayes Street Grill (hayesstreetgrill.com) has served fish to the opera crowd for 40 years. She plunges crab in water “as salty as the sea” and serves it old-school, either warm with butter or chilled with mayo. The moment it arrives, she fires off an email to her regulars, and plates up half a cracked crab with aioli and a salad of citrus, asparagus or artichokes as the season unfolds. “I’m committed to the whole crab experience,” Unterman says. “Give a little blessing, a thank-you to the spirits that be, every time you eat a beautiful animal like a Dungeness crab.”
Carrying on the Italian American tradition, the legendary Nancy Oakes from Boulevard is taking over the kitchen at the new Tosca Cafe (toscacafesf.com) and bringing back the cioppino. “Italians have that sense of place, and it’s a celebration of where we live,” Oakes declares. “We’ll just find out how messy people want to get.” She’ll be arming diners with a dignified fabric bib, but there’s also a tidier toast option at the bar. For her North Beach fisherman’s stew, she starts with tomato and fennel, using white wine and shells to fortify the stock, and plans to rotate the fish based on availability. Of course, it comes with sweet white sourdough for dunking.
Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s (misterjius.com) has an uncle who worked at a tackle shop in the Sunset, and would show up at Thanksgiving with a few crabs and throw them into a hot wok with black beans. “Oh, it’s a mess,” he reminisces, “almost like the chicken wing of seafood.” He also respects R&G Lounge’s (rnglounge.com) salt-and-pepper crab, a Chinatown golden icon, battered and deep-fried. At his restaurant, he breaks down the whole animal. “As a local, it’s my responsibility to know this ingredient inside and out, use all of the parts and train my cooks to go to town.” For a big family-style platter, he folds the body into sticky rice, uses the shells to infuse a savory custard, places the lumps on top and tosses shreds into a chrysanthemum salad.
Charles Phan at The Slanted Door (slanteddoor.com) has been serving crab for nearly 25 years. “It’s one of those little treasures that we have in San Francisco,” says Phan, whose brothers are all recreational fishermen. “But less and less fish is coming out of the Bay.” He says the Vietnamese love to steam crab in beer, knocking off New Orleans-style shellfish boils. He’s referring to PPQ Dungeness Island (ppqcrab.com), which also roasts crabs in garlic and butter. At Slanted Door, the claim to fame is the crab with cellophane noodles. The noodles, made of mung beans, are tangled with crab, sesame and scallions.
Larry Collins is cautiously hopeful this year. In autumn 2015, the year of the big bloom, water temperatures peaked at 64 degrees. At press time, it was trending down to 59. There is another warm blob of water forming in the Pacific, as reported by marine biologists, but it’s on the surface and offshore, so it might not disturb bottom dwellers. Still, even if this season is OK, the long view is uneasy. Tom Worthington from Monterey Fish (montereyfish.com) points out: “We don’t know yet how far or deep the warm waters will go, and if they’re actually changing the crab’s life cycle.” Only time will tell if this is a deeper sea change, threatening an incredibly nostalgic ingredient, and how global warming is changing the menu.